Russian Truth or Dare

It has been inspiring watching the women of Pussy Riot stand up to Vladimir Putin's private army of bullies and to the Orthodox Church. (It's also been fun listening to broadcasters handling the band's name.) Of course, I support them as prisoners of conscience and am doing the usual things to try and get them out of prison.

But they are hardly the first opponents of Putin's supposed democracy. A new DVD release from Kino Lorber is an excellent reminder of one of their rather more conventionally attired predecessors,
Mikhail Khodorkovsky. When the film Khodorkovsky played in New York, I reviewed it for Jewish Week enthusiastically. I retain that enthusiasm. Here is a slightly updated version of my original review.

Russian history in the 20th century has consisted of a series of leaps from the frying pan of Tsarist rule into an unabating series of fires of varying degrees of infernal intensity. The “return” to power of Vladimir Putin – does anyone really think he was away? – bodes ill for any dream of positive change in the former Soviet Union. It certainly spells continued prison time for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos oil company, who has been imprisoned in Siberia for more than seven years on charges of tax evasion. Last December he was found guilty of stealing all of the company’s oil, a patently absurd charge and his sentence extended until 2017. With Putin once again in the presidency, it is likely he will continue to serve that sentence.

Khodorkovsky’s rise to become the richest man in the world under the age of 40 and his equally spectacular fall are recounted briskly and effectively in Cyril Tuschi’s new documentary Khodorkovsky. Tuschi, a German documentarian, exchanged letters with Khodorkovsky, interviewed many of his former associates and, finally, in the film’s last scene, met the man himself for a brief courtroom chat. He has put this material together deftly, using some eerie animation to complete the links in the chain of circumstance that has would around his protagonist, and the result is a non-fiction thriller worthy of Alfred Hitchock or, more probably, Francesco Rosi.

Khodorkovsky was one of the smart young men who went into the sciences in the pre-perestroika Soviet Union because, as one of his former teachers says, “Business was not for Jews.” In fact, only Khodorkovsky’s father was Jewish, although many of his closest friends and colleagues were Jewish. Neither Soviet nor Russian law is informed by halakhah – anti-Semites never are. Becoming active in Komsomol, the Communist youth group, he built himself a circle of associates  and rose in the Soviet system. When that system fell and was replaced by one that aspired to become a sort of gangsterish version of the free market, he was uniquely well-placed to take advantage of the opportunities change offered. With two of his partners, Mikhail Brudno and Leonid Nvezlin, both of whom are now living in Tel Aviv, Khodorkovsky started the first bank in post-Soviet Russia. From there, through a series of intricate manipulations they acquired Yukos and found themselves to be wealthy beyond imagining.

Of course, they were being as much manipulated as they were manipulating. And when Khodorkovsky underwent some sort of personal conversion, changing Yukos from the least transparent of corporations (as was the case in virtually all of the oligarchs’ enterprises) to the most, and he began sidling up to and siding with the democratic opposition to Vladimir Putin, he set in motion the machinery of his own destruction.

Or his own rebirth as a democrat and human rights activist. Part of the fascination of Tuschi’s film is watching indirectly as Khodorkovsky begins his transformation and how it affects the opinions of those who are involved with him. Tuschi estimates that of his supporters “one-third are human rights activists, one-third are neo-liberal capitalists, and one-third just think he’s good-looking.”(Hey, given the results of many recent American elections both national and local, we’re probably not that different.) What strikes the viewer is that the billionaire’s conversion started out as a not-entirely-cynical attempt to make his company more attractive to foreign investment, but quickly became the real thing, a realization that the kind of barely legal conniving that characterized Russian business practices in the kleptocracy that followed the fall of Communism was doing no one any favors except the gangsters who pulled the scams and the politicians with whom they were in cahoots.

Although Tuschi never makes it clear exactly what triggered Putin’s private vendetta against Khodorkovsky, undoubtedly because nobody is really sure what it was, it is clear that Putin recognized in the oil magnate a serious rival and a dedicated challenger to his absolute and absolutely corrupted power. The man who emerges from the film is not merely a shrewd power player. If he were, he and Putin would arrived at a division of the spoils long ago. Rather, he is someone who, by his own description, has been liberated from the burdens of protecting his assets and who, in prison, has found the power that comes from such a liberation. If I were Vladimir Putin, I wouldn’t want Mikhail Khodorkovsky out on the streets of Moscow either.