Review: Citizen K Traces One Man’s Rise and Fall in Putin’s Russia

Perhaps one of his more complicated and layered profile documentaries, the latest from filmmaker Alex Gibney (an Oscar winner for Tales to the Dark Side), Citizen K explores the bizarre trajectory and unchartered path of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once believed to be the wealthiest man in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. From working class roots, Khodorkovsky rose through the ranks and into prosperity in the 1990s—along with a handful of so-called oligarchs—to become the people who actually ran the country behind the government that was eventually taken over by Vladimir Putin for most of the last 20 years.

Citizen K Image courtesy of Siskel Film Center

Gibney appears to have had complete access to Khodorkovsky in recent years, and although the business tycoon is clearly meant to be the protagonist of this story, Gibney doesn’t exactly fawn over him or give him a pass on some potentially ugly behaviors in his past (that may include murdering rivals back when he was the head of Yukos, the largest privately owned oil company in Russia). Khodorkovsky and other oligarchs were able to get away with a great deal of shady business dealings for the simple reason that the newly created democracy of Russia couldn’t make laws quickly enough that would eventually outlaw some of their practices. These men were moving at the speed of business while the government was moving like a typical bureaucracy. As a result, the term “gangster capitalism” was coined to describe the power moves these businessmen were making. And with success in business came political sway and a friendship with new Russian President Putin.

But it didn’t take long for Putin to see Khodorkovsky as a threat, and before long he was sent through a ridiculous trial on trumped-up charges and sent to a Siberian prison for about 10 years. He was released on the eve of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, as part of a goodwill effort, but under the condition Khodorkovsky live in exile (he’s currently based in London, where he is a leading figure in the anti-Putin movement). Narrating his own movie (as he always does), Gibney seems to deliberately play with the idea that his subject was truly reformed in prison. Khodorkovsky seems less rough around the edges, but more focused and patient in his strategies to remove Putin from office. He sees the long game in a way he never could in the instant-gratification game of big business. Gibney also never lets go of the idea that Khodorkovsky is a bonafide criminal, while still acknowledging that the crimes he went to prison for were nonsense and actually contradict each other.

The available archival footage of every aspect of Khodorkovsky’s rise is astonishing, and really could only be possible in an era where everything exists on the internet and can’t be erased from history the way the Soviets used to do when someone betrayed the leadership. There’s also an eerie tension to the last third of the film, when Gibney moves through a short history of the number of Russian citizens who turned against Putin and ended up dead via mysterious circumstances while living in London, making Khodorkovsky appear appropriately paranoid about every moment he’s out in public. The film, like its subject, exists as a contradiction, and that makes its subject all the more interesting and, for better or worse, perhaps the perfect representative of the world we live in today.

The films opens Friday for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.