Alex Gibney on "Citizen K": Real-life thriller of an oligarch who turned against Vladimir Putin

Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney on his dense, thriller-style documentary “Citizen K,” and the fate of Russia

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published January 18, 2020 3:30PM (EST)

Alex Gibney (Victoria Will/Invision/AP)
Alex Gibney (Victoria Will/Invision/AP)

Ever since his breakthrough documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" in 2005, Alex Gibney has displayed a remarkable ability to pull scandals from headline news and turn them into gripping cinematic experiences. He dramatizes, in the sense that he often tells his stories with the pacing and structure of a thriller or a mystery. And believe me, "Citizen K," his new film about the unlikely trajectory of the Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is highly effective in that mode. 

But Gibney never fictionalizes, and almost always works closely with both investigative reporters and his interview subjects to cover as many angles as possible. In a world where the very idea of truth is under constant assault, Gibney is a true believer in the principle that objective reality can be found, and still matters — even if we won't all interpret it in the same way.

From "Enron" through "Citizen K," with such landmarks along the way as the Oscar-winning "Taxi to the Dark Side" (which exposed Bush administration torture programs in Afghanistan and elsewhere), "Going Clear" (a startling expose of the Church of Scientology) and "We Steal Secrets" (a controversial study of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks) Gibney's great subject appears to be how the hell we got here — with "here" being a realm of powerful disinformation and hyperdrive capitalism. 

If you've only vaguely heard of Khodorkovsky as one of those ultra-rich Russians who fell afoul of Vladimir Putin, you may wonder how he fits in. But "Citizen K" is a dense, tightly structured real-life thriller about how Russia got the way it is, which also has a lot to do with how our own country wound up in its current predicament after the 2016 election. (Which is, in fact, the likely subject of a forthcoming Gibney film.) 

I've known Gibney for close to 15 years, and cannot claim a position of objectivity. But I certainly wouldn't claim that all his films deliver on the same level, either in terms of technical accomplishment or Zeitgeist connection, and I'm delighted to confirm that "Citizen K" is one of his best, a dense and intense exploration of Russia's labyrinth that will reward repeat viewings. He stopped by "Salon Talks" recently to talk about it. Watch our full conversation here, or below. The transcript that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Alex, your new film … Let me just say, it is a mindblower. It's a dense work, maybe not the most upbeat or lightweight of viewing experiences, but urgently important for anyone who wants to learn more about the strange and puzzling subject of contemporary Russia. 

The film is called "Citizen K," and it opened this week in New York, with more cities and home video to follow, of course. So who is Citizen K?

He's a guy named Mikhail Khodorkovsky. And he was, at one time, Russia's richest man.

One of those, whatever it was, six or seven oligarchs —

Seven oligarchs, who at one time owned 50% of the Russian economy. So if you're wondering how things are going in the United States. Well, they got there in Russia, right.

Yes. Really fast.

Really fast, yeah. Within a period of about eight years. So, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was Russia's richest man. And then, in the days after Putin became president —

Which was at the very end of 1999, oddly enough. 

At the very end, right on the eve of Y2K. Just as the computers turned, so did Putin become president.

It's all like a thriller, right? And your film is rather like a thriller.

Right, it is, and by intent. We sort of call it "Once Upon a Time in the East."

At a certain point, Khodorkovsky, who has enormous power, goes toe to toe with Putin. In a live broadcast about corruption, calls out Putin, and basically accuses him of corruption. Some months later, Khodorkovsky is on his way to a Siberian prison.

Just by coincidence.

Yeah! And he spends 10 years there. And it really looked like he might spend the rest of his life there. But Putin, for all sorts of reasons, decides to pardon him in 2013, on the Eve of the Sochi [Winter] Olympics. He was getting a lot of international pressure. Because, by this time, the oligarch had become a full-blown dissident, who had enormous valence throughout the world, in terms of criticizing Russia.

So Putin lets him out of prison, boots him out of the country and Khodorkovsky finds himself in exile, where he is today, in London, operating an outfit called Open Russia, which is dedicated to inculcating civic values in Russia, but also, uncovering corruption, the trails of corruption and infighting.

Of which I hear tell there's a fair amount in Russia.

Yeah, it just so happens. It's fertile ground.

So this guy is an important connecting figure from the fall of the Soviet Union through that crazy chaotic, anarchic period afterward, including the experiment with democracy, the Boris Yeltsin regime, the privatization of the economy and then the rise of Putin. What role does Khodorkovsky play in that period of time, in connecting those periods?

Well, I mean, he's one of those people, who — when Russia went kind of cold turkey on Communism, suddenly they were supposed to become instant capitalists. There were very few people on the ground in Russia who understood that or were prepared for that. Khodorkovsky was one of those people. as they say in the movie, he knew how to play the game.

Yeah, I love that story. He tells you that he had checked out a book from the library about how commercial banking worked.

Exactly! It was like Banking 101. He went through it: "First, you take a deposit," and so on. He got it. He made a grubstake of, by all accounts, selling black market blue jeans and computers. And then there was this wild period in Russia, where they took a lot of the small and medium-sized state companies, and issued vouchers for them, sort of like stock certificates.

I didn't know about that. That was so crazy! Explain what those vouchers were, and how they worked.

Well, the vouchers were, basically, a piece of a [previously state-owned] company. So you've got a little piece of the company, and anything you can sell that voucher for — it was worth about 40 bucks, they figured ...

Every Russian or former Soviet citizen got one of those, right?

Every citizen got one. And you could sell it, or you could hang onto it, hoping that your enterprise was going to be worth something, and you'd get a Volga, they said, which was a Russian car.

Right. One of those cars that fell apart immediately, at least according to rumor.

Exactly, yeah. Maybe they were worth less than 40 bucks, those Volgas. But the idea was you, you got a piece of the rock, you were invested, right? Which in theory was good. But first of all, they priced these things way too low. And second of all, nobody really knew what to do with them, except for people like Khodorkovsky.

People like Khodorkovsky started buying them up. And once he got a few, once he got control of a few small companies, he then became bolder. They would, like, roll up in a bus with some of his employees. As workers would stream out of a factory or whatever, all with their vouchers, his people would be there with a few rubles saying, "I'll buy your voucher." So most people were like, "Yeah, it doesn't mean anything to me."

And they'd buy them, and the next thing you know, Khodorkovsky was sitting on a lot of companies. He had a bank, now the bank was doing business with the state, so he became very wealthy very quickly. I mean remember, Khodorkovsky is worth something like $14 billion by 2003. He starts out in 1993 with maybe a few hundred thousand, according to him. So in 10 years, he makes quite a stake for himself.

It's hard to summarize the historical importance of this story. I'm telling you, people, if you're curious at all about how Russia got into the situation that it's in, and about whether you have to have democracy to have capitalism — We were talking about that earlier. I think the Russian experiment forcefully decouples any claim —

Any claim that one goes with the other, necessarily. That's right. In fact, very quickly, it shows just the opposite. You know, that suddenly you have all this power and all this money. And I think the big problem in Russia, particularly, is that there wasn't any kind of independent rule of law. Nobody knew what the laws were, much less was there any sense that you needed to obey them. That created a real problem.

We talk about the expression laissez-faire capitalism, which we've pretty much never had. Russia in those years might have carried it to the ultimate experimental extreme. I'm interested in the character of Khodorkovsky himself, because I can't quite figure him out. So you got him to trust you enough to participate in this film —

Without condition.

Which is impressive. He's certainly the protagonist of the film, but you don't necessarily portray him a glowing light throughout, I wouldn't say.

Particularly early on, I would say, he doesn't look so great. And we found some rather jaw-dropping archival footage of him. You know, in sort of a sleazy black leather jacket, with a big mustache and huge glasses, going on and on about how much he enjoys being greedy. And how people who are poor clearly just deserve to be poor. You know, I thought, "Oh, I've heard this before! And it sounded like something the Chamber of Commerce might have said."

Or it's like, the guy had learned how to be a capitalist from the game Monopoly.

Exactly. No, that's exactly right. Right after he read the book about the bank, he read the book about Monopoly, yeah.

That guy on the Monopoly money, with the top hat. That's probably what Russians thought capitalists were like. So what was the process of making this movie and working with him like? You've obviously done this a lot. You've made films about torture in Afghanistan, about the corruption of Enron, about the Church of Scientology, trying to get all kinds of people to trust you, who arguably have a reason —

A good reason not to. I mean, we had a few preliminary conversations, just to kind of lay it out. Weirdly, I showed him a copy of "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room." No, he was an oil executive. He happened to have known [Enron founder and CEO] Ken Lay. Because, you remember, Enron was a pretty potent oil company, until it wasn't.

So he found that interesting. And, I think for whatever reason, he was convinced by his advisers that I would do a reasonably good job. So he engaged, and that was the part that impressed me. I mean, we basically sat down, for about eight days of interviews, four days before I went to Russia and four days after.

Over time, you end up developing a kind of relationship with people as a matter of course. And he was good about answering just about any question I put to him. I may not have always agreed with the answer he gave me, but he was forthright, he didn't dodge anything. So, you know, it was — he can be a kind of forbidding figure. He's very smart and he's physically imposing. He has a kind of gaze that can freeze you at times, but he also has a pretty good sense of humor, very sardonic, Russian sense of humor, something out of Gogol.

So I liked that, and I found him to be an interesting character. We had a pretty rich discussion over time. And, by the way, he's appeared in Q&As after the film, in a couple of instances. And I must say he gets some pretty tough questions.

There was one very petite woman in London who asked him, "I hear you about your criticism of Putin today, but after all, aren't you the reason that he's in power, because you so ruthlessly exploited people in the '90s?" Well, another person might've shut down after that, but he took that question on board, and gave her an answer. Now, she might not have agreed with his answer, but I thought he was good that way.

This is obviously explored in the film, but how would you characterize the relationship between Khodorkovsky and Putin? Because I think what people don't understand in the West is that the relation between Putin and that oligarch class is highly complicated, right? It's neither true that he completely controls them, nor that he is their puppet, right?

Correct. It's more like a kind of Mafia state is the way some people will put it. I agree with that. And by the way, early on Putin got a lot of props for people for seeming to put the oligarchs in their place. Because, look, for the average Russian, the '90s wasn't a pretty picture. It was awful. And you had a hard time making ends meet, or eating. And people said, "If this is capitalism, I don't want to have anything to do with it."

So initially, Putin brought back a sense of order. He was aided in great measure by the fact that oil prices suddenly went through the roof. So suddenly, money was pouring into the Russian economy. But I think he needed to show the Russian people, from a political perspective, that he could take charge of these oligarchs.

And he basically boots out two of them. One of them was a guy named Boris Berezovsky, who'd been his big supporter. And had kind of whispered into Yeltsin's ear, persuading him to take on board this guy, Putin.

But he boots out Berezovsky, because Berezovsky owns a TV channel. And he boots out another guy named Gusinsky, because he also owns a TV channel. Now, Putin has two of the most powerful TV channels in his pocket, which is terribly important to him. And I think he saw Khodorkovsky — as Russia's richest man, and somebody who was buying up influence in the Duma, Russia's representative body — as a huge political threat. So he was going to make him an example. 

But you're right. I mean, going back to your point, the rest of the oligarchs then didn't disappear. It wasn't like Putin said, "We're not going to have rich people anymore." It's, "We're just going to have rich people who do what I say." They had to accommodate themselves to what Putin wanted politically. And then, they could feel free to do what they wanted, which, in its own way, it's kind of like the Chinese system too. Where, if you don't mess with the Communist Party, you can be as ruthless and as corrupt as you want to be.

But sometimes there are ways of doing favors for each other, in ways that are unpredictable. Khodorkovsky suggests, toward the end of the film, that there could come a day where the oligarchs themselves realize that Putin isn't so valuable to them anymore. That maybe he's not so good for business. And if he's not so good for business, then maybe he's expendable. So I think it can kind of swing both ways, because it's a system of favor giving and taking. And if you don't give the right favor at the right time, you could end up near a uranium mine on the Mongolian border.

Apparently so, yeah! So in terms of Khodorkovsky's self-transformation from the guy who was the rapacious billionaire, who we see on TV saying, "I'm greedy," and the guy he is today in London, an expatriate preaching the virtues of an open society. First of all, that's a pattern that repeats throughout Russian history. Go back to the czars, go back to Lenin and Stalin, you have two options with dissidents. You can either execute them or export them.

Correct. That's right.

How do you read the sincerity or earnestness or meaning of his transformation?

I believe in it. One of the things that's interesting to me about this film is, it renewed my belief in the idea that people can change. I also think that Khodorkovsky is a tremendously intelligent man, and really intelligent people are able to see outside themselves. A couple of things happened to Khodorkovsky, some of them through self-interest, that started that change. One of them was, he went through a terrible time in business, which was the fall of the ruble, the fall of oil prices.

Suddenly, he was having to lay off thousands of people, look them in the eye, and realize he's laying off people who now have no means of support. I think he began to see that capitalism's not a game. It's how people survive. It's how they eat, it's how they care for their families. So I think that started to change him.

The other thing that happened was, he began to see that he could actually make more money by perhaps joining forces with another international oil organization, Exxon, right? But if you start doing that, then you're crossing a boundary. In order to get to that place, you have to run your business according to international principles and guidelines, accounting standards, and so forth. We can talk cynically about how some of that is bullshit. But still, by and large, you have to do that. And that was a threat to what Putin was trying to do, which is a kind of crony capitalism inside Russia.

But I think Khodorkovsky can begin to see its value. What happens when you have — when there's validity in contracts, and validity in the rules of the road. If you're playing a game, it's good to have rules.

Then he gets sent to prison. Suddenly the most powerful man in Russia has only one power, which is the power to take his own life, which is the only way he can get anything. And he saves the lives of some of his compatriots.

I think he then sees what happens when you have capricious power, when there is no rule of law, when the rights of citizens are routinely trampled upon. Suddenly, as an individual in relation to this society, and the polity, you can see, "Oh, this, it's important, this thing called human rights."

I think he does become a true campaigner for human rights, in the most fundamental sense. So I think he did change, and he became a very powerful advocate. There's a line in the book, and we quote extensively some of his writings, where he says, "I learned that life was not about having, it was about being."

Let's think of another oligarch. For example, it's hard to imagine Donald Trump spending five years in a Siberian prison and coming up with something like that, let's just say.

Yeah, while we're on camera I'm not going to talk about sending that person to a Siberian prison! But this brings up an interesting thought about Putin. We've all spent a lot of time trying to figure out exactly what Putin's relationship to the West is, including his shadowy relationship to Donald Trump and Trump campaign. Like, what is the nature of his critique of democracy, if he even has one?

You just pointed out something important, which is that if people take the restrictions that democracy places on capitalism seriously, that becomes a threat to the kind of crony capitalist system that he's running there, the mafia-state system. 

That's right. I think it's totally valid. And it also gets to Putin's rather quixotic relationship to the truth. You know, he doesn't have — truth is nothing more than how facts can be assembled to benefit the powerful. At the end of the day, power is all that matters. And you can boldly promulgate a lie that everybody knows is a lie. But there's a power in that, because you can enforce that lie, even though everybody knows it's untrue. Well, that's where there are no checks and balances, right? And that's where the only thing that really matters is power. So there's another way, I think, in which we see some uncomfortable similarities.

Yeah, I was going to say, that is a bit uncomfortable. Because it feels like — I mean, we're not there. Let's be fair.

We're not there.

But certain forces in our society, one could say, are trying to push us in that direction.

I think that's absolutely fair. And I think that's one of Putin's agendas in terms of how he messes with the West, whether it be Marie Le Pen, in France, or Brexit, or the 2016 elections. His attempt is to show that democracy is a kind of sham. If he can do that, then at the end of the day all you need to look for is a strong man, who's going to make the trains run on time, and that is a perfectly permissible way to run a society. 

That said, one of the fascinating things I discovered, in terms of doing this film, was the need for Russia to engage in what the Russians call election theater. Where you have these crazy debates —

There's some amazing footage in your film about that! I had no idea.

Where people are throwing water at each other and screaming at each other. It's like World Wide Wrestling, right? Which brings us to another analogy — but at the same time, Putin's not there. But the show of democracy has to be there, in order to assure people that, "Oh yes, things are running the way they are," even though the real opposition figures aren't allowed to run. They're forbidden from running.

They're left in a weird position, where they actually have to call for a — not a boycott, they don't want to boycott the elections. They call it a strike. It's saying that you're momentarily withholding your participation in sham elections, but you don't want to discredit the idea of elections. You're caught in this byzantine series of contradictions, in order to try to keep alive the idea of a democracy in a system that's giving you only election theater, and really spitting on the reality of it.

We talked earlier about an episode that is important early in the film, and plays a really important role in recent Russian history and maybe world history. That was the re-election, I guess it was, of Boris Yeltsin, in 1996. I remember feeling that it was a strange event at the time. There was actually a Communist candidate, Zyuganov, who wanted to bring back the old system only five years after it had collapsed.

Yeltsin had completely wrecked the place, and was an alcoholic, and was critically ill or dying. Explain what happened in that election that turned the tide, because it's amazing.

So what happens, basically, is that the oligarchs soon see that if the Communists come back their tether to private property is over. They will re-nationalize the major industries. So they embark on a plan to see if they can put Yeltsin back on his feet, to finance his campaign so enormously that he'll come back. And by the way, he was at like a 3% approval rating.

What they do is they shovel hundreds of millions of dollars into the coffers. Yeltsin and the government desperately needed the money, because they couldn't pay pensions, they couldn't pay salaries. Because there are still a lot of people working for the state.

So the oligarchs do this, but they do it with a kicker. Which is, "We'll lend you an enormous amount of money: You, Boris Yeltsin, aka the government. The collateral for that loan will be stakes in enormous Russian enterprises" like Yukos, the company that Khodorkovsky ends up with, and there are a number of others. 

Basically, the deal was rigged. Because there was no way that the government was going to be able to pay them back. It was basically the oligarchs saying to Yeltsin, "We'll give you a lot of money, and you're going give us these enormous enterprises for pennies on the dollar."

It's not dissimilar to what Tony Soprano does to the guy who has the sporting goods store, just on a larger scale.

That's right. And by 2007, oligarchs owned 50% of the Russian economy.

Not to get too conspiratorial about it, but it's pretty clear that Bill Clinton's administration was all in on this.

All in for Boris Yeltsin, and it didn't really matter how it happened. There was a famous meeting with the oligarchs and George Soros in Davos, not too long before 1996. There were some very favorable turns on IMF loans. Everybody in the West wanted Yeltsin to keep this alive. But what nobody was reckoning with, even the press, who fall prey to this argument that the end justifies the means, is that if you distort the system that much, the system doesn't work that well the next time.

There was another event, which we chronicle in the film. Say what you like about the '90s in Russia. It was chaotic, it was hell. But for the press, it was a great period. The press was free. And a couple of the TV networks, in particular, said whatever they wanted about Yeltsin and Yeltsin stood still and took it. You know, he didn't shut them down.

But there were things the press did, particularly one TV network, in this period when Yeltsin had had a terrible heart attack and it looked like he was completely enfeebled. They actually created a film set at Yeltsin's dacha, his country house. They brought in all the furniture from his Moscow office, and propped him up in a chair, sort of like Charlton Heston in "El Cid," and he looks like he's Boris Yeltsin in Moscow, ready to go. It was bullshit. 

Now, this guy who did that at the network NTV, Igor Malashenko, he's in the film and he defends it. He said, "I'd rather have the corpse of Yeltsin than a live Zyuganov." But it was really undermining the principle of press objectivity. And who takes a lesson from that event? Vladimir Putin. He very quickly sees what's going to happen if the press isn't on his side. He was going to take over the press, and make it work for him. So that was a lesson learned, but it was not a good lesson for democracy.

There's a lot in this film that speaks to the prehistory of how we got to this point with Trump and Putin, Russia and Ukraine. None of these things are happening in isolation, and it's not like the United States or the West has no responsibility for what happened. This is at the end of a very complicated game, right? Which, to my mind, is pretty bereft of heroes and villains. Well, there's a lot of villains.

Right. It's tough to find heroes.

Before we wrap, talk about the title a little bit. Of course it refers to Orson Welles' great film, "Citizen Kane." But it also refers to something else.

Joseph K., from Kafka's "The Trial." I think one of the things that Khodorkovsky discovers, when he's caught in the machinery of the Russian judicial system, is that it's basically a maze. And it's a maze that has no rules, except for power. And if you're K., you're lost.

Particularly in his second trial, he began to understand that he was caught in an absurdist drama. And the only way to fight back was to be able to laugh at the people who, as he says, "were pretending to be judges, were pretending to be prosecutors, were pretending to bring a judicial case against me." He was trapped in a surreal system that could only be described as Kafkaesque.


By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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