Mikhail Khodorkovsky has gone through an unbelievable journey. At one point he was one of the oligarchs who got rich quick in post-Soviet Russia, before becoming a champion of democracy and transparency at the highest level. This, as writer-director Alex Gibney shows with a painstaking focus on Russian political and economic history, made him an enemy of Vladimir Putin. Citizen K is a dense but powerful insight into power, freedom and business in a country that has experienced seismic changes over the past thirty years.

© (tiff, 2019)

Gibney provides a voiceover that makes Citizen K feel more like a television investigation than a curated documentary, and admittedly his words are occasionally a distraction. “The darker the night, the brighter the stars,” he says at one point, an unexpected moment of melodrama in an otherwise straight-faced account. Interviewing is where Gibney’s real strength lies, and that comes across no better than when he is sitting down with Khodorkovsky. Once reportedly Russia’s wealthiest man, Khodorkovsky is never made out to be a saint, but as someone whose personal journey has taken him down a route of activism, pushing back against Russia’s “gangster capitalism.” It is a compelling story to hear, one that features a remarkable transformation in priorities and reputation.

This is a documentary not only about Khodorkovsky, but about Russia itself. Gibney makes sure to fill you in on a brief yet detailed telling of Russian history since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in the end shows how these pieces of history feed into sometimes shocking events of today (such as the Salisbury poisonings). One of the main points of the film is that Russia is a lot more than Vladimir Putin. As if to prove it, it’s instead into Khodorkovsky’s life that Gibley ties the most important developments in Russia’s transition after its Soviet era. While it sometimes comes close to information overload, the depth is staggering, never relenting from the desire to be a film driven by information and exposé.

© (tiff, 2019)

The quality of the restored footage is impressive (even if other documentaries this year like Apollo 11 do a better job), with the aspect ratio often the only clue that you are looking into the past. As Gibley suggests, much of the Russian present is staring back into the past anyway, given how the present day feels stagnant. The end of the film gives some brief consideration to the future, which is even more uncertain. Yet it also concludes on a strangely optimistic note, as Gibley makes clear that Khodorkovsky could yet have a role to play when Putin – inevitably, be it through death or dethroning – is no longer Russia’s leader. The film fits a lot into two hours without feeling needlessly bogged down. It never bores, never ceases to impress, and in the current political climate demonstrates that demands for transparency and trust are more pressing than ever.

Citizen K is as much the profile of a country as it is of an individual. Khodorkovsky has been in the thick of Russia’s shift from Communism to its own version of democracy and capitalism. He is very much a product of this shift, with a character arc that would rival many fictitious tales of betrayal and political foul play. 

Citizen K releases in cinemas Friday 13th.