For a man living in exile, who has spent several years in prison and who is on the wrong side of Vladimir Putin, former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky cuts a surprisingly cheerful figure.
He is the subject of Alex Gibney’s new Amazon Studios-backed film Citizen K (a Dutch premiere in IDFA’s Masters). Interviewed at the Tennis Club on the Venice Lido, the former oligarch (once reputedly Russia’s richest man) has a slight smile on his face as he talks about the “not so good type of western businessmen” who came to Russia after Perestroika.
“We looked at them and decided that is western capitalism,” Khodorkovsky remembers of the wild west years of the 1990s when he and others set about emulating these businessmen, and becoming very wealthy indeed in the process.
Gibney’s film chronicles how Khodorkovsky set up Russia’s first commercial bank and charts his years as boss of Yukos, the giant oil and gas company. “Until the end of the 90s, we think it is normal,” is how he describes the rapacious behaviour of the business tycoons (himself included) who ended up controlling all of Russia’s utilities. He had a natural flair for earning money. Nonetheless, he wanted to move beyond the world of business.
“We changed our life, we changed our opinion and we tried to be more open, transparent and fair,” the Russian tycoon says of how he tried to change philosophy in the late 1990s. “But, at that time, (President) Yeltsin decided to go on and decided to put Mr Putin on our neck.”
At first, Khodorkovsky thought that Putin was “a normal type of guy” and a “democratic leader.” However, as Gibney’s documentary reveals, the Russian President has a Zelig-like genius for fitting in and making everyone he meets think he is one of them even when he is against them. “I talked with him frequently but he is a professional KGB officer. He looks like you want to see him,” is how Khodorkovsky sums up Putin’s chameleon-like quality.
Putin released Khodorkovsky from prison in 2013 partly because the oligarch’s mother was ill. Since then, Khodorkovsky has lived in exile, first in Switzerland and now in London. However, he says that he spends 12 to 16 hours “communicating with Russia,” meeting Russians face to face in the UK or holding video conferences with them. He pines for his homeland. He talks of his longing for Russian food, Russian nature and even the Russian winter that he and his wife miss so much.
“Our children are not the same. They are more western than us…but for me and my wife Russia is a better place.”
The former Yukos boss also understands the nostalgia that many Russians hold for the Soviet era and for the cult of strong leaders. “It was the same situation in Germany after the First World War,” he suggests. “In the 1990s, Russia was put down and humiliated too much.”
Khodorkovsky, 56, spent eight years in prison, from 2006-2013. In his darkest days, he thought his captivity would last “forever.” He realised that the Kremlin had the ability to keep on pressing new charges against him and extending his sentence indefinitely.
Now Khodorkovsky has his freedom. When he started his exile, he lived first in Zurich. However, the city was full of Russians with close ties to the government and who were “ideologically close to Putin.” He therefore moved to London instead. London has its own share of “people close to Putin,” but there are plenty of others fiercely opposed to him.
The former oligarch believes very strongly in freedom of expression – and that freedom extends to filmmaker Alex Gibney. Although he disagrees with elements of the film, he is still prepared to throw himself behind it. His English isn’t fully fluent but he insists on answering in the language and doesn’t use his interpreter.
Surprisingly, Khodorkovsky claims he isn’t drawn to politics. He was once Russia’s deputy minister for oil and gas. “That’s not for me, not for me. It’s not my goal to be a politician,” he insists. However, Putin very clearly doesn’t trust him. “He thinks what I am doing for Russian society is the steps of a usual politician. That’s not true. After prison, I didn’t want to be a politician,” Khodorkovsky says. He talks instead of becoming involved in social and civil life and of campaigning for human rights.
As for remaining in exile, that has “pluses and minuses.” The upside is that he can say what he wants through YouTube and other media. The downside is that the Russians know that he is not in the country and that weakens his message.
Khodorkovsky makes no secret of his ambition to “change Russia.” That is why he set up the Open Russia movement and he talks frequently about embracing “common European values and ideas.” He is patient and pragmatic enough to realise that the change he craves may not happen in his lifetime. At least, he sees some signs that Putin’s grip on power is loosening at least a little. He cites the satirical humour at the President’s expense. Gibney’s film has footage from the 80s and 90 of Spitting Image-like TV puppet shows which mercilessly lampooned Boris Yeltsin. Now, some of that same mocking humour is returning.
“When our society starts to laugh at him (Putin), it means his power is going down. In (former President) Brezhnev’s time, it was absolutely the same. In the 70s there were absolutely no jokes about Brezhnev, but in the 80s they (started) coming. In the early 2010s, no jokes about Putin but now…”
Asked for the best Putin joke he knows, Khodorkovsky struggles to choose a single one because there are now so many….that, at least, is cause for encouragement.