Saturday 5 October 2019

Citizen K

Alex Gibney is attracted to stories of power and the abuse of it. In Mea Maxima Culpa, he chronicled the long history of paedophilia in the Catholic Church, while The Armstrong Lie detailed the extravagant lies of cycling’s one-time hero.

Citizen K tracks the history of financial and political corruption in Moscow from the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the start of democracy in Russia, to the present day. The central thesis is that Mikhail Khordokovsky, one of the seven notorious oligarchs, went through a conversion while in prison, from exploitative, manipulative and ruthless - perhaps even murderous - businessman to defender of democracy and hero of the people.

Gibney leaves space for disagreement, and I, for one, don’t buy it. While his depiction of Putin’s presidency as a dictatorship is clearly accurate - and hardly headline news - the extent of his sympathy for K at his sham trials is surprising. After all, K did make his vast wealth by exploiting the gullibility of the newly-capitalist Russian people who had no understanding of what was occurring. Yukos was expropriated from the people by unfair means; and the state took it back through an illegitimate courtroom. And so justice was served by means of its miscarriage.

Furthermore, the threat to the nascent democracy in Russia was directly attributable to the actions of the oligarchs. They bankrupted the state while making themselves vastly wealthy. And in order to sustain and increase their wealth, the oligarchs needed democracy to persist. Hence they corrupted Yeltsin when he was at his most corruptible, won re-election for him, and safeguarded the mechanisms by which they could appropriate yet more of the state’s assets.

When K boasts of the hundreds of millions of dollars at his disposal today with which to fight Putin from afar, Gibney’s narrative sounds a false note. K is not the knight in shining armour come to save the helpless people from an evil prince. This is a man hellbent on exacting vengeance from Putin for locking him up and taking away his toys; a man with political ambitions to top his financial potency; a man who calmly suggests that Putin should fear for his life.

K continues to corrupt democracy in Russia for his own means. He seeks to subvert the system with ill-gotten funds, providing finance for a theatre of protest to match the drama of Putin’s make-believe elections. And he would commit regicide in the name of democracy to grab power for himself.

The temptation must have been great to draw a classical narrative arc in which the hero undergoes trials, examines his conscience, and surfaces renewed. But the facts don’t fit the story, and Gibney has perhaps unwittingly become K’s apologist, and his messenger to Putin.

Gibney might see in K an ally against the man who inflicted Trump on the US. He dwells on Russian interference in the last election, going to some lengths to show how even ordinary Russians are fully aware of Putin’s role in bringing Trump to power. Putin is, therefore, a shared enemy, and so he gives K a clean bill of health. But if Gibney were completely convinced of K’s noble intentions, he would surely have omitted the footage that portrays K as an evidently compromised character.