November 22, 2011

Я не понимаю

by Steve Dollar


As Occupy Wall Street protests continue to fill the streets of New York City (and elsewhere), demanding among other things that leaders of financial institutions be held accountable for profiting on the 2008 economic collapse their policies helped to urge, things are very different in Russia. We don't usually jail CEOs in the United States for destroying the nation's well-being. Over there, though, the richest guy in the country gets thrown into solitary confinement in Siberia for challenging corruption and refusing to kowtow to Vladimir Putin (formerly president of the Russian Federation and current prime minister of Russia). Not only that, a hundred of his top-level executives were forced into exile, more or less permanently stuck in places like Tel Aviv and London, wanted by Interpol on various charges—including shaky allegations of murder.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who in 2002 was the wealthiest person in the world under the age of 40, has been in a cell for eight years now. He would have completed serving his sentence for trumped-up charges of tax evasion this year, but he was recently convicted a second time. The crime? Stealing 300 tons of oil from himself. Barring parole, he won't walk until 2016. The deposed oligarch, who once ran the madly prosperous Yukos oil company before Putin forcibly snatched it out from under him, is the least likely sort of political prisoner. As one of the subjects in Cyril Tuschi's new documentary Khodorkovsky (opening in NYC on Nov. 30) puts it, of those who rally for his freedom "one-third are human rights activists, one-third are Neo-Liberals and one-third think he's good looking." If one thing is true in America, it's that money changes everything, and Khodorkovsky thought he could change Russia. Instead, he fell prey to the same system that had given him his wealth and power, because he had the audacity and recklessness to challenge Putin over reforms. On a live national television broadcast, no less.


Of course, it's all rather more complicated than that. If the topic of shady economics and power struggles in post-Soviet Russia sounds like one of the reasons someone might happily avoid graduate school, Tuschi instead makes it thoroughly fascinating. In my blinkered perception of international affairs, I'd never even heard of Khodorkovsky. But that actually makes the documentary more fun to watch. In two hours, it delivers a succinct history of crazy-ass Russian economics and how its astronomical strata of super-rich came to exist. Rather than sell off state-owned industries to the West at market value, Boris Yeltsin auctioned (with prejudice) them to Russian businessmen at relative fire sale prices. After all, as the film makes evident with characteristic humor, good socialists wouldn't have enough money to pay full retail. And thus, Khodorkovsky, a chemical engineer who rose to influence through party circles and opened Russia's first bank in the wake of perestroika, was on his phenomenal road to destiny.

The German Tuschi, whose first-person words are spoken in an English narration by Jean-Marc Barr, outlines the story with a dramatic polish, organizing interviews with a score of key characters—family, former KGB agents turned opposition members, lawyers, journalists, former top executives and, finally, Khodorkovsky himself, through letters and a brief courtroom encounter—in a suspenseful web of international intrigue. Although the dynamic isn't what anyone would called amped-up (the soundtrack features the austere strings of Estonian composer Arvo Part), the array of often eccentric personalities and time-jumping montage of TV clips, animated sequences and anecdotal episodes set against a battle for the soul of empire and the fate of a single man... I'm seeing Soderbergh and Clooney. Of course, there's also the transformational theme. Khodorkovsky passes through distinct phases: loyal socialist, businessman, oligarch, ethically reformed oligarch, opposition force. And now, martyr—at least, the film suggests, until Putin leaves power.

KHODORKOVSKY director Cyril Tuschi Khodorkovsky's current status is the result of a personal choice. There was plenty of opportunity to leave Russia and take some loot with him. Instead, as a former advisor observes, he faced imprisonment in order to wash himself clean of the sin of being rich. "I am far from being an ideal person, but I am a person with an idea," he told the courtroom in his closing speech at his 2010 trial. "For me, as for anybody, it is hard to live in prison, and I do not want to die here. But if I have to, I will have no hesitation. What I believe in is worth dying for."

It's a stirring message, one that seems almost unimaginable in the West, where too many politicians are puppets of corporations and moral purpose is something to be manipulated like a shell game. Is this man a hero or a fool—or the key to making Russia a real democracy? As he says in parting words to the filmmaker, a wise man who finds himself in a tough situation may be clever enough to discover the way out. But perhaps the man who is really wise avoids such trouble in the first place. It seems like a perfectly Russian thing to say.

[Khodorkovsky opens at NYC's Film Forum on Nov. 30.]

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Posted by ahillis at November 22, 2011 2:13 PM