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Alex Gibney's 'Citizen K': The UK and US Through the Post-Soviet Looking Glass

Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Citizen K (IMDB)

In Citizen K, director Alex Gibney refrains from judging his imperfect protagonist, exiled Russian oligarch business man and political philanthropist, Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky.

Citizen K
Alex Gibney


22 November 2019 (US) / 13 December 2019 (UK)

"The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always, 'What does the protagonist want?' That's what drama is. It comes down to that. It's not about theme, it's not about ideas, it's not about setting, but what the protagonist wants." -- dramatist David Mamet.

Through the story of exiled oligarch business man and political philanthropist Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky, and rival of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Citizen K (2019) provides a window into post-Soviet Russia and the turmoil that ensued as the country struggled to establish a capitalist democracy.

"I want to go back to Russia," says Khodorkovsky towards the end of Alex Gibney's documentary, Citizen K. Are Mamet's words an oversimplification, or can the drama of Gibney's film be reduced to what its protagonist wants? But in answering this question, any such want is not singular, nor is it independent from motives that inherently tap into themes and ideas.

From afar Khodorkovsky supports opposition candidates in Russian elections, intent in growing the open discussion of a democratic Russia among his compatriots, which is in opposition to the incumbent President Putin's want to sustain his autocratic rule. This clash that is at the centre of Citizen K supports Mamet's assertion. Yet, the question is whether the themes and ideas are as dramatically compelling as the dramatic provocation that is the result of Khodorkovsky and Putin's conflicting desires.

One of the intriguing thoughts the film offers is that if Khodorkovsky looks to the future and plays the long game, he remains trapped in his exiled present – unable to return to Russia owing to an arrest warrant for murder. Meanwhile, Putin, the winner of their battle and protected by his autocratic crown, lives in fear of a future in which he will have lost his grasp on power. Their conflict of want taps into a perpetual ontological cycle of the rise and the fall for the political left and right, of individualism and collectivism, but equally of optimism and pessimism.

(trailer screengrab)

Reprise: "…it's not about setting, but what the protagonist wants." While Gibney's film looks eastward, telling the story of Khodorkovsky, who is living in exile in London, as well as the story of post-Soviet Russia, it offers a context to perceive tectonic shifts in UK and US politics. These shifts exist within the context of the conflict between individualism and collectivism. When a young Russian girl on a question and answer television broadcast asked what event has influenced him the most, Putin answered, stressing the seriousness of his answer, "…the collapse of the Soviet Union."

Putin's agenda to solidify Russia's economic, political, and military strength on the international stage could be looked at as the result of a strong sense of patriotism, a beacon of individualism – one might say the bruised patriotic ego. Within the western sphere, US President Donald Trump's slogan to "Make America great again", and in the UK the Brexiteer battle cry, "We want our country back" are the rhetoric of individualism. They infer a pessimism towards maturing political and economic unions such as the European Union over self-interest nationalism. Or, one might infer the bruised patriotic ego of an America rivalled in economic and political strength, and the bruised British ego that has created a nostalgia for the past.

Gibney appreciates that a documentary should not exist simply as documentation, but should exist beyond the subject or subjects that act as the impetus for a broader discussion. There are comparisons to Brexit Britain, in particular, the ill-feeling towards an antagonist. For Putin, reigning in the original oligarchs for whom there was ill-feeling pleased many Russians. This move consolidated his control and popularity among the people.

Meanwhile, the incumbent British Prime Minister Boris Johnson used the frustrations towards the EU to further his own political ambitions pre- and post-referendum. Putin secured the power base for his regime by conveniently clashing with a common enemy of the people, while Johnson consolidated the power base of the hard right in the Conservative Party through a perceived common enemy.

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In both settings, the effectiveness of a narrative ploy by the antagonist (in their role as protagonist) has played out, or continues to play out. Looking to the US, Trump not only used national patriotism, but personal pride amongst voters to help secure his presidency, saying to those in disaffected regions facing tough economic struggles that they can start "winning" again. Yet since taking office, there is evidence that these regions are less prosperous, as reported by The Washington Post's Anthony W. Orlando, in his article, Is Trump country really better off under Trump? No. It's falling further behind (18 November 2018). The outcome of what are seemingly empty promises was the path that these votes paved to the White House for Trump – the manipulation of the want to better one's circumstances, to further the individual's interests, and to secure political power for the Republican Party.

It is important to see that nationalism is subservient to individualism. As Derk Sauer, founding editor of The Moscow Times and Cosmopolitan says in the documentary, "[In] 2008, I think Russia was on the right track, and Putin was okay, but then Putin decided to become more authoritarian. He also decided that the country couldn't live without him. That's what power does to you -- you think you are the country and the country thinks without you, Putin, there is no Russia." Neither British nor American democracies are quite as vulnerable to authoritarianism, but neither are impervious to manipulation for personal or factional self-interest.

If Citizen K opens up the discussion around ideas of individualism and political and economic cohesion between nations, it also touches upon the understanding that democracy is fragile. Gibney's film is a reminder that we are responsible for our political systems and how we install and manage those systems. In Citizen K, this idea is structured in narrative form around the competing personal wants of its protagonist and antagonist.

Mamet is correct that what the protagonist wants is the drama of any story or event, but the themes and ideas that are present inCitizen K are compelling in their own right. Such ideas pepper the desires of the players of the drama, making the conflict more compelling. What makes Gibney's documentary all the more engaging is Khodorkovsky, who, in Sauer's words, "He wants to be Jesus Christ, but he has a past."

Gibney does not judge but allows viewers to decide how they feel about his imperfect protagonist. Neither does Gibney offer easy answers. Rather, he suggests that narratives are both deceitful and complex. The truth lies in interrogating the details, yet it's often clouded by want and agenda.

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