Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, is now one of its most high-profile prisoners, tucked away in a penal colony in snowy Siberia, where he’s serving an ever-expanding sentence for embezzlement and tax evasion. The former CEO of the oil company Yukos, Khodorkovsky plummeted from grace after siding with opposition parties against Vladimir Putin in 2003, and as German filmmaker Cyril Tuschi explores in his pleasingly dense documentary Khodorkovsky, that’s likely just as much (if not the entirety) of the reason he’s imprisoned today.
Khodorkovsky concludes with a theoretical coup of an interview get with its subject, sitting behind glass and surrounded by guards. But it’s anticlimactic to hear the man carefully speak for himself after having navigated a labyrinthine feature throughout which the truth seems not just impossible to grasp, but nonexistent. Interviewee after interviewee evades Tuschi, touts his or her own agenda, or equivocates, as one man does late in the film: “If we were in a different state, I could be a little more open with you now.” Alas, they’re in Russia, and Khodorkovsky offers a convincing case for how precarious the country can be for its inhabitants.
Khodorkovsky is far from a saint (a man on the street sums him up as “the best of the worst” of the oligarchs), but despite being tipped off that he was going to be arrested, he returned to Russia. This fact, along with the stand he took against Putin, gives him an aura of martyrdom that glimmers even through the witty cynicism that infuses Tuschi’s take on the affair. Appearing as an animated figure in striking black-and-white interstitials, sometimes swimming through pools of money like Scrooge McDuck, he’s the embodiment of the mire of ethical ambiguities his country has presented in its transition from the Soviet era.
While Tuschi’s film offers up more of a moral gray scale than anyone interviewed in it would likely be happy with, it’s still provocative enough that a print was stolen shortly before its debut at the Berlin Film Festival early this year, and that the concerns the director expresses throughout about his personal safety don’t seem unfounded. It’s unlikely to enflame American audiences with less of a stake in Russia’s political goings-on, but works as a persuasive portrait of a politically toxic situation. As one of Khodorkovsky’s advocates admits to the camera, even capitalists are entitled to human rights.