Unfinished Business

Cyril Tuschi, Khodorkovsky, 2011, still from a color film, 111 minutes.

SOMEWHERE NEAR THE END of Cyril Tuschi’s engrossing documentary about Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the quintessential oligarch of the “new” Russia and at one point “the richest man in the world under forty,” Khodorkovsky’s onetime financial adviser Christian Michel wonders if his client acquiesced in his own arrest in 2003 to expiate the “sin” of being wealthy—a necessary sacrifice for one with possible political ambitions. Michel thinks Khodorkovsky quite capable of such a gambit. Whether this Dostoyevskian theme suits the temperament of this fascinating, enigmatic figure, the course of his life and the turn in its “plot”—when he displayed a concern for ethics at the peak of his success—might have appealed to the author of Demons, who had himself been imprisoned in Siberia where Khodorkovsky currently serves an extended sentence. The question hangs over Khodorkovsky, a provocative portrait of the man and a study of Russian business and politics during the transition from communism to capitalism. More than one person intuits that Khodorkovsky’s superior intelligence was an affront and a threat to Putin, and that confronting Putin with the question of corruption at an official, televised meeting attended by Russia’s richest businessmen was the last straw, leading to his being singled out for punishment for tax evasion.

Khodorkovsky, in a letter to the filmmaker, speculates on the theories: Maybe Putin feared he would sell a majority of his vastly successful oil company Yukos to an American company? Or that he had ambitions to be president? No, he says, it was probably because he supported the political opposition in 2003, after Putin had warned all businessmen to stay out of politics. Most figures interviewed in the film—former business partners, journalists, politicians, and heads of state—whatever else they think, share the view that Putin and politics were behind his trial and incarceration.

Tuschi’s film deftly interweaves interviews, newsreel footage, and a clever, computer-animated motif that runs throughout. The main line is Khodorkovsky’s rise from humble beginnings to capitalist extraordinaire: how he determined to rival Western tycoons while, Michel recalls, he didn’t know what a checkbook was; how his initial ventures were facilitated by the free market period of perestroika; how he founded the first private bank in the country thanks to privileged support from the government that viewed him as “a beacon of hope” for a new, prosperous Russia; and, finally, how he made a deal with Boris Yeltsin to purchase the oil company Yukos for three hundred million dollars when it was valued at six billion. Yeltsin did it to keep the company from foreign powers, Khodorkovsky became the richest man in the country, and Yukos Russia’s biggest taxpayer.

Yet the film hints at another Khodorkovsky, not far from the idealistic student of the Komsomol (the Communist Youth League), the one who modeled himself after a socialist hero fighting for people’s liberation and immortalized in the novel Pavel Korchagin, with whom Khodorkovsky still identifies. This man named his bank Menatep—an abbreviation for “Center for Scientific and Technical Creativity of Youth”—and made an unpredictable turnaround at the millennium, at the height of his success, by organizing “Open Russia,” through which he invested one hundred million dollars in universities, boarding schools, and training programs for youth. This is the man who allegedly despised the term oligarch and did not drive Ferraris or dress in Armani suits; the same one who confronted Putin in public by asserting that “since we [the wealthiest businessmen] started the corruption process, we should end it.” Was it this Khodorkovsky who dismissed his adviser’s warnings that the deal with Yeltsin would have a cancerous effect on business and government, by saying that he welcomed the fall of the old system that would make way for a new?

The glimpses we get of Khodorkovsky, including behind glass in prison, confirm the impressions he generated: intense, soulful, both impassioned and serene, a subtly suppressed hubris with a possible martyr complex. On his visit to New York, aware that his offices had been searched and his arrest was imminent, he dismissed pleas from his son Pavel and others, and returned to place his head in the wolf’s mouth. Later, in prison, he says it was to speak his own truth in court. As campaigns by liberals and human rights activists (and, early on, George Bush) questioned his sentence, Putin insisted that the original charge of tax evasion was compounded by new ones of murder. Disputing evidence for one of these charges seems to have disappeared when the man in custody of it was poisoned suspiciously. Dostoyevsky? The tale more closely resembles the sinister Boyar conspiracies against the Czar in Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible.

At the film’s beginning, the director asks some young people curious about his presence in Siberia if they ever heard of Khodorkovsky. A young woman shakes her head negatively, but her male companion says, “Yes, I know who he is. He stole a lot of money from Russia.” The film suggests that as new billionaires continue to emerge in Russia, Khodorkovsky may be forgotten, or remembered only as a thief. Indeed, at the end, as the slowly unmasked image of the Siberian landscape outside the prison with which this gorgeously photographed film begins returns in reverse, shrinking the vast, wide-screen vista to a slim letterbox strip, the sense of oblivion strikes an ominous note. Earlier, the ever-optimistic Khodorkovsky told those who fear that he will seek revenge when he is released “not to worry. I am not the Count of Monte Cristo.” Maybe so, but as the camera scans the handsome face and calm, resolute demeanor of this man behind bars, one cannot help but wonder which persona will emerge unchained.

Khodorkovsky opens Wednesday, November 30, at Film Forum in New York.