For many of us, lockdown has been an opportunity to reflect.
Among other things, you think of the meaning of life. Lockdown has been a bit like the prisoner’s existence except there was neither crime committed nor sentence decreed. But the effect was similar – the limits of our wanderings shrank and a prison cell took shape. Luxuries waned. For the first time, many of us understood what incarceration is. We started to value freedom. In literature, denial of freedom on scale is usually associated with totalitarian regimes. The dissidents imprisoned for their protest and later released or rendered martyrs for the cause, inspire governments promoting freedom and liberal views. This has been the cycle of events regularly portrayed in political literature.
It was curiosity of this sort that attracted me to the documentary film Citizen K. Plus the fact that as of 2020, democracy is in one of its most imperiled phases with growing sections of humanity only too willing to waive individual rights and instead regiment to preen as human shoal. Why do we do so? Why do we turn our backs on the lessons of history and play into the hands of potentially losing liberal government and personal freedom, both of which we know, are hard to restore once lost? For those like me, valuing freedom and appreciating it for exactly what it is, 2020 has been a bleak but thought provoking landscape.
So what is Citizen K all about? This 2019 documentary film deals with Russia; to be precise, the period following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It tracks the story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, erstwhile billionaire and among the richest men in Russia who belongs to the first generation of business oligarchs that arose from the ashes of Communism. Doing so, it gives us an inside view of how the phenomenon of Russian oligarchs came about; how that crony capitalism spread roots. Today we accept this well entrenched symbiosis between business oligarchs and politics in Russia as how the country is. The film shows you why and how it came about. It then leads you to the unsaid fault lines that shouldn’t be crossed in this arrangement. Khodorkovsky – a top oligarch – commits the error of voicing political opinion. This makes him appear a threat to Vladimir Putin, president of the country, whose rise was engineered by the oligarchs but who has since become his own master. In due course, Khodorkovsky is arrested and sent to jail. His giant oil company is merged with state owned enterprise. The billionaire’s wealth shrinks. A long drawn out legal battle to free him follows, much of it trashed by the state’s counsels. Eventually as part of his image building exercise, Putin embarks on a series of amnesties and freeing Khodorkovsky is one of the things he does. With life in Russia too dangerous for him, the businessman shifts overseas. He recasts himself as a political campaigner and emerges over time, a major critic of Putin’s administration.
Neither of the two main protagonists in this drama are angels. Khodorkovsky is a former oligarch, whose rise to riches will remain questionable. Such questions haunt Russian fortunes built up in the period around the Soviet Union’s fall. It was a case of a country that knew little of modern capitalism having lived behind the Iron Curtain for decades, suddenly required to put in place a new economic system using whatever it had at its disposal. The period following the disintegration of the Soviet Union was one of desperation and inequality, during which, the oligarchs exploited common people to corner shares of public enterprise. Through such beginnings in capitalism, Khodorkovsky created the bank that would later become his vehicle for building the oil company – Yukos. Putin on the other hand, was a candidate supported by the oligarchs in the wake of Communist echoes reviving in the declining years of the Boris Yeltsin era. He becomes president, does good work but also goes on to become an institutional entity that stalks the land like an unshakable, permanent political presence. Elections are held but it is a trumped up ecosystem in which the opposition is lame and you can’t be sure whether it is independent or propped up by the ruling formation for illusion of democracy. This predicament is Citizen K’s story.
It is an interesting documentary for multiple reasons, the most prominent of which, is a product of our times. There are shades of Russia – its penchant for personality cult, rule by strongman and appetite for business oligarchies – surfacing in other countries. The larger trend is what attracted me to Citizen K as a viewer; this issue of similarity in political aspiration across countries (it is a model going around), none of it healthy for freedom, economic equality and democracy. This is a film that makes you reflect on our age of undemocratic politics, the cult of political personalities and billionaire businessmen and ordinary people split between support for this formation and opposition to it, split between support for rule with an iron fist and rule by liberal government. Good documentaries hold a mirror to existence. Citizen K does just that. The film is available on Amazon Prime.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)