06 April 2012

A Serious Man

Since Barack Obama became a serious candidate for President back in 2007, opponents have beleaguered him with epithets that questioned his country of birth, his religious affiliation, and his political ideology.  Most of them, although stubbornly remain, are of such extremity and wackiness that very few serious people take the calumnies seriously.  But the accusation that Obama is surreptitiously a Socialist is just moderate enough to gain limited mainstream traction, and imbued with the requisite political toxicity (in the US) to inflame the passions of those who wish to see him swiftly booted out of office.

But what of the inverse of this situation occurring in Russia?  Khodorkovsky, a film by German documentarian Cyril Tuschi, exhaustively reconnoiters the complex rise and fall of post-Soviet Russia's first -- and most successful -- capitalist.  Mikhail Khodorkovsky began his adult life as a chemical engineering student at Mendeleev Moscow Institute of Chemistry and Technology, and quickly ascended the ranks of the Komsomol, the Soviet Youth League in whose membership assured future success.  Taking advantage of perestroika and glasnost, Khodorkovsky leveraged the profits from his import/export business to open the USSR's first private bank. When the Soviet Union fell, those in power realized that although they grasped the theoretical underpinnings of Capitalism, none of them had any idea how to practically implement it.  None of them except Khodorkovsky.

By the end of the 1990s, Khodorkovsky had become Russia's richest man and a leading figure in Russia's emerging oligarchy, a class built upon the wholesale transfer of the State's massive industries to private ownership.  Although fabulously wealthy, Khodorkovsky didn't fit the profile of a typical Russian oligarch:  he eschewed conspicuous consumption for a modest lifestyle.  He was more concerned with running his business and molding the new economy than with hundred-million dollar yachts and partying with supermodels.  He was a shrewd, driven businessman. And here is when the trouble begins.  In a time of lawlessness and lack of business ethics, Khodorkovsky's ambition went just a bit too far.

On the eve of the new millennium, President Yeltsin steps down in favour of a quiet, unassuming man not many knew much about except he was a former KGB agent.  A man whose grand vision for Russia's reemergence on the world stage is only superseded by his own lust for political and social hegemonic control of the country and its people. A conflict between Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man, and Vladimir Putin, Russia's most powerful man, was -- in hindsight -- inevitable.

From the start, Putin laid out his policy regarding the oligarchs: do what you want, party to your hearts' content, I'll let you get as rich as you can but pay your taxes, and most importantly, stay away from politics!  The oligarchs all happily follow the party line, all except Khodorkovsky.  Slowly, he begins making overtures for a freer press, more attention to civil rights, more open elections.  He personally funds the building of schools and establishes social programs promoting democracy and increasing societal transparency.  There are even rumours he might sell his massive oil company, Yukos, to ExxonMobil or Chevron.  In other words, he seeks to reshape the country in the image of the United States.  For Russian leadership, this represents an unacceptable nightmare.

In 2003, when Khodorkovsky sharply criticizes governmental corruption during a nationally televised meeting of Putin and the oligarchs, Putin has had enough.  The tension is palpable as we watch the two titans verbally spar with each other, made even more fascinating as we know what will happen in the coming years.  As one of Putin's aides recounts while being interviewed by Tuschi, "He (Khodorkovsky) came off as arrogant and not very tactful.  He could have expressed himself much better."  After a pregnant pause, the aide adds without irony, "But everything he said was completely true."  In July, Putin has Khodorkovsky's right-hand man arrested on tax evasion charges.  The word is out:  Putin is out to destroy Khodorkovsky and his empire.

And yet, while Khodorkovsky orders his other top advisers out of the country, he remains, despite the foreboding omens, obstinately unafraid.  Tuschi travels the world tracing the full intricacies of the tale, from Khodorkovsky's defiant yet spooked compatriots in Israel, to his son stuck in New York after his father's arrest, to the political analysts in Germany who elucidate on the fear the leaders of Europe have of Putin, hence their unwillingness to come to Khodorkovsky's aid.  Khodorkovsky himself sits in a dilapidated jail near the Chinese border, a former uranium mine work-camp, and in the film's climax, a face-to-face interview (albeit behind a glass vestibule), what's shocking is Khodorkovsky's optimistic and almost cheerful attitude. This in contrast with the threatening tone of the rest of the film, which implies Tuschi is under constant surveillance and perpetually in danger.  Indeed, when the film is to be shown at the Berlin Film Festival, a copy of the film is mysteriously stolen.

Ultimately, it seems as if both Putin and Khodorkovsky wholly underestimated each other.  Putin underestimated Khodorkovsky's strength of principle and ability to withstand total damnation for a cause he deems just while Khodorkovsky underestimated Putin's political power and his willingness to wield it mercilessly.  As Khodorkovsky sardonically admits in his brief interview with Tuschi, "perhaps I was a bit naïve."

Recently, a friend of mine who was born, raised, and educated in the Soviet Union and then immigrated to the United States, traveled back to Russia for the first time since his departure.  Upon return, he cogently described the situation, "Everything's changed for the better...except the people."  Khodorkovsky unveils how even after more than 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, with the advent of "democracy," with all the new oil/gas wealth and their accompanied luxuries, Russia remains a country painfully bogged down by extreme corruption, personal selfishness, institutional and societal secrecy, contempt for liberal values, and an overriding distrust of outsiders -- all relics of the Soviet era.