Director Alex Gibney On His Political Thriller ‘Citizen K,’ Doc About Russian Oligarch-Turned Dissident Facing “Kill Order”

Matthew Carey

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This year has brought more evidence to cement Alex Gibney’s reputation as the hardest working man in documentary film.

His six-part documentary series Why We Hate, executive-produced with Steven Spielberg, debuted on Discovery Channel last month. Earlier this year his documentary The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley—about disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes—hit HBO. And his latest documentary, Citizen K, opens in theaters this Friday. All in all, an active 2019.

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Citizen K tells the story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a “Russian oligarch-turned dissident,” who built a vast fortune in the years of “Wild West capitalism” that flourished after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Some estimates put his net worth at its height at $15 billion.

“He became Russia’s richest man,” Gibney notes, “one of the richest men in the world.” Khodorkovsky collected his first pile of rubles in the banking business, then leveraged that wealth to acquire ever more valuable enterprises. This came at a time when the government of then-president Boris Yeltsin was selling off state assets for a song, to pay wages, pensions and other debts.

“Khodorkovsky ended up with…Yukos, a globe-girdling oil company,” Gibney explains. “But his bank, Menatep, actually conducted the auction for the company. They set the prices. It was very much an inside deal.”

All this might have remained at just the level of an interesting business story if not for what later transpired. An ailing Yeltsin turned over power in 1999 to Vladimir Putin. By that time Yukos had become a powerhouse, responsible for about a fifth of Russia’s oil production.

“Khodorkovsky was trying to move Yukos into compliance with international business rules and regulations so that he could enter into a massive merger potentially with ExxonMobil,” the director comments. “Well, oil is sometimes regarded as a state asset. I think Putin took a very dim view both of the idea that Khodorkovsky would bring a transparent business model to what was essentially a gangster capitalist model, and also that ExxonMobil would own a large portion of Russia’s oil industry.”

Khodorkovsky, meanwhile, was becoming something of a political rival to Putin, with his own sphere of influence in the Russian legislature. Then he took a very bold step, one advisers warned him against doing.

Gibney explains, “Khodorkovsky publicly accused Putin of corruption in a nationally televised forum on corruption.”

That did not sit well with Putin. Within no time, Khodorkovsky was up on charges of fraud and tax evasion. He was convicted and dispatched to Siberia in chains.

“He spent 10 years in prison,” Gibney states. “Then his sentence was extended…It seemed like [Putin] was going to throw away the key.”

In prison Khodorkovsky underwent a kind of spiritual transformation, questioning his earlier devotion to wealth accumulation and becoming an even more determined advocate of democratic reform. He might have continued to ruminate behind bars, but Putin—under international pressure—granted his rival a pardon just before the 2014 Sochi Olympics and sent him into exile.

“Now he lives in London, but he works very much as a kind of a dissident in exile,” Gibney observes, “sort of finding ways to challenge the current regime.”

People on the outs with Putin have a habit of turning up dead, either within Russia or outside of it, so Khodorkovsky lives in a certain amount of peril—the sword of Vladimir, so to speak, hanging over his head.

“There’s allegedly a kill order out for him,” Gibney tells Deadline. “I think his view is that he’s hiding in plain sight. His public profile gives him a certain amount of protection, but at the same time, he said, ‘Look, if they’re going to kill me, they’re going to kill me. There’s nothing I can do about it so I’m not going to live my life in fear.’”

Citizen K recently qualified for Oscar consideration this year—one of two Gibney films to reach that threshold, the other being The Inventor. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September, with Khodorkovsky himself in attendance (risking the possibility he might be arrested and extradited to Russia, where he faces a charge of arranging the murder of a mayor in the oil-rich town of Nefteyugansk).

Citizen K is a character study and a compelling history of post-Soviet Russia. But the film’s significance extends well beyond the borders of the Eurasian colossus to our own country. The Trump administration’s own intelligence agencies have concluded Russia intervened to influence the 2016 presidential election.

“We need to think about Putin and Russia because of what happened in 2016,” Gibney affirms. “I think we need to have a better understanding of how Russia works.”

The director continues, “The film is…very much a cautionary tale. We could go in this direction. This is a model that Putin is exporting, this soft authoritarian model, a withering away of the rule of law, total control of the press, a complete disregard and disrespect for truth. Because truth is after all a meaningless concept in the face of total power.”

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