Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky, before he reached 40, was already the richest man in Russia and well on his way to becoming the richest man in the world. Now he is languishing in a Siberian prison. They say he will never get out whilst Putin is in power. What happened? Did he really steal billions from the Russian people? Was he framed for political reasons? And when he knew they were coming for him, why didn't he run?

It's a fascinating subject, but making a documentary about it inside Russia is not easy. Along the way, the director is advised to "be careful in Moscow" and told he'd be better off making a film about the landscape. If you really believe Russia opened up with its famous perestroika, this film will change the way you see things. Tuschi's German nationality gives him some protection - he's less likely to go the way of prying journalists like Anna Politkovskaya - but many of his interviewees are intensely conscious of the risks they run in speaking out, and quite a bit of vodka has to be provided to get some of them to speak at all. Meanwhile, ordinary Russians seem content with the official line: Khodorkovsky deserves to be in prison for stealing and not paying taxes. Are they naive? In the context of the current fury about bankers in the West, one has to say, it's understandable.

One third of Khodorkovsky's supporters are human rights activists, we are told. One third are neo-liberal capitalists. And one third think he's good looking. The latter group is more significant than you might think given the way that personal popularity tends to factor into every struggle between powerful men in Russia. Television footage shows us directly the challenges, sparring and posturing that went on between Khodorkovsky and Putin. Commentators - friends, business colleagues, state advisors - shake their heads; most think the businessman foolish, though some wonder if he's playing a complicated political game. His mother just misses him, wistfully showing us photos of him as a baby.

The effort that Tuschi has gone to in collecting all this material is impressive; unfortunately, it does make parts of the film an effort to sit through. There's an awful lot to process if we are to come close to the truth. In person, Khodorkovsky is easy to like, but Tuschi is cautious with his sympathy, pointing out that he was certainly a ruthless dealer in the early stages and that his later philanthropy may have had ulterior motives. This makes for better journalism but, without a clear sense of him, it can be hard to connect emotionally with what's going on, and only intermittently does Tuschi's passion for the truth emerge to give the film real energy.

This is one for the espionage fans and those with an interest in political and economic theory. It's a piece of work with historic importance and may become still more interesting to watch when events have had a little more time to play out. It certainly succeeds in highlighting an enigma and, if you emerge thinking you haven't got any answers, at least you'll be asking good questions.

Reviewed on: 23 Jan 2012
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A documentary about the mystery surrounding the imprisoned Russian oligarch.
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Director: Cyril Tuschi

Writer: Cyril Tuschi

Starring: Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin

Year: 2011

Runtime: 114 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: Germany


Glasgow 2012

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If you like this, try:

Letter To Anna
My Perestroika