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May, 9th 2011

Khodorkovsky, the movie

– Liz Mair

Last week, I was kindly extended an invitation to attend a DC screening of "Khodorkovsky," a film about the wealthy Russian businessman and former owner of Yukos oil, who is currently serving time in a hard-labor prison in Siberia.

Usually, I'm not a fan of documentaries.  But this is a film worth seeing if you're interested in Russian politics, democratization and/or rule of law issues (as indeed yours truly is).  The film traces Mikhail Khodorkovsky's rise from chemical engineering student and member of his university's Komsomol to his entry on the scene as Russia's most internationally identifiable oligarch to his establishment as an advocate for democracy and improved governance and a prominent philanthropist.

It does this using a mix of still photography, slightly Banksy-esque animated sequences, and interviews with former business partners, Russian officials, journalists, family, Khodorkovsky himself and other colleagues.  It tells a tale of a man who benefited from a system he came to oppose, pitting him against then-President Vladimir Putin, something that no doubt was responsible for his fate ultimately being sealed.  The handling of cases involving Yukos executives has been significantly scrutinized and criticized by the Council of Europe and various Council of Europe entities, who view Russia's actions as going beyond pursuit of criminal justice, and entailing the deliberate targeting of political opponents and diverse authoritarian abuses.  

Originally handed an eight year sentence in 2005, Khodorkovsky was convicted of fresh charges last year amid protests focused on now-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and what has been criticized as a show trial.  Supporters hope that the film's release will focus attention on his plight and on rule of law and democratization issues in Russia more broadly, something that appears probable based on the film's content and audience.  Attending the screening in DC were various high-ranking members of the diplomatic community, as well as a bevy of domestic and international media; the film had previously premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, being described by the Irish Times as "the hottest ticket."  Variety dubbed the film "Thoroughly researched and highly entertaining," while the New Yorker called it "potentially a document of high political and moral moment, one that could embarrass Russia’s ruling clique with revelations of official misdeeds and abuses."

That characterization seems fair, and it may hint at why the film could attract plenty more attention moving forward. Check it out if you get the chance. [intro]

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