It has been a long wait, but despite alleged attempts to ban it and only one Moscow cinema agreeing to show it, a documentary about jailed oil tycoon and outspoken Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky has made its debut in the Russian capital.
In the film business, the more scandal the better, and if you delve into the murky world of Russian politics that’s something you’re guaranteed to find. There was certainly no lack of controversy with this film. Simply titled “Khodorkovsky”, it took its German director, Cyril Tuschi, a grueling five years to make.
First, someone stole the tapes from Tuschi’s office just days before its world premiere at the Berlinale film festival in February, then a number of European festivals refused to show it. Now there are allegations that senior figures in the Kremlin don’t want it anywhere near their stately offices, not when parliamentary and presidential elections are just around the corner.
The 113-minute documentary charts Khodorkovsky’s progress from leader of the Communist Party’s youth wing, Komsomol, to the world’s richest man under forty. Then he was also a symbol of Russia’s shadowy justice system, a system which the tycoon himself helped sustain, according to one interviewee, Dmitry Golobov, a former corporate lawyer in Khodorkovsky’s oil giant Yukos.
Khodorkovsky has been in jail on charges of fraud and tax evasion since his arrest on a Siberian runway in 2003, which his supporters claim was punishment for his funding of the liberal opposition at a time when Vladimir Putin was beginning to create a “vertical power structure.”
Six of seven Moscow venues that had previously agreed to show the film appear to have now changed their mind.
While the state-owned Khudozhestvenny cinema bowed out after receiving intimidating calls from Moscow’s culture department, the private-run KaroFilm cinema chain took the film off its schedule “without any explanation,” Olga Papernaya, the film’s distributor in Russia, told a news conference after the film’s press screening on Thursday afternoon.
Kremlin threats or not, the film will now only be shown in 15 cinemas across Russia, plus a surprising five in neighboring Kazakhstan, Papernaya said.
Tuschi said that he faced similar problems in other countries.
“It’s not specific for Russia; Germany, Switzerland and Spain have some sort of self-censorship too,” Tuschi said. “I don’t think some guy comes in and says ‘don’t show it’,’” he added, suggesting distributors may be “insecure” about revenues.
Still, the film was withdrawn from a festival in Zurich sponsored by Suleiman Kerimov, the billionaire Kremlin-friendly owner of the Russian football club Anzhi Makhachkala.
A tale of the power struggle between Khodorkovsky and then president Vladimir Putin, the documentary was initially intended to be “a feature film,” Tuschi said, adding that his motivation was simple: “What a great drama. That’s it.”
Tuschi had bodyguards at his side as he arrived in Moscow on Thursday but only because he feared he might be detained or forced to spend the night at the airport.
There was no security during the shooting of the film, although at one point, when he tried to negotiate entry to a Soviet-era labor camp in Eastern Siberia where Khodorkovsky served much of his first sentence, Tuschi noticed he was being watched.
“We were followed only once, on the train from Novosibirsk to Chita, really openly, they just wanted to show that they were there,” he said.
Tuschi dismissed speculation that the film’s Russia debut was dated to come just three days before the December 4 parliamentary election: “It was not a plan, it’s important that it opens at all.”
“I don’t want to include myself in Russian politics,” says director Cyril Tuschi
“I don’t want to include myself in Russian politics,” he said.
When he started filming in 2005, Tuschi said “I never thought I would actually see Khodorkovsky.” So when he was allowed to interview him in the courtroom during the jailed tycoon’s second trial in 2009, it was “like the fall of the Berlin wall.”
“No journalist ever tried to interview him because every time you approached him you got kicked out of court,” he said.
This “visual taboo” broke when former German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger was permitted to have a one-minute talk with Khodorkovsky.
Standing in the glass and steel defendant’s cage, Khodorkovsky tells Tuschi he didn’t want to flee abroad to escape arrest and leave his business partner Platon Lebedev “hostage” to the Kremlin.
He also adds, smiling, that he was perhaps too “naïve” to believe in the rule of law in Russia, a claim supported by Igor Yurgens, a senior adviser to President Dmitry Medvedev, who said Russia “was not ready” for Khodorkovsky.
In a letter read out by Papernaya, the tycoon said he hoped “sooner or later” to see the documentary and expressed his gratitude to Tuschi and the dozen interviewees for their courage and impartiality.
While many still begrudge Khodorkovsky his one-time affluence and power, Tuschi said his main aim was to show how people could change.
“I’m happy that I didn’t do propaganda, so people can have their own opinions.”