This arresting documentary tries to make sense of the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once one of Russia’s richest men, who has been in jail since 2003 and who has been convicted of fraud, embezzlement and money laundering. Many observers, including the maker of this film, Cyril Tuschi, believe there are sinister reasons for his incarceration, including Vladimir Putin’s disdain for the 48-year-old former owner of fuel giant Yukos. More interesting than questions around Khodorkovsky’s guilt or innocence is how his life has mirrored changes in Russian society: as a young communist in the 1980s, he took advantage of Perestroika to found a bank and later benefited from the privatisation of state assets and was a minister for fuel and energy. He entered the new millennium singing from the hymn sheet of better governance and more liberal politics, and soon afterwards the contradictions in his career landed him a home in a Siberian jail.
Tuschi mixes an awkward account of his own fascination with this affair with the tale of Khodorkovsky’s career, impressive interviews (including the oligarch’s associates, mum, son and ex-wife) and some less impressive animated inserts to illustrate events such as his arrest. The realities of relations between business and politics in post-Soviet Russia prove too knotted for Tuschi to untangle, but better this, an informed and honest despairing shrug, than an oversimplification of the facts. His interview with Khodorkovsky – a coup – is less illuminating than the text of a letter from him in prison that runs through the film, but it still helps to make Khodorkovsky more of a reality than the enigma he threatens to become.