DocPoint: Citizen Oligarch

Citizen K will be shown at the documentary film festival DocPoint on January 30th and February 1st and 2nd. Here is a link for more information on the film and screenings.

Alex Gibney’s documentary Citizen K presents the story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s rise to prominence and his eventual fall from grace. Yet, there is something amiss in this narrative of the rise and fall of the oligarch – namely, the concept of oligarch and oligarchy itself.

The Soviet-era Georgian philosopher Merab Mamardashvili famously said that ‘the devil plays with us when we think imprecisely’. There can hardly be a better proof of that than the uncritical adoption of the terms ‘oligarch’ and ‘oligarchy’ in the analysis of post-Soviet Russian politics.

Since the late 1990s it has become customary to refer to the newly emerging business elite, be it bankers, oil company CEOs or media tycoons as ‘oligarchs’ and to view their influence on politics as a sign of the degeneration of the Russian political system into an oligarchy.

It was in the name of the struggle against the oligarchs that in early 2000, in its very first months, the Putin presidency launched an assault on Vladimir Gusinsky’s Media Most corporation, thus taking the first step in the imposition of state control over mass media.

The need to rein in the oligarchs was also the justification for the arrest and imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003 and the eventual takeover of his company Yukos by the state-owned Rosneft.

The connection of political parties, civil society organizations and media outlets to these and other ‘oligarchs’ became a stigma permitting their purge from the political system and, in the best case, their retreat into exile abroad.

From Oligarch to Citizen?

Alex Gibney’s documentary Citizen K presents the story of Khodorkovsky’s rise to prominence as banker and oil tycoon in the 1990s and his eventual fall from grace in the Putin era, culminating in his ten-year-long prison term in 2003–2013.

Featuring an extensive interview with Khodorkovsky himself, residing in London since his release from prison, the film ventures to trace the transformation of Khodorkovsky from a notorious oligarch, gaining his wealth in the dubious loans-for-shares scheme of 1995, into a leading oppositional figure and pro-democracy activist.

From a more general perspective, it also traces the transformation of the chaotic yet dynamic Russia of the 1990s, in which the meteoric rise of the likes of Khodorkovsky was possible, into a stagnating authoritarian regime that has assumed increasing control over the economy.

The overall message of the film seems to offer a morality tale: having ignored and even undermined democratic politics by cultivating shadowy insider deals with the government in the 1990s, oligarchs such as Khodorkovsky were among the first to suffer from its absence as soon as the strengthened state sought to revise the rules of the game to its advantage.

Yet, there is something amiss in this narrative of the rise and fall of the oligarch – namely, the concept of oligarch and oligarchy itself.

Oligarchy against ‘Oligarchs’

The benefits of the use of the term ‘oligarchy’ to designate one’s political opponents are evident: after all, from Plato onwards, the term was devoid of any positive connotations and served as the negative obverse of ‘aristocracy’, the rule of the excellent. It is therefore no wonder that the term became a favored denigrating epithet in Russian political discourse, especially as the government sought to reestablish control over the economy and rein in the entrepreneurial class that emerged in the 1990s.

Yet, scholars of politics need to do better than imitate governmental rhetoric, especially as this rhetoric turns increasingly aggressive and obscene. While Gusinsky or Khodorkovsky could be accused of many things, neither their wealth nor their political activity suffices to define them as ‘oligarchs’.

Even in the 1990s, when this term could be better applied to the bureaucratic inner circle in Boris Yeltsin’s administration rather than the bankers and tycoons that benefited from its policies, the same inner circle that brought forth the candidacy of Putin as Yeltsin’s successor.

Moreover, Khodorkovsky’s political engagement after 2000 ventured to oppose precisely the tendency of the Putin administration to consolidate both political power and ownership of the key sectors of the economy in the small group of loyalists, including both government officials and representatives of the private sector.

In this regime both state-owned and nominally private companies close to the government were granted privileges and preferential treatment, while those distanced from the regime were subjected to harassment and persecution by the security apparatus of the state. As a result, public office and private property have become increasingly indistinguishable, as public officials amassed extraordinary wealth and ostensibly private persons wielded enormous power.

Ironically, in 2003 it was the proverbial ‘oligarch’ Khodorkovsky that most vocally opposed the emergence of this system.

Those who rule are rich as long as they rule. It is this form of government that was termed ‘oligarchy’ in Plato’s Republic and distinguished from aristocracy and timocracy, which are also characterized by the rule of the few, but are grounded respectively in wisdom and honour rather than mere pursuit of wealth.

Ironically, in 2003 it was the proverbial ‘oligarch’ Khodorkovsky that most vocally opposed the emergence of this system, whose subsequent development leaves precious little doubt about its oligarchic nature, even as some of its representatives vainly present themselves as the new aristocracy.

The functionaries of this system have little to do with the flamboyance and vigour of Khodorkovsky, but accord uncannily with Plato’s famous depiction of the oligarchic personality as ‘a shabby fellow, who saves something out of everything and makes a purse for himself; the sort of man whom the vulgar applaud.’

The Man with a Past

The film features numerous examples of such applause, but none of it to Khodorkovsky. While Khodorkovsky gained the support of the liberal intelligentsia during his imprisonment and continues to be influential in the liberal opposition movement, he has what one of the interviewees in the film euphemistically called ‘a past’.

The ordinary people interviewed in the streets reproduce, without exception, the governmental narrative of Khodorkovsky as a ‘thief’ and endorse, without evidence, the governmental accusation of Khodorkovsky as organizing the contract killing of the mayor of Nefteyugansk in 1998. While Khodorkovsky remains optimistic about democracy in Russia in the long term, it is clear that in the short term his project has been a failure.

There are many reasons for this defeat, but one of them was the conceptual inversion undertaken by the regime’s ideologists that passed, with little critical reflection, into scholarly analyses and media representations of contemporary Russia.

Rather than view the show trial of Khodorkovsky and the governmental takeover of Yukos as a step in the constitution of an oligarchic form of government, it was misinterpreted as part of the regime’s alleged struggle against the ‘oligarchs’, of which Khodorkovsky was merely the wealthiest and the most influential one.

The unpalatable excesses of the period of ‘primitive accumulation’ during the 1990s gave the entrepreneurs of the time such a bad name that any bad name whatsoever became applicable to them, including that of the oligarch.

This in turn made the Putin regime’s carefully constructed self-image as a state engaged in the struggle against oligarchs appealing to the audience that, being a priori hostile to oligarchs of all kinds, made little attempt to investigate what kind of state was engaged in this struggle and whether it merited the name of the state at all.

As Mamardashvili had warned, imprecise use of concepts enabled an oligarchic regime to legitimize itself by claiming to go after the oligarchs and delegitimize all opposition to it by linking it to the imprisoned and exiled ‘oligarchs’ that could only wear this label as a dubious consolation prize.

While the devil has definitely won this round, the film concludes with Khodorkovsky saying, with an optimism that seems to mask a quiet desperation, that he still dreams of returning to Russia and ‘changing something’, as if changing anything whatsoever at this point would be a tremendous feat.

Sergei Prozorov is Professor of Political Science at the University of Jyväskylä. His research interests include political philosophy, theories of democracy and totalitarianism, biopolitics and governance.

Documentary film festival DocPoint will be held in Helsinki from January 27th to February 2nd.

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