A documentary by German director Cyril Tuschi about the jailed Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky became a hot ticket at the Berlinale festival. This was bound to happen. First, the world is fully aware of the political motives behind the Yukos case. Second, the charisma and firmness of Russia’s No. 1 convict appeal to the international media. Third, the break-in at the director’s office and theft of the film’s final cut also fanned interest. The Berlinale ticket offices opened at 10am and, 10 minutes later, all the tickets for all the screenings had been sold out. A special screening for the media had to be arranged, followed by a press conference – a rare honour for documentaries.
The film’s main advantage is the author’s sincere desire to get through the thick wall of various opinions, interpretations and all sorts of clichés in the troubled waters of Russian politics, instead focusing on Khodorkovsky as an individual. Tuschi did something almost impossible, tiptoeing along a calm and balanced line in the whirl of contradictory opinions, without falling into hysterical criticism or defence of the disgraced oligarch, as the members of our political establishment are wont to do.
The film is primarily meant for the foreign audience, for whom Khodorkovsky and Putin are terra incognita, as is Russia itself – a dangerous country populated by beggars and billionaires, a vast land spreading from the Kremlin’s ruby stars to Siberian camps and beyond.
The film begins with a snowy landscape with oil rigs, a church on a hill, and teenagers between the rigs and the church. “Guys, do you know who Khodorkovsky is?” “Ah, he’s the man who stole a lot of money from Russia?” And this is followed by a Sin City-stylised 3D black-and-white animation, showing a Tu-134À plane (with a tricolour) and an assault team arresting Russia’s No. 1 billionaire. Tuschi is not afraid of visual posters, while avoiding superfluous excesses. Instead, he chooses a consecutive narration. He wants to be clear, and he is successful in this. Perhaps this is the only sensible documentary about today’s Russia, without matryoshkas, gold chains and the dancing Yeltsin.
The German director puts his film together like a jigsaw, combining irreconcilable revelations and invented “scenarios”. Among those interviewed are the friends of Khodorkovsky’s youth, his Yukos colleagues, lawyers and family members.
Ex-Yukos highflier Leonid Nevzlin elaborates on not just how the Menatep business empire was built, but also on Khodorkovsky’s efforts to introduce a more modest lifestyle among Russia’s nouveaux riches. General Alexei Kandaurov claims that Russian oligarchs are a Kremlin project: the government gave the green light to private banking, expecting due “gratitude” in return. Yet corrupt authorities are like a tumour spreading throughout the whole of society, from top to bottom.
For their part, foreign partners pointed to Khodorkovsky’s ability to learn, his desire to become a civilised European businessman. Indeed, Yukos was Russia’s biggest taxpayer, and its owner did not fear to change with the times.
In particular, the film focuses on the Putin-Khodorkovsky gambit. Apparently, the tycoon breached two important rules: not to go into politics and not to flirt with the opposition. One of the film’s most gripping scenes is the famous televised press meeting Putin held with Russia's richest men in February 2003. Here he shakes Khodorkovsky’s hand. And here Khodorkovsky brings up the topic of corruption, estimated at $30 billion. Putin gives him is a chilling stare. No appeal possible here. All other comments, including from the President himself, about “proven murders”, all those lofty phrases about legal nihilism – they are just words, words, words…
Economist Irina Yasina condemns the behaviour of European politicians, especially Schröder and Merkel, whose fight for human rights easily turns into a “beneficial friendship” with the turn of a gas pipe valve.
What Tuschi tries to understand is “why did he come back?” “He knew everything. But he flew,” the businessman’s son said. “The Kremlin gave him signs, but he blatantly ignored them,” Khodorkovsky’s partners confirmed. Lawyer Dmitry Gololobov, former deputy head of the Yukos legal department, who now lives in London, rebukes Khodorkovsky angrily, saying that the commander could not afford to let himself be surrounded. But Lebedev had already been arrested by that time. Two days before his own arrest, Khodorkovsky spoke of his decision to run in the elections…
The climax of the film is an on-camera interview conducted through the bars of the dock during Khodorkovsky's second trial in Moscow last year. He ridicules the charges against him: where on earth could he have stashed the 350 million tonnes of oil? And he also speaks of the trial and its importance. He is behind bulletproof glass. This has a strong effect on foreigners.
The German director does not make Khodorkovsky out to be a hero nor an innocent victim or hardened criminal. His screenings are a slalom between different opinions, urging the viewer to think for himself. Unlike a typical documentary, the film does not offer a final of guilty or not guilty verdict.
For those in the know, the film is no revelation. But are there many who really know what is going on? Tuschi did the job of Russian documentary directors (to do them justice, six years ago Vladimir Gerchikov did have the nerve to make his film called Reaction). Meanwhile, the new film is unlikely to reach a broad audience.
As it turned out at the press meeting, reporters expected to hear the director’s own verdict. Tuschi admitted that the work had been difficult because of the all-pervasive fear in Russia. Reporters discussed the bold move made by Natalya Vasilyeva, a secretary at the Khamovnichesky Court in Moscow (where Khodorkovsky’s trial took place), who has told reporters that the judge received orders from above. Something must be changing within the rigid system: some people can no longer keep their silence, Irina Yasina believes. “In the absence of the human rights institutions you have in the West, this girl has proved her own dignity. And the dignity of that judge Danilkin, but he doesn’t understand that…”
This is what the German director told Novaya Gazeta about his work.
Q: I realised at the press conference that many people were anticipating simple conclusions from your film. But there were none.
A: When I began working on the film, Khodorkovsky was more of a symbol for me, and it was only later that I began to see him as a complex personality.
Q: What scene in the film do you think is the most dramatic?
A: Perhaps the moment when General Kandaurov speaks of the confrontation climax with Putin, foreseeing Yukos’s demise. Another important scene is when Leonid Nevzlin speaks of hints from the authorities about a significant cash award for settling the matter. This is unheard-of cynicism: “Just don’t meddle!” And the face of Khodorkovsky’s son Pavel when I asked him: “Why are you so calm?” “Because you can’t cry for seven years.” You know, it’s like a finger that no longer hurts because it has become numb.
Q: You first saw Khodorkovsky in Chita. What was your first impression?
A: I was very much surprised, because I wasn’t really sure he really existed.
Q: In your film, you speculate on what is Khodorkovsky’s mask and what is Khodorkovsky himself. How far apart are these?
A: It is not a mask for hiding behind: I meant different images the person tries on during his life, different prospects, whether realised or not.
Q: Your film shows how Khodorkovsky’s personality has developed. It is interesting to see how he has been changing.
A: This is very important indeed: he is the son of completely different Russias, including Soviet Russia, capitalist Russia and Russia as it is today. The impression is that Khodorkovsky underwent a dramatic change even before he was arrested. I talked to one East European lawyer. When I said that Khodorkovsky had changed while in prison, he remarked cynically: “Right, penal colonies are designed to change prisoners for the better.” Indeed, some rich people who have achieved success suffer from a lack in spirituality. But Khodorkovsky was the first to turn to charity and education on a serious and regular basis. It is not that important even if the idea for his Open Russia came from overseas. What matters is the result: the universities, educational programmes and other projects he developed. One rich businessman was asked: “Are you donating for education?” “Never! Only for sick children. Look, there was a man who donated for education, and he paid for it. It’s dangerous,” was the reply. Khodorkovsky’s case revealed the thin red line that, by a tacit agreement, should not be crossed.
Q: Tell us about your Russian roots.
A: One branch of my family, by the name of Sangali, is known in St Petersburg; they owned a foundry there. They were the first to build a hostel for workers. My great-grandfather Robert emigrated in 1918. Another branch is Russian Jews from Tver; they were bankers and emigrated before the Revolution. Both lines merged in Berlin. When I was small I was a kind of racist because my mother used to tell me: “All people except Russians and Jewish are fools.”
Q: How have you changed over the five years of your work on Khodorkovsky?
A: I am no longer as naive as I was at the beginning of my project. I have learnt many new things about Russia. And more importantly, I have fallen in love with Moscow, especially with its people.
Q: But you said 80% of people were too frightened to talk about Khodorkovsky.
A: If all of them had been frightened, I would not have been able to make the film.
Q: Your film doesn’t show a single active Russian businessman (Chubais crops up but doesn’t speak), or a single director or rector.
A: Certainly. All businessmen refused to talk to me, as did the Kremlin officials. I applied to the government through Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov – this is shown in the film – but to no avail. Alexander Gordon promised to help arrange a meeting with Vladislav Surkov. He took my letter to Surkov, after which Surkov stopped talking to Gordon. Everything was so difficult. Friends used to tell me: “You stupid German, why are you making this film?”
Q: This film portrays not just Khodorkovsky, but Russian society in general. What is your impression of it?
A: It takes a certain courage to live in Russia, especially in Moscow. First, it is expensive. You need have a lot of financial and moral resources to cope with the many challenges. It is easier to live in Berlin. Rents are lower here, and life itself is cheaper. If you decide to stay in Moscow, you have to put up a resistance. And who turns out for these demonstrations? An intelligent, intellectual person faces a tough dilemmA: either to leave or learn how to live “under pressure”.
Q: In the interview, Khodorkovsky evaded your question about a time machine. If it were possible to go back in time… would he return? This is one of the main questions in your film.
A: He said: “That is the question I ask myself every single day.” For me, that is the response. Why did he come back? For several reasons. Because Lebedev had been arrested. Because he did not want to look like a traitor and thief in the eyes of his family. He hoped for a proper trial. He didn’t understand how powerful and merciless the suppression machine was. He thought he would be jailed… for a week, as Gusinsky had.
Q: In one interview, you said that everyone manipulated everyone, including Khodorkovsky himself, and that some people used him as a tool for achieving their own ends.
A: I did not authorise that long interview, and the translation was terrible, with quotes taken out of context. Other people’s words were attributed to me. Now it is circulating on the Internet and I don’t know what to do about it.
Q: So you, too, were manipulated with this interview.
A: Exactly. They manipulated me to compromise my film, which, though not yet ready, was already misinterpreted. In fact, many officials liked it. One of them even thanked me: “Great, you have begun to say things we don’t say aloud. But I haven’t said this to the press.” Most importantly, I don’t want to cause pain or problems for those people who put their trust in me.
Q: But the people you interviewed in the film, aren’t they resolving their own problems? One justifies his emigration to Britain, accusing Khodorkovsky of “surrendering” and failing to save many of his colleagues. Another justifies the activities of his party. Khodorkovsky is becoming a tool for political intrigues.
A: Of course, but he is in jail. He can’t respond or do anything.
Q: On the other hand, your film is also a tool for influencing the public. And the public’s state of mind, when leaving the cinema, depends on you. Have you ever thought about this “result”?
A: I feared Khodorkovsky’s supporters might not be very happy with what I did. I was not particularly happy myself. I was worried they might dislike my film. I have developed friendly relations with Khodorkovsky’s circle, including lawyer Anton Drel, Masha Ordzhonikidze who heads Khodorkovsky’s press centre, lawyer Karinna Moskalenko, and Khodorkovsky’s family, including his mother Marina Philippovna.
Of course, I had my Odyssey in search of the truth. I always tried to put myself in his place. How would I behave in this or that situation? Our whole life is a search for some unattainable truth. The same applies to film. You can’t reach it, but you can get closer. Only I didn’t want to harm Khodorkovsky in any way. And that compromising information from the interviews, it frightened me. I spent many sleepless nights. I am not a journalist who receives valuable information and says to himself: “I must report this. It is the truth”, without considering the implications.
Q: So what was more important for you than the truth?
A: You know, when he is freed, I will be able to afford a tougher discussion. But how can you do harm to someone who is in jail?
Q: Perhaps the most difficult thing for you was to remain impartial and objective?
A: That’s true. I was maturing throughout this job. Moreover, without it, I would not have returned to my Russian roots. And I would not be so emotional without this Russian blood of mine. Like many of my western colleagues, I would decide for myself that “Russia is an irrational country, how can you understand it?”
Q: You mentioned irrationality. Do you think the break-in at your office was an attempt to frighten you? The film had been finished and sent to the festival already.
A: I agree. They didn’t really want to steal the film, just to frighten me. I can tell you honestly, I didn’t think it was the Federal Security Service. I sent an immediate email to Putin’s press office, saying “I don’t think it is the work of FSB.” No reply, of course. But all my Russian acquaintances, all of them, said it was the work of the security services. So your people have no confidence in their authorities?
Q: Are the results of the investigation still unknown?
A: Two departments are dealing with it: the criminal police and the Interior Ministry. We’ll learn something in a couple of days.