Citizen K

Posted on: 2022-02-19

I've just finished watching Alex Gibneys documentary Citizen K. On one level it's about Mikhail Khodorkovsky, previously a Russian oligarch and owner of the oil company Yukos. At that time he was perhaps the richest man in Russia. How he becomes seen as a threat by Putin, and how that lead to him being imprisoned for 10 years.

In many ways though it's really about Vladimir Putin and how Russia works.

This documentary as well as one of Adam Curtises documentaries talk about after all of the hope of democracy and freedom post the fall of the Soviet Union led to a nation which has little of either.

The short version is that when Russia wanted to become more capitalistic and democratic they looked to the west. Western experts came and in effect advised them to become capitalistic as quickly as possible. One way to do this was to give regular citizens skin in the game via 'vouchers' which were in effect shares in government owned entities.

This led to a perverse situation where the country was becoming rapidly 'capitalistic' whilst there were huge shortages, hyper inflation, and with the support of the state removed. People ended up standing on the streets selling their possessions just so they could eat. The vouchers didn't seem to have much value and so they were sold for a fraction of their real worth, ending up in the hands of a small group of people. Those people became the oligarchs.

During this time many Russians came to the conclusion, not unreasonably based on their recent experience, that capitalism and democracy were much worse than the communism that came before it. This presented a problem for the oligarchs - if a communist government came in to power they would could lose their property rights and so their huge wealth. This is where Putin comes to the fore, prior to an election where a communist president seemed certain to win. The oligarchs believed that Putin who had been the right hand man of a liberal mayor, wanted democracy and capitalism. He was their man - and so two of the oligarchs who owned the main TV networks promoted Putin, leading to his win.

Early on things seemed to be working out. Arguably Putin did help sort out some of the mess in Russia. The oligarchs could keep running their businesses and be increadibly rich so temporarily it worked out for them. The turning point came with the sinking of the Kursk. This was a national tragedy and much of the blame landed on the government and Putin. In a meeting with the widows of the sailors on the Kursk, Putin decided to cash in on the animosity of average Russians on the oligarchs. He blamed the Kursk tragedy on them.

This changed the power dynamic. Before Putin was their man. Post that point the oligarchs were Putins. They only operated with his permission. It has been claimed that at this time he had a meeting with the oligarchs where he put to them what he wanted - 50%. To which they responded 50% of what? To which he said of everything. This has led many people to believe that Putin is actually the richest man in the world.

Which perhaps leads to the question of where are we today? Russia has a kind of 'capitalism' - gangster capitalism, where the head of state is the crime boss. It also has something that looks like 'democracy' but isn't. It's a finely orchestrated theatre where there can be only one winner - Putin. Really it is a corrupt dictatorship, with a thin veneer of legitimacy.

Today it seems as if we are standing at the brink of a Russian invasion of the Ukraine. Some reports are listing 200,000 Russian troops are at the border. There appears to be a false flag effort by Russia, of skirmishes within the Ukraine being used as a pretext for invasion.

In many ways Putin is weaker than he has ever been at home. There have been huge protests against him. After two decades of corrupt rule, many Russians are aware and fed up with the status quo. So why invade the Ukraine? Distraction from the problems at home. It's a nod to the Soviet Union of old and can bring pride at home.

The world is becoming increasingly dangerous.

The west seems clueless on how to deal with this. In the past it would be relatively simple - the west would generally try and defend fledgling democratic states. The US was often a principal player in the spread of democracy. Now though it has broadcast to the world that it will not put troops in the Ukraine. There is talk of sanctions. It's hard to see how that is going to stop anything. After all Putins 'brand' is all about being the strong man - backing down seems unlikely over something as soft as sanctions.

Biden tries to make the case to Americans that they should care because the price of gas could go up. With a democratic country up for grabs by one of the most corrupt this seems absurd, callous and weak. Apparently paying a bit more at the pump is more important than peoples lives are on the line trying to protect a democracy and their way of life.

The EU seems similarly hamstrung most notably with Germany not wanting to get involved.

I get that nobody wants to get involved in this for a variety of reasons. I don't think it bodes well for the future. It would empower Putin. It would embolden him to do something similar or worse. It would demonstrate the weakness and impotence of the west. That is to say nothing of the tragedy and suffering it will lead to in the Ukraine.