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A chilling tale of justice in Russia

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 7:47 PM

When Russia's robber barons emerged in the mid 1990s, buying up the property of the former Soviet Union and making themselves billionaires many times over, the panorama of intrigue, profiteering and improbable communism-to-capitalism conversion captivated Cathryn Collins, far away in the world of New York design.

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Those implausible post-Cold War developments would transform not only Russia but also Collins, who became a director and producer so she could tell that story, settling on the life of Mikhail Khodorkovsky as her vehicle.

After the oil tycoon was convicted of tax evasion in 2005 and his company, Yukos, was dismantled and taken over by the state under President Vladimir Putin, she had her narrative arc:

The dissolution of the Soviet Union yields to unbridled capitalism and new freedoms before the state once again consolidates its control over people and property.

Collins calls her film "Vlast," which means power but also is how Russians refer to their rulers, freighted with an aggressive and slightly ominous overtone. The documentary, which already has been shown at several film festivals, opens with the events of October 2003, when rough-looking agents seize Khodorkovsky from his private plane and push him into a white van on a dark Siberian night.

That was his last day of freedom. He eventually was sentenced to eight years in prison along with his business partner, Platon Lebedev. Due for release in October, they were tried on new accusations of embezzling oil from their company - charges widely considered absurd. On Dec. 30, a judge gave them six additional years, keeping them behind bars until 2017 unless an appeal proves successful.

Collins, who visited Moscow most recently in December, avoids examining Khodorkovsky's guilt or innocence. He and the other six original oligarchs were never accused of observing legal niceties as they accumulated their wealth. But he is the only one in prison. Two fled the country, and the others swore fealty to Putin, who promised they could keep their fortunes if they avoided challenging him.

Though Collins uses Khodorkovsky to structure the film, it's really about a changing Russia, the perversion of the legal system by those in power, and the damage to citizens - and the country.

"I've always thought his life is a distillation of the good, bad and everything else that's happened in Russia in the last 25 years," she said. "I have been more affected by the people around him who had no choice but were dragged in his wake."

Lebedev is arrested first, taken from a hospital bed with the implication that he is vulnerable and will spare himself by providing false testimony. When his attorneys realize Khodorkovsky is doomed, they advise him to flee the country. He refuses.

The shadow lengthens. His son, Pavel, studying in America, cannot return to Russia and has not seen his father since 2003. His mother, Marina, who remembers stories of the repressive 1930s, had feared her son would pay for his success: "I always anticipated something would happen."

A well-connected friend warns Khodorkovsky's outside counsel, Pavel Ivlev, that the authorities have decided to destroy his law firm. He drops out of sight and leaves the country.

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