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.
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.
A few months later, Ivlev’s wife and children, trying to join him, are detained at the airport until they miss their flight. When their pursuers are unable to contact their bosses for further orders, they get on another plane.
Collins’ choice of topic was prescient. Russia’s subservient legal system has become a topic of intense interest both in the United States and Europe, and Collins makes it a dark and compelling story.
In a report last summer, Freedom House, a nonprofit organization based in Washington that promotes human rights around the world, described deteriorating legal conditions in Russia.
“Russia’s legal system remains under the dark shadow cast by the numerous high profile cases which suggest political and business influence on court cases,” the report said. “Politicians and businesses in Russia typically use the law as a means to advance their interests.”
As the 2012 presidential election approaches, the authorities are brooking no dissent. On New Year’s Eve, police arrested opposition leader Boris Nemtsov as he left a legally sanctioned demonstration.
The judge refused to accept a video of the arrest as evidence and sentenced Nemtsov to 15 days in jail on the testimony of two officers, who said he was disobeying orders.
Georgy Satarov, president of the Indem think tank in Moscow, says the world should only expect the trend to continue.
“The indifferent attitude of the United States to what is going on in Russia contributes to the harsher trend,” Satarov said.
Collins made her film as a statement against indifference. She financed it herself, first from her design business, I Pezzi Dipinti, then with the help of executive producer Pilar Crespi. (The ordinary viewer has yet to see it; her distributor is now trying to sell “Vlast” to television with eventual plans for a DVD.)
“It’s cynical and dangerous,” she said, describing a constitution and judicial system arbitrarily applied, “and we engage with Russia as if that isn’t happening.”
As her film concludes, the robber baron has become something of a political dissident. Arseny Roginsky, who served four years in labor camps in the 1980s for trying to write honest history, has recalled Khodorkovsky seeking a meeting with him to ask how he could make Russia a better country.
Before Roginsky’s own imprisonment, the Soviet authorities told him to get out of the country. He refused to let them strip him of his birthright, and went to prison.
“This is my country,” he said of his resistance, repeating himself, as if now for the defiant Khodorkovsky.
“This is my country.”