In the 1990s, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was the oligarch’s oligarch. He was the head of Siberian oil giant Yukos and one of the richest men in the world. Yes, he truly was Russia’s Richard Branson. But, just as Branson outraged British politicians by telling them to get real on drugs, so Khodorkovsky failed to pay the proper respect to the power structures at place in his country. He began supporting the political opposition and talking about an open Russia, he made Yukos more transparent in order to attract Western investment and he courted the Bush family. Putin, the Mafia boss, wasn’t going to stand for this kind of shit, and Khodorkovsky in turn wasn’t going to stop digging his own grave.
In October 2003, he and a number of associates were sent to prison for non-payment of tax. His sentence has just been extended and he is expected to continue festering in Siberia till 2017, where his only distraction is plotting his comeback and writing editorial pieces for the Guardian. His story, in all its grand drama, has been told in a new documentary called, simply, Khodorkovsky. Directed by the German filmmaker Cyril Tuschi, it features the only direct, on-camera interview with Khodorkovsky since he was sent to prison.
I caught up with Cyril to talk about it.
VICE: Hi Cyril. How is Khodorkovsky getting his editorial pieces out into the public domain?
Cyril Tuschi: Hi Oscar. Well, there are already good channels. His main lawyer lives in London. The first two years I tried to write to him, I was writing him normal letters and they were ending up in the bin somewhere. I never got an answer. Then I found out that all the editorial pieces he writes are spoken through the glass to his lawyers and that he meets them every day. Since his arrest, the only real interview he has done is with me. The rest—his articles and so on—have been conducted through his lawyers. Do you think you would have been able to make the film without the interview at the end?
Well, of course I could have finished something, but I think that if I hadn’t got the interview, I’d still be shooting now. So, I’m happy I got the interview! It’s funny because I already thought it was a coup on your part to get him to write to you.
That took two years! Exactly. So the interview felt unexpected, like a twist. Did you have that in mind?
It was a question of editing and dramaturgy. I decided to focus on the conflict between Putin and Khodorkovsky and then I needed to have the drama play out like that. I thought of putting the interview at the beginning but it was better to put it at the end, because then you don’t see Khodorkovsky through the film and so you wonder if you will see him or not. Do you think that Khodorkovsky’s support of the opposition is the dominant reason for him being in prison?
No, no. He suggests it but I think there are multiple reasons. But the main ones, sadly in life, are power and money. Other people wanted to have his money and he doesn’t have the power. He didn’t obey the unspoken laws in Russia—he didn’t pay the proper respect to those in power. There’s a more archaic structure in place and maybe he didn’t adhere to that.
In your film, Christian Michel talks about Khodorkovsky’s time in prison as a form of redemption. That he knew he would go to prison and he accepted it and needed it because he had done bad things and made loads of money.
That’s very interesting. I think there is some truth in it. His time in prison was not totally intended, but he made the best out of it and will come out of it as a different person with a different status. He is rinsing his soul and cleaning his image. One of the other famous oligarchs in exile, Boris Berezovsky, who is in a big fight with Abramovich, has opened up a Facebook account to tell people that he was guilty and that he was greedy. He offered this to a radio station and they declined so he opened up the Facebook account to apologize and to say that, after words, deeds must follow. You find this interesting student who refers to Khodorkovsky as the “best of the worst.” That, of all the terrible oligarchs, he was the best… do you agree with that?
In this framework, yes… I mean, it’s connected with the question that popped up very often which was: “Why are you, an artist filmmaker, interested in a person like that?” I would never have met this guy for coffee. He’s a capitalist; he has no idea about art. He was really very far off my spectrum. My parents brought me up to believe that money was not necessary, that it’s important for living, but that making fast money was wrong. So is the film about power?
Well, first of all I thought, wow, what a great Greek drama. Coming from very low to very high to very low—it’s more the kind of logic you get in a play. I love the heroic fight of the two titans, Khodorkovsky and Putin. And then I love the seemingly illogical behavior of Khodorkovsky. He does heroic things and shoots himself in the foot. It’s not very common and fashionable to be heroic and if you do something old-fashioned like that, it is very rare. He really does shoot himself in the foot. Maybe he would disagree but that’s how it seemed to me. It’s interesting because some of the people you interview who worked with Khodorkovsky, particularly one of his lawyers, can’t forgive him for what he did. Khodorkovsky could have escaped himself and he could have made life easier for his colleagues.
It’s twofold. It’s the general way of taking responsibility. Golobov, the lawyer, speaks in military terms. To him, Khodorkovsky was the General and he abandoned his troops. Golobov is frustrated, he can’t come back to Russia to see his mother and it is his personal view. I put the interview in because he got very emotional and usually when you interview people they don’t offer too much. I didn’t do an investigative film, even though I did a lot of investigating. I wasn’t trying to find out if he did bad things in the 1990s, if he was guilty or not. Other people might try and find that out even though I don’t know if that would be healthy. But why should I do that? It’s not my field of work. I think he left his family and due to his actions other people got punished. There was a fallout.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky at the Siberian Court.
Is he a heroic character for you?
Knowing that there are no heroic characters in the world anymore, he behaved heroically, but with the necessity to fail somehow. Leaving his family the way he did was not heroic but I guess there are things you have to sacrifice in order to be heroic. It reminded me a bit of The Crucible, the Arthur Miller play, in that he sticks by his word, in some way.
Yes, interesting. I think that with a hero there is always a fight within you and with a higher power. It is never without sacrifices. I think that’s at the core of it. Now, you felt at various times that you were being followed while you were making this film. How aware of this were you, and did you know who was following you?
Well, in the beginning, fear was omnipresent. Everything was frightening but that was mostly because I didn’t know the rules. Then when we were shooting we would see that we were being followed and of course it’s the FSB [Russia’s Federal Security Service] and I think that we were followed more often but that we didn’t know it. They want you to see that you are being followed. It’s often quite open, like, “Hey, we’re following you!” I know that these secret institutions have a lot more money than in the 1990s, so they can easily follow you and tap your phone and check your emails, wherever you are. All the Russian opposition have their phones and emails tapped. Did you ever get to a point where you thought: "I just can’t keep doing this any more?"
Yes, but not because of the fear, which died down because you get used to everything and I didn’t get beaten up or anything like that. It was mostly because of my initial lack of success—that not so many people wanted to speak to me. I thought, “I’m just a bad filmmaker, the money is flowing away, how long can I keep doing this?”
Did you feel like this because, having made fiction films previously, you were now doing something different?
Totally, totally but of course there was a big thrill. As a teenager I loved James Bond films and it felt like being in one. I took the battery out of my phone because that’s the only way you cannot be tapped and I had a USB stick that simulates another IP address every two minutes so your emails can’t be tracked. It was very exciting and I felt a bit James Bond-like. The fear is real and the drama is real. Sometimes I tended to mix my fantasy with reality and I had to remind myself that these were real human beings I was dealing with and that I needed to take care. I think it’s true that you play a part in these situations.
Yes, definitely. I think that’s what’s happened with Julian Assange. The boundaries are blurred. The prison cellmate of Khodorkovsky, who it seems made things up to secure his release and keep Khodorkovsky in prison, said that “life is cheap but living is expensive.” Do you agree with that and how much sympathy do you have with him?
I interviewed eight other prisoners, with gold teeth and tattoos and some people told me that he might be a double agent from FSB. I don’t believe it but in Russia anything is possible. They could have just given him a history and he invented it.
Some people say people gave Khodorkovsky a lot of money so he could survive. But I don’t care, that’s the interesting part. Russia is fictitious. The whole of Russia is fiction.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky + The Bushes = B.F.F.E
Russia seems like the Wild West to people from the outside. It’s a massive space where anything is possible.
It’s very close to America in that way. We are big! Delusions of grandeur… Do you feel as though it is a fascinating place because it seems that anything can happen there?
They have a long tradition of fantasy and fairytale stories. In Germany, if someone does something wrong a press conference is called and the person denies it. In Russia, first nothing happens, then suddenly ten theories are put on the table and the audience doesn’t know what to believe so they give up. I know that one of the ten is the truth but the viewer has no idea what is going on. They are quiet and once the real reason emerges they throw nine other reasons out there. Khodorkovsky says he has no desire for revenge. Do you believe him?
Good question. I mean, he is not in the position to say he will have revenge. He’s in prison. It’s as simple as that! I bet his friends have some information about Putin that they won’t publish because they still have hostages in prison. If Khodorkovsky gets out he still has a lot of work to get all his colleagues out of prison as well so his hands are tied. I believe also that he changed in that his formerly competitive mind is a more metaphysical one. When he comes out, if he comes out, do you think he will run as an opposition candidate?
I think he doesn’t really have that much choice. People will just put him in a plate and say, “Run!” We laughed, I thanked Cyril, and we took the batteries out of our phones.