SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been an oil oligarch and a prisoner, the richest man in Russia and a man in exile in London. The new documentary "Citizen K," written and directed by Alex Gibney, shows how a man who was once a Russian state emblem of capitalist success ran afoul of Vladimir Putin and became a dissident and human rights champion. But is he still ruthless in pursuing his own ends? Alex Gibney, who's also made the films "Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room" and "Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief," joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
ALEX GIBNEY: Thanks, Scott. Good to be with you.
SIMON: So how did Citizen K, as he's called in this film, and Vladimir Putin - two powerful men who had every reason to get along - become adversaries?
GIBNEY: Well, they had a rather different view of Russia's future. And at one point, in a famously televised conversation about corruption in Russia, Mikhail Khodorkovsky frontally accused Vladimir Putin of corruption. A few months later, he found himself in a Siberian prison.
SIMON: Take us back to the Russia of the 1990s, if you could. How did Khodorkovsky grow so rich?
GIBNEY: Well, it was a Wild West period. I mean, we all remember Gorbachev and Yeltsin on the tank. But once Yeltsin got off the tank and Russia started to rebuild itself as a country - not an empire - that was no longer communist but now capitalist, they had to invent capitalism. Nobody knew anything about it. In fact, it had been illegal.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky started dealing in black market blue jeans and computers. And right around that time, the Russian state was handing out vouchers, which were actually shares in small state-owned enterprises that everybody could grab ahold of. The market value was like 30, 40 bucks. But they were supposed - if you hung onto them long enough, it's - said you could buy yourself a Volga, a Russian car.
But most people didn't know what to do with them. They had no idea what capitalism was like. But somebody like Mikhail Khodorkovsky figured out you could buy them on the cheap and the next thing you knew, you owned a whole bunch of shares - controlling shares in small Russian state-owned enterprises. And suddenly, he became enormously wealthy. One of these Russian oligarchs, as they call them, a tiny number of people who, by the end of the '90s, would control 50% of Russia's economy.
SIMON: Did Khodorkovsky begin to question the system in which he'd been so supremely successful?
GIBNEY: I think initially he saw it as a game. And he was good at the game. And he was rather ruthless, I should say, at playing that game. But along the way, particularly when the ruble dropped through the floor and so did the price of oil - he came to own a globe-girdling company called Yukos, which was an oil company - suddenly, he found himself in a desperate situation where he was having to lay off thousands of people. And he was face to face with the misery that can come when things go wrong.
SIMON: I know this was covered at the time to one degree or another, but it's quite a thing to see the film of his trial in this film. Was his trial fair?
GIBNEY: Well, particularly the second trial was really a joke. It was a show trial. I mean, they accused him of stealing all of the oil that he owned. And this was after they'd accused him of not paying taxes on the oil that he sold. So you'd have to wonder how he could steal the oil that he had sold and not pay taxes on. And they brought evidence to the trial of things like a conspiracy. And the evidence of the conspiracy was a company phone book. So it gives you some sense of how ridiculous the trial was. It was a complete sham.
SIMON: He learned he was going to be sent to prison as far away as you can by counting the number of lunch trays that were in the boxcar in which he traveled.
GIBNEY: They give you one per day. And I believe he was handed seven. That meant it was going to be a seven-day journey by train. He ended up in Krasnokamensk, which is near a big uranium mine by the Mongolian border. So he was quite a ways away from Moscow.
SIMON: In prison, this man who'd been an oligarch really seemed to develop character.
GIBNEY: I think he learned a degree of humanity. And he learned a kind of broader vision of life. I mean, among his prison writings he said, you know, I learned that life is not about having. It's about being. You know, it was really a show of somebody who has tried to see things from the inside out. It turned his whole worldview upside down, I think. And he became much more in touch with what it means to be a human being and a citizen.
SIMON: It must be said, you spoke with a few people who deeply believe that Mikhail Khodorkovsky had people killed when he was an oligarch - at least one person.
GIBNEY: Indeed. Well, there - we spent a great deal of time investigating the murder of Nefteyugansk, this town in Siberia to which we travelled. Today, Mikhail Khodorkovsky cannot go back to Russia because he is accused of ordering the murder of that mayor who was, back in the day - in the '90s - adverse to Khodorkovsky. We investigated pretty carefully. I don't really think that Khodorkovsky - in fact, I'm fairly certain that Khodorkovsky did not order that murder.
SIMON: Khodorkovsky, today, is in London.
GIBNEY: He is. He's in London today. He operates a - something called Open Russia, which is dedicated to promulgating Democratic ideas in Russia and also supports a number of journalistic efforts to show the details of corruption in the Putin regime.
SIMON: I wonder if in the end you trust what he told you.
GIBNEY: I think the big question is, did he really have a change of heart in prison? I think everybody wants to tell their own story their way and to shade it in a direction that benefits them. But in the case of Khodorkovsky, I do believe he changed. And while he is still possessed of a sense of revenge, I think, toward Putin and while I think he still possesses the mindset of somebody who's been very rich and powerful, I also think he understood - in prison - what it means to be a citizen and what it means to be a citizen without power. And I think he feels fiercely that that is a system that has to change. So that part I think I do believe in. I do believe he changed.
SIMON: Alex Gibney. His documentary "Citizen K" opens November 22 in Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.
GIBNEY: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.