That adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same” seems to apply in modern-day Russia, and two films currently in release pound that point home. In one, it’s obvious that pop culture has moved far beyond the days of governmentally approved socialist realism art. In the other, the depressing truth is that the former Soviet Union may now be a nominal democracy, but it is as authoritarian and corrupt as ever.
Khodorkovsky is director Cyril Tuschi’s exhaustive documentary about Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, now languishing in a Siberian prison convicted of tax evasion and stealing millions of barrels of petroleum from Yukos, the oil company he once headed.
Although Tuschi’s film accepts Khodorkovsky’s claim that his prosecution and imprisonment were political — a reaction to the oligarch’s forays into opposition (meaning anti-Putin) politics — the documentary is no hagiography. Khodorkovsky comes off as brilliant but arrogant, a man who was warned that he should stay away from the political sphere, but entered it anyway, going so far as to lecture Putin about government corruption in a nationally televised forum.
Yet the oligarch’s hands weren’t absolutely clean, and there was a lot of hanky-panky surrounding the sale of the state-owned oil company to him. It appears that if the Yeltsin government had peddled its monopolies at market prices, no one in Russia would have been able to afford them. So to keep key industries under Russian control, these entities were transferred at bargain-basement rates to an exclusive group of financiers. And while it seems that for a number of years Khodorkovsky was as corrupt as his fellow billionaires, sometime around 2000 he went into noncorruption mode, made Yukos’ finances transparent, and established the Open Russia Foundation, which supports academic institutions and other nonprofit organizations.
Khodorkovsky claims that the oligarch’s new outlook had as much to do with smart business — he felt a transparent company would attract more investment — as it did a true philosophical sea change.
No matter the reason, Putin soon began to see Khodorkovsky as a real threat, and in 2003 he was arrested, convicted of tax fraud, and sent to Siberia. Yukos was broken up and sold, more than 100 Yukos managers were arrested or fled into exile, and Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB spy, was allegedly poisoned by the Russian government after passing along information about how Putin dealt with his enemies inside Yukos. The government shuttered the Open Russia Foundation in 2006.
Needless to say, this is pretty potent stuff. And Khodorkovsky may not be as innocent as the film suggests. A recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights found that the Russian government had not given Yukos enough time to defend itself against charges of tax evasion, but that the breakup of the company was not politically motivated.
No matter who’s right here, however, the political machinations in Khodorkovsky are complex, frightening, and a reminder that Russia has a long way to go in creating a true civil society. Same as it ever was.
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And then there’s Hipsters, a candy-colored Russian rock ‘n’ roll musical (honest!), which is not only a total gas, but 40 or 50 years ago it would have gotten everyone involved with it sent to the gulag. Winner of several Nikas (the Russian Oscar), including for best picture, director Valery Todorovsky’s deliriously stylized film — think Vincente Minnelli making MGM musicals in Red Square — is set in 1955, and tells how Communist Youth member Mels (that stands for Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin) becomes obsessed with stilyagi, pompadoured hipsters who love American clothing, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll.
Featuring huge production numbers and what looks like a huge budget for a Russian film, Hipsters is a lavish, and loving, homage to American musicals. But in its own finger poppin’ way, it’s also a political commentary, entertainingly contrasting the colorfully dressed dissidents with the drab grayness of the post-Stalinist Soviet Union. It’s no surprise, then, that the hipsters are harassed in the street, arrested by the police, and always in danger of having their clandestine parties broken up by mobs of Young Communist youth. As one of Mels’ former compatriots puts it, “You’re worse than an enemy; you’re a traitor.”
But Hipsters was made in the new Russia, with its previously unheard-of cultural freedoms, so it’s not exactly a shock that the cool kids’ enemies are portrayed as lockstep drones. It’s not just that they’re ideologues; their worst sin is that they are so dreadfully boring.
It’s astonishing to see this message driven home in a Russian film, and even more amazing is the picture’s final production number, in which Mels and hipster girlfriend Polly stroll down the center of a large Russian boulevard, singing a tune that is an homage to youthful rebellion and nonconformity. Along the way, they’re joined by thousands of mohawked punks, hippies, emo kids, you name it, all singing the same anthem. It’s a peek into the post-Communist future, and a moving tribute to freedom.