Friday, June 17, 2011

Vlast (Power)

VLAST (Power)                      B                     
USA  (88 mi)  2010  d:  Cathryn Collins           Official site

This has always been a fascinating story of a behind-the-scenes secret service power to extinguish or detain individuals considered of interest to the absolute power of the State.  Earlier in this decade, two stories held the world’s attention, the 2003 arrest of billionaire oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who overstayed his welcome in Russia, and the 2006 London poisoning death of a former KGB agent,  Alexander Litvinenko, who was living in political asylum, having written two books accusing the KGB of using acts of terrorism to bring Vladimir Putin to power.  The question is whether this film could actually add anything to these already widely covered news stories.  Choosing to deal exclusively with the rise and fall of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, he was the head of the Russian oligarchy, a tiny group of new business entrepreneurs who exploited the disintegration of the Soviet Union to loot and/or earn mass quantities of wealth, hundreds of billions of dollars from the suddenly wide open oil markets in Russia, signing highly lucrative contracts with the government to acquire newly privatized industries, which consolidated power under the corporate name of Yukos.  Khodorkovsky, however, was not only interested in becoming a successful businessman, suddenly finding himself the richest man in Russia, but also a social reformer interested in democracy, transparency, and opening up the Russian markets, where just months before announcing a deal that would have opened Yukos, a formerly State-controlled oil industry, to investments by Western corporations, including U.S. corporations, he and his partners were arrested and jailed for trumped up charges of fraud and tax evasion, where he’s been confined behind bars now for nearly a decade.

What was a brief dream of democracy under the first elected Russian President Boris Yeltsin suddenly disappeared, replaced by former KGB agent Vladimir Putin as President, who returned Russia to the days of ruthless, totalitarian control run by a police state, once more under the command of the FSB, Federal Security Service, replacing in name only what was the KGB secret police.  Before becoming President, Putin was interestingly the Party head responsible for the foreign property of the State and organized the transfer of former assets from the Communist Party and the Soviet Union to the Russian Federation.  Most all Westerners believe Putin’s incarceration of Khodorkovsky is largely a case of political suppression, as he was viewed as a likely candidate to run against Putin, or at least back certain reform movements in the upcoming elections prior to his arrest, now he is not likely to ever see the light of day so long as Putin remains in power.  Before his initial sentence could expire, additional charges were brought against Khodorkovsky, namely embezzlement, suggesting every dime he earned was embezzled, where his initial 9-year sentence was increased to 14 years, and Khodorkovsky was later transferred to another prison in an undisclosed location to serve out the remainder of his sentence. 

While this is an examination of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, it’s also a disturbing portrait of what has happened to the fading hopes of a blindsided and obliterated democratic movement inside Russia.  The filmmaker chooses excellent speakers, including Russian expert economists from The Financial Times and The Economist who provide remarkably lucid commentary, also Khodorkovsky’s mother, who has seen and heard all about this side of Russia before, having lived through the Stalinist purges of the 30’s and the era of gulags, along with his U.S. educated son, now exiled from Russia and living in America.  What this film makes clear is the full extent of the current purge, as Russia seized the entire Yukos enterprise and sold it off publicly to the highest bidder, though only one person apparently met the criteria, and that was a former friend of Putin’s from the KGB, who consolidated the business with another Putin ally, so now Putin has control over the entire Russian oil industry, just as if it was nationalized, but under the ownership of his friends and allies who have done exactly as the oligarchs, but remain under government protection.  Meanwhile Putin has arrested over 200 former employees of Yukos, sent them all to jail, along with the lawyers and law firms that in any way represented the company, dissolving those businesses as well.  Along with the arrests, there have been multiple home searches, oftentimes several, where one imprisoned company executive indicated this is how they do it in Russia nowadays, that formerly they used firing squads.

A lawyer indicated there is less justice today in Russia under Putin than there was in the former Soviet Union thirty or forty years ago.  This portrait of a fraud democracy, where all democratic parties disappear and only one party appears on the ballet, where Putin and his minions run unopposed, where the secret police continues to play havoc with its own citizens, ruling with an imperial iron fist, controlling the state authorized news, just like in the days of Stalin.  After the fall of the Berlin wall and the rise of democratic movements, including a series of judicial reforms, no one would believe they could go backwards in time so thoroughly where they are back to an autocratic rule.  One of the most impressive voices in the film is a historic archivist, Arseny Roginsky, who served four years in a gulag during the 1980’s for attempting to write a truthful account of history.  After Khodorkovsky was slammed by the Russian press for being an enemy of the state, pictured as a traitor willing to sell off Russian assets to the United States, their historic arch rival and enemy, Roginsky surmised Khodorkovsky, who could have fled at any moment prior to the arrest, chose to serve his punishment as a way of resurrecting his image, by standing up to the Kremlin, continuing to have faith in the democratic reforms that have all but been abolished in Russia during his incarceration.  While incarcerated, he has remained defiant, denunciating what has happened as a series of outright lies and secret service cover ups, where there is no evidence of any crime committed, yet all the courts now bow down to Putin, creating a Shakespearean Richard III style power grab. 

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