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This must-watch Alex Gibney documentary explains so much about Russia and Vladimir Putin

Published Mar 31st, 2024 10:06PM EDT
Vladimir Putin
Image: Getty Images

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Russia is not a normal country. That’s the obvious and inescapable conclusion one comes to after considering everything from the country’s rigged elections to its army of hackers and propagandists, its jailed political prisoners, its strongman president-for-life, and the bloody invasion that it launched in 2022 against a much smaller neighbor. Understanding how modern Russia got this way, to the point that it’s a marginalized pariah state on the world stage, is a little less straightforward — but Alex Gibney’s 2019 documentary Citizen K, which is streaming in the US on Prime Video, is a great place to start.

The documentary’s central figure is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once believed to be the wealthiest man in Russia — before, that is, he called out the Kremlin’s corruption to Vladimir Putin’s face and found himself summarily hailed off to jail. Gibney’s film goes into the backstory of that sequence of events and is built largely around riveting interviews with Khodorkovsky, a free man today who lives in exile and continues to vocally and eloquently criticize Putin’s government.

The Kremlin
The Kremlin’s Spasskaya tower and St. Basil’s cathedral. Image source: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

The thing I think that surprised me the most about Citizen K, coming to this documentary without much understanding of modern Russian history, is how it shows that Russia came close to actually being a normal country following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The oligarchs at the time, who didn’t trust that a pure democratic election would produce a president aligned with their interests, got behind a nobody candidate they thought they could control: A former KGB man named Vladimir Putin.

Citizen K is many things, one of which is the story of how the oligarchs’ choice came back to bite them. And far from being an impersonal, academic history of Russia since then, Gibney’s film is so captivating from start to finish because it hangs everything on the narrative of one man, Khodorkovsky, caught up in the madhouse of Putin’s greed and malfeasance.

Recent events obviously make this documentary more relevant than ever, thanks to everything from the war in Ukraine to Putin’s re-election and the death of Alexei Navalny. For anyone who has an interest in going behind the daily drip of news headlines to understand modern Russia, I can’t recommend Gibney’s film highly enough — along with a few other more recent similarly-themed journalistic releases that are likewise available to stream:

  • Navalny, filmmaker Daniel Roher’s 2022 documentary about the Russian politician who died recently under mysterious circumstances in an Arctic penal colony;
  • 20 Days in Mariupol, a harrowing 2023 documentary about the siege of Mariupol early on during the war in Ukraine (and which won the Oscar for best documentary earlier this year);
  • Next Year in Moscow, a podcast hosted by The Economist’s Arkady Ostrovsky, which includes some of the most incredible writing I’ve encountered in any media format ever, let alone a podcast.
Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.