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Despite Theft, Khodorkovsky Documentary Set To Premiere At Berlin Festival

  • Kristin Deasy

Filmmaker Cyril Tuschi says Mikhail Khodorkovsky has not been an easy subject to film.

Filmmaker Cyril Tuschi says Mikhail Khodorkovsky has not been an easy subject to film.

Someone apparently doesn't want the world to see former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, even if it's just on a movie screen.

A documentary film about Khodorkovsky's life, which included unseen footage of the former oil tycoon, was stolen on February 4 from the director's production offices in Berlin. The theft occurred just days before "Khodorkovsky's Odyssey" was scheduled to debut at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Director Cyril Tuschi tells RFE/RL he has "no idea" who was behind the theft, adding that he was shocked to find his office broken into and valuable equipment missing.

"There were five doors broken into and four computers taken from the editing room -- no, five computers -- and the final edit of the film was on one of those computers," Tuschi says.

Tuschi says he is scrambling to update an older version of the film he kept on back-up servers so the film's planned screening could go ahead on schedule on February 14.

Crossing The Kremlin

Police are investigating the incident, which is the second instance of criminal activity targeting the film's production.

Tuschi's laptop, containing an earlier version of the film, was stolen from him a few weeks ago.

Police say they have no leads in either case, but the thefts have fed conspiracy theories about possible Kremlin involvement.

Cyril Tuschi
Once Russia's richest man, Khodorkovsky was the CEO of the Yukos oil company, which he acquired during Russia's wave of mass privatizations in the 1990s.

He fell out of favor with Russian leader Vladimir Putin after publicly criticizing him and helping to finance opposition parties.

Khodorkovsky was arrested in October 2003 and sentenced to eight years in a Siberian prison camp for tax evasion. In December, he was sentenced to an additional six years in prison on other fraud charges that were widely criticized as frivolous.

Khodorkovsky's case has sparked heated debate within Russia, with supporters saying his case is politically motivated.

Many rights activists both inside Russia and abroad, meanwhile, say his plight is symbolic of the general decline in democratic norms.

All this makes the new documentary hot property.

'Shakespearean Drama'

The film, which is over an hour-and-a-half long, promises an in-depth look at Khodorkovsky's meteoric rise as one of Russia's top businessmen during the chaotic post-Soviet period and his spectacular fall under Putin.

A German filmmaker of Russian ancestry, Tuschi says he chose Khodorkovsky as a subject because he is a "contradiction," whose life resembled a "Shakespeare-style drama."

The documentary is said to contain the only on-camera interview given by the former oil tycoon in about seven years.

Tuschi describes Khodorkovsky as a very "focused guy" with a strong presence. "I was really impressed with his concentrated manner and his almost Buddhist, calm behavior, and very precise answers," he says.

"He really has a special aura. What really surprised me most was that in the cage, in prison, for such a long time, you have...this wise manner, I don't know."


Khodorkovsky was born in a two-bedroom apartment in Moscow in 1963. His ambitions were evident at an early age. He became the deputy head of his university's Komsomol, the Communist Youth League, and appeared poised for a career in the Soviet elite.

The ex-Yukos boss has become a hot-button issue in Russia.
He graduated from the Moscow Institute of Chemistry and Technology in 1986, just as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika reforms were getting under way.

Taking advantage of the new openness -- and his Komsomol contacts -- Khodorkovsky tried his hand at business. He opened a small cafe, then a trading company, and eventually founded one of the Soviet Union's first private banks, Menatep, in 1989.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Khodorkovsky was already part of Russia's emerging business elite and was well positioned to prosper in the new market economy. In 1993, he briefly served as deputy energy minister.

Khodorkovsky acquired the Yukos oil company in the controversial "loans-for-shares" auctions in 1995, when a cash-strapped Russian state sold off key assets at bargain-basement prices to politically connected oligarchs in uncompetitive tenders.

Tuschi says he is intrigued by Khodorkovsky's roots in both the Soviet Union's communist ethos and in Russia's free-wheeling capitalism of the 1990s.

"He is a child of two countries -- I mean, the socialist Russia and the capitalist Russia, that he has two hearts," Tuschi says. "This impressed me, also...that it's possible to be both. To be a hyper-communist and a hyper-capitalist.... He says, kind of, that it goes together."

Yukos Meets Its Match

Yukos initially came under criticism for failing to respect minority shareholders' rights and for benefiting from Khodorkovsky's close contacts in then-President Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin.

But by the end of the 1990s, as the Yeltsin era drew to a close, Khodorkovsky moved to transform the company into a good corporate citizen.

He modernized the company's oil-extraction technology, introduced Western accounting practices, and paid out handsome dividends -- as well as back taxes.

By the time of his arrest in October 2003, Khodorkovsky was Russia's richest man and Yukos its most successful company.

Critics say the Kremlin turned on Khodorkovsky after he publicly criticized Putin for not doing enough to combat corruption and when he began financing opposition political parties.

Some observers also say his plans for Yukos -- including a potential merger with another oil giant, Sibneft -- were an obstacle to the Kremlin's goal of reasserting control over the energy industry.

In The News

Even in prison, Khodorkovsky has remained in the headlines. His case was a hot topic of discussion during Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's recent appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

On January 26, just as the forum was getting under way, European newspapers published a commentary by Khodorkovsky in which he criticized Medvedev for failing to "fulfill his promise about [establishing] the rule of law" in Russia.

A collection of Khodorkovsky's prison writings was also recently released in Moscow.

And in recent weeks, several celebrities -- including the former prima ballerina and socialite Anastasia Volochkova -- who had signed a letter in 2005 denouncing the jailed former oligarch recanted, saying they were tricked into putting their names on the document.

Difficult To Gain Access

Despite his fame, Khodorkovsky remains a private and guarded person, Tuschi says. While forthcoming on anything "regarding facts and theories," he is less so on anything "regarding emotions."

"In a letter I asked him what his dreams are in prison, and he just...dodged this question," Tuschi says. "So this is the thing. I mean, maybe you have to be like that in prison, I don't know."

Tuschi spent five years trying to secure an interview with the jailed former oligarch. He says he was beginning to think of him as "a phantom" after numerous letters to Siberia went unanswered.

The project, he says, was viewed with suspicion from all sides. "The strange part, or the interesting or the funny part, is that of course the Kremlin thinks Khodorkovsky pays me," Tuschi says. "And Khodorkovsky people also thought, at one time that the Kremlin is paying me."

Tuschi says he financed the film with his own money and with a grant from the German government. It includes interviews with Khodorkovsky's friends, relatives, and former business partners. He says he also used archive footage, 3-D, and animation.

When he was finally allowed to interview Khodorkovsky, Tuschi and his film crew were given just 10 minutes -- with an armed guard standing over the filmmaker the entire time.

"Ten minutes, with every minute a guy with a machine pistol tapping on my shoulder. Like a countdown thing," he says. "So it was also really special to film in this situation."

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