The play, which had its world premiere earlier this year at a theater in the U.S. capital, was dark and lurid: It told a story of how the Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky hustled for business before the Soviet collapse, ruthlessly climbed to fabulous wealth in the following decade, and ended up imprisoned for 10 years after clashing with President Vladimir Putin.
Written by Kenneth Lin and directed by Jacquelyn Gay, Kleptocracy dramatized the adult life of Khodorkovsky, who assembled a massively profitable oil company, Yukos, and then saw it dismantled and absorbed by a state energy giant as he was prosecuted on charges he dismissed as politically motivated Kremlin revenge.
The play, The Washington Post said in its January 2019 review, was "stark but emotionally colorless."
A perhaps harsher review came in a lawsuit filed by Khodorkovsky's wife, Inna Khodorkovskaya: It was a "highly inaccurate and [offensive] play that sacrifices the truth to support the Kremlin's agenda" and "an integral part of the efforts of the Russian government to malign Mr. Khodorkovsky," the suit filed in U.S. federal court in Washington, D.C., said.
Khodorkovskaya has sued Lin and Gay for libel, contending that the production depicts her as a "prostitute and a murderer."
"This action is brought to restore Ms. Khodorkovskaya's good name and expose the false and malicious campaign being conducted by the Russian government and the Defendants," said the complaint. It was filed in March, less than a month after the play ended its run at Arena Stage.
A lawyer for Lin and Gay, Barbara Wahl, declined to comment on the action. Gay did not respond to multiple voice mails. Lin, whose previous credits include writing for the U.S. political thriller House Of Cards and who has described the work as "a fictional play based on historic events," also declined comment, through his lawyer.
In a motion asking a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, Wahl denied that the play depicted Khodorkovskaya as a prostitute and a murderer, and asserted that Khodorkovsky himself was trying to use the lawsuit as a way to publicize his opposition to Putin.
"The Complaint seems to be a further effort by Mr. Khodorkovsky to make a public statement about the evil of President Putin and Mr. Khodorkovsky's brutal and unfair treatment using a new weapon -- the depiction of his wife in a theatrical production," she wrote.
"Moreover, as the Play is a work of fiction, which is clearly shown by not only its tagline but also by the context and content of the work itself, the First Amendment allows breathing room for the dramatization of the events and characters depicted," she wrote.
No date has been set by the judge for a ruling or additional hearings.
Khodorkovsky is a controversial figure in post-Soviet Russian history, one whose fate has both shaped and been shaped by Putin’s long years in power.
A former member of the Komsomol, the Communist Party youth organization, Khodorkovsky started out importing personal computers to the Soviet Union before moving into banking, and then buying up underperforming oil companies around the country, allegedly under questionable circumstances.
Yukos became one of Russia’s largest oil companies in the late 1990s, and Khodorkovsky eventually became the country’s richest man. In the early 2000s, however, he clashed with Putin, who -- still in his first term -- had started to rein in the so-called oligarchs who made their fortunes amid the ashes of the Soviet economy.
In 2003, he was arrested on the tarmac of a Siberian airport, and was convicted of fraud, tax evasion, and other financial crimes in two trials while dismissing all charges as politically motivated. He served 10 years in prison before being pardoned by Putin, released, and flown out of Russia in December 2013.
Yukos was driven into bankruptcy and its most profitable assets taken over by Rosneft, the state oil company run by a close ally of Putin.
Khodorkovsky now lives in Europe. His nongovernmental organization Open Russia Foundation funds an online media outlet as well as opposition groups; Putin’s government has declared it a “foreign agent” and prosecuted some of its employees within Russia.
Among the allegations that have dogged Khodorkovsky during and after his rise to prominence were the circumstances surrounding the 1988 murder of the mayor of Nefteyugansk, a Siberian city where some of Yukos's biggest pumping facilities were located.
In 2015, the federal Investigative Committee -- the Russian equivalent of the FBI -- filed charges against Khodorkovsky, accusing him of ordering the murder of the mayor, Vladimir Petukhov, and another official.
Russian prosecutors have alleged two other Yukos employees were involved in the killings: Leonid Nevzlin and Aleksei Pichugin. Pichugin, who is serving life in prison, has been labeled a political prisoner by Western rights groups. Nevzlin, who lives in Israel, was tried in absentia by a Russian court and convicted in 2008. Israel has refused Russia’s request to extradite him.
In recent years, Khodorkovsky has become more outspoken in his opposition to Putin. Days before the new criminal charges were filed against him, Khodorkovsky suggested that Russia might need a revolution.
In the second act of the play performed at Arena Stage, a venerable smaller theater in Washington, the Petukhov's killing is prominent, though Khodorkovsky is not directly depicted as being behind the slaying. At one point in the play, the ghost of Petukhov is shown walking into Khodorkovsky’s prison cell, covered in blood, and reminding Khodorkovsky of the killing.
“Khodorkovsky is portrayed as being covered with Mr. Petukhov’s blood and as exorcising his purported guilt with a Pontius Pilate-like washing of his hands,” the lawsuit stated.
It was not immediately clear why Khodorkovsky himself wasn't named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit. However, the court complaint specifically states that Khodorkovskaya "is a private citizen who has not sought public office or publicity. She is not a 'public figure'" -- suggesting that lawyers might consider it more difficult to prove libel for a public figure like her husband.
Maria Logan, a spokeswoman for Open Russia, declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation. She said Inna, who is Khodorkovsky's second wife, also would not comment.
Allen Foster, a prominent Washington lawyer who is representing Khodorkovskaya, said that the argument that the play was a work of fiction and therefore didn’t constitute libel under U.S. law was nonsense.
That argument "is successful so long as you’re not identifying the person," he told RFE/RL, suggesting that is far less convincing "when you call them by their actual names in the play."
While many Russian and Western journalists have documented Khodorkovsky's career, and the history of his clash with Putin, there are few, if any, known fictionalized accounts.
In an interview with the online publication TheaterMania published on January 18, 2019, Lin said that in 2014, when he was writing for House Of Cards, he was "approached" by a Broadway producer named Robert Ahrens to write the play.
He did not say whether Ahrens commissioned or financed the writing of the play, and gave no further details.
Ahrens, whose company includes several theatrical musical productions among its credits, did not immediately respond to an e-mail or to a message left with his assistant.
Lin also described the play as a “personal story about a man who chose to dissent and remain in prison instead of fleeing with his billions. By all accounts, Khodorkovsky was no saint. He was known as one of the most ruthless oligarchs in Russia, and some have even accused him of murder.”
Kleptocracy closed its performances at Arena Stage in February.