Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

'VLAST (POWER)' Screening Probes Russian Political System

April 19, 2011

Last month, students and faculty gathered at the Stephen Robert '62 Campus Center for a special screening of director Cathryn Collins's debut 2010 film, VLAST (POWER), a documentary on the arrest and trial of Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky. The screening was followed by a panel discussion featuring director Cathryn Collins, Watson Institute Director Michael Kennedy, and Robert Legvold, political science professor emeritus at Columbia University and member of Watson's board of overseers.

Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky, formerly the wealthiest man in Russia, was arrested at gunpoint on a snowy Siberian runway on October 25, 2003. After challenging the absolute power of Vladimir Putin in the name of an open society, his oil company, YUKOS, was seized, followed by a trial that caused international outrage. He remains defiantly imprisoned following a recent conviction on embezzlement and money laundering charges in a second trial alleging that he stole a larger sum from YUKOS than its annual gross receipts. In December 2010, Khodorkovsky was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Collins's VLAST "helps us understand not only the life imprisonment of a single man, but the character of a system that imprisons him and the role of film and art in helping us recognize the world as it is—and perhaps even the world as it could be," Kennedy said.

In interviewing individuals involved with Khodorkovsky prior to and during his incarceration, Collins gets at the very basis of "how power is reproduced [and] how power can change," according to Kennedy. The film is marked by a "simultaneous presence and absence of fear," Kennedy added, and serves as a powerful exploration of "the way in which loyalty, dedication, and friendship shape things in ways that transcend ideology and time."

For Collins, one of the most poignant aspects of the documentary has been the involvement of people who have asked to be treated as anonymous in the film's production. Collins shared the story of the cinematographer who shot beautiful footage of Moscow at night: a senior cameraman for the Russian channel ORT1. "He was so overwhelmed by what he was hearing [at interviews], he said he didn't feel he could continue with the project because he would lose his job," Collins said. After attending the documentary's first screening in Moscow, the cameraman was "overwhelmed by the reaction to the film" and asked for his name to be added to the film credits. "He was so proud to have been a part of it? to see the transformation in this guy was something incredible," Collins said.

According to Legvold, key points within the film probe at larger questions of "the Putin regime and the tandem partnership" between President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin. Legvold highlighted that in focusing on Khodorkovsky's personal goals and characteristics, the film does not touch upon his political involvement in 2002, including alleged buying of seats in the Duma. "Had Khodorkovsky never started his political actions in 2002, [his incarceration] probably would not have happened," Legvold said.

In the past year or so, Khodorkovsky's persistence in asserting his innocence has begun to "resonate with the public," Legvold said. There has been a clear shift away from his public characterization as a gangster, according to Legvold. "What Khodorkovsky has become for himself and the country?is very different from where it all started," Legvold said.

The screening was cosponsored by the Office of Student Activities and Division of Campus Life, the Watson Institute, the Curricular Resource Center, and the Stephen Robert Film Series at the Campus Center.