Citizen K Movie Review

My review for On Tap magazine

Alex Gibney’s Citizen K documentary is the story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian oligarch now exiled in London after serving 10 years in a Siberian prison. Khodorkovsky’s own words drive this enthralling narrative about post-communist Russia. Gibney, whose previous work includes Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side and The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, is no stranger to tackling complexity and contradiction. The talking heads in this film are few – mostly people in the immediate Khodorkovsky business and legal circle, and longtime BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith and The Moscow Times founder Derk Sauer. That, perhaps, is one reason why the film’s efforts to explain Moscow politics at times come up against the (Berlin) Wall of Western analysis.

Citizen K begins in 1991, during Boris Yeltsin’s first term as president of the Russian Federation. The Union has come undone, and the economic order of the day is capitalism. Khodorkovsky, whose parents were both engineers, grew up poor – under communism, engineering was not one of the well-remunerated professions. Earning his first paycheck at 14, building a chemistry lab in his house, and with a self-professed love of “things that explode,” the young Khodorkovsky is ready to bank on the rise of capitalism. He starts Russia’s first commercial bank, his sole entrepreneurial “guide” in the form of a book called Commercial Banks of Capitalist Countries. So, how did he get the seed money for it? Enter vouchers. Fashioned after Western economic boost programs, these vouchers were “sold as golden tickets to escape the dead end of communism.” Add in some pop-propelled propaganda flair, including a song whose refrain goes, “Vou vou voucher: friend of privatization measures,” and these vouchers, worth $40, could be traded, exchanged for cash or used to buy shares in newly-privatized state enterprise. Khodorkovsky bought a lot of those vouchers from everyday folks, ones Derk Sauer rather derisively calls “naive,” who sold them for less than their worth. Sauer remarks little on the fact that the economic crisis at the time was fertile ground for this exploitation and speculation.

Khodorkovsky acquired dinosaur-age-equipped, mammoth-sized oil company YUKOS next, modernized it and became Russia’s richest man, in a pantheon of seven other oligarchs who combined owned more than 50 percent of Russia’s wealth. Citizen K makes the argument that these oligarchs were instrumental in putting Putin in charge, but they were unable to predict his ambitions would lead away from privatization and toward re-entrenchment of state ownership instead. And while the other oligarchs left Russia when it became apparent that they would be arrested on whatever charges were expedient, Khodorkovsky, defying the counsel of everyone around him, insisted on staying: “I don’t value life that much to exchange it for losing respect.”

Charged with tax evasion on hundreds of millions of dollars in Russian oil in his first trial, and with stealing the very same oil he didn’t pay taxes on (the absurdity will not escape you), Khodorkovsky is sent to prison. In 2013, coinciding with the Sochi Olympics, Putin pardoned and released him, after a 10 year sentence.

The strength of Citizen K lies in its portrait of a complicated man who lived (and ruled) through the Wild Wild West stage of Russia’s post-communist years. Whether “gangster capitalism,” as Gibney describes it, is still du jour is questionable, but there is little doubt about Khodorkovsky’s unique worldview as a “reformed” oligarch interested in ideals and willing to put his life (in prison, he went on two hunger strikes to advocate for others) behind his principles. Gibney tackles showing what “transition” looked like for all of the former communist countries with great aplomb and delivers a thoroughly engrossing history lesson.

Pay It Forward, DC: 15 Ways To Give Back Locally

My article for On Tap magazine

Pay It Forward, DC: 15 Ways To Give Back Locally

‘Tis the season for paying it forward, so we decided to put together a list of 15 ways to give back to the DC community year-round. Our handpicked list is chock-full of unique organizations eager to put new volunteers’ hands and minds to novel uses. Read on for a list of creative ways you can give more of yourself to those in need around the District.

Restore the Anacostia Watershed

Eco-minded folks can help restore wetlands, plant native plants, collect seeds and much more, all while learning about the watershed and its ecosystem.
www.anacostiaws.org/how-to-help/volunteer.html

Put Down Roots with Casey Trees

Channel your inner tree-hugger through a variety of opportunities, from tree planting and tree care to advocacy.
www.caseytrees.org

Get Your Hands Dirty with Columbia Heights Green

Put your green thumb to good use at Columbia Heights Green, one of many participating parks and gardens in the Community Harvest Program at Washington Parks & People.
www.columbiaheightsgreen.org

Show Compassion & Offer Advocacy through HIPS

Donate to and/or volunteer with HIPS (Harm Reduction Experts Improving Lives Since 1993), offering compassionate harm reduction services and advocacy to people who engage in sex work or drug use in the DC area.
www.hips.org

Expand Your Practice with Yoga Activist

Are you a yoga teacher who wants to take the practice outside of the confines of traditional studio spaces? Yoga Activist is the place to do it.
www.yogaactivist.org

Knit It Forward in the District

Do you stay calm and knit on? Join one of many knitting meetups held at DC Public Library locations and/or donate your handknitted items to a variety of charities.
www.dclibrary.org // www.lionbrand.com/blog/10-charities-for-knitters-and-crocheters

Feed the Hungry with So Others Might Eat

Help provide nourishing breakfasts for those in need. They use real eggs, too – none of that powder stuff.
www.some.org

Provide a Fitness Framework for Girls on the Run

Volunteer with the DC chapter of this national nonprofit dedicated to making a world where every girl is free to boldly pursue her dreams through running. Support students during a 10-week program to help them establish an appreciation for health and fitness.
www.gotrdc.org

Dress to Impress with Suited for Change

Help local women entering the job market dress to impress through a variety of volunteering and donating options, including leading a styling workshop.
www.suitedforchange.org

Support Senior Citizens at We Are Family

Help isolated senior citizens with groceries, cleaning, transportation or just a friendly visit. Make a new friend this season by joining We Are Family.
www.wearefamilydc.org

Save the Felines with Alley Cat Rescue

The trap-neuter-return program at Alley Cat can make life on the streets a little more bearable for our furry friends. Donate to the rescue or adopt one of their many cuddle bugs.
www.saveacat.org

Be a Classroom Volunteer at Carlos Rosario International

Volunteer in adult ESL, culinary, IT and health classes and programs at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School, and/or join as a mentor through the Impact Mentorship Program.
www.carlosrosario.org/get-involved/volunteers-2

Mentor Families with Northstar Tutoring

Tutor, mentor and help support members of low-income families in DC through Northstar Tutoring.
www.northstartutoring.org

Help the Homeless at Friendship Place

Help people in need transition out of homelessness at Friendship Place through a variety of volunteer roles, from mentoring to cleaning.
www.friendshipplace.org

Go Pro Bono with the D.C. Bar

If you’re a DC lawyer, you can give back by providing a variety of pro bono legal services.
www.dcbar.org/pro-bono/volunteer

Coach Soccer with DC Scores

Score a winning goal by helping coach and referee soccer games.
www.dcscores.org/volunteer

Homewreckers Book Review

My review of Aaron Glantz’ book Homewreckers: How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates, Crooked Banks, and Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes and Demolished the American Dream

Washington Independent Review of Books

December 5, 2019
This exploration of the housing crisis evokes anger but comes off as a sloppy polemic in places.

The cover of Aaron Glantz’s Homewreckers depicts Donald Trump holding wads of cash, Steve Mnuchin riding a wrecking ball, and Wilbur Ross pulling money out of a house. It is a rather apt summary of the book’s main argument, along with the somewhat-hyperbolic characterization of the destruction of the “American dream” the title hints at.

While many books have been written about the 2008 Great Recession, including The Big Short and The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown, few have explored who benefited from the bank bailouts and what happened to all of those foreclosed homes. Homewreckers tells that story — the story of what the author cleverly dubs “vulture capitalists” profiting off the very disaster they orchestrated.

But Glantz spends an unwarranted part of the book drawing detailed biographical sketches of people in Trump’s inner circle, including Mnuchin, Thomas Barrack Jr., Stephen Schwarzman, Sean Hannity, and Trump’s father, Fred Trump. While the investigative zeal with which he goes after these figureheads is keen and captivating, ultimately, it detracts — or, better put, distracts — from the strength of his argument.

Glantz points to the fact that U.S. homeownership rates began declining in 2012 to the present, reaching some of their lowest levels in history. He argues that this is at least partly due to buyers not being able to snatch up the foreclosed homes because banks were not interested in issuing post-meltdown mortgages, and the government preferred to sell to Wall Street:

“In March 2010, the U.S. Treasury estimated that 6 million home loans were at least 60 days delinquent but the federal government reported that only 230,801 Americans had renegotiated their loans with the help of the Making Homes Affordable program, the part of the bank bailout that was supposed to help homeowners stave off foreclosure.”

The most incisive condemnation of “business as usual” is the story of shadowy (and shady) banks hiding behind shell companies with sci-fi-esque names like ColFin AI-CA5 LLC that purchased foreclosed homes in bulk, only to flip them into rental properties with exorbitant rents and minimal maintenance costs. Between 2012 and 2014, for example, Schwarzman’s Blackstone Group spent $7.8 billion to buy 41,000 foreclosures and turn them into rentals.

The most bitter of ironies is that some of the owners who had lost their homes to foreclosure stayed on as tenants who now paid rent to these faceless, absentee landlords. But Homewreckers fails to convince the reader that rent-seeking alone is lucrative enough for these investors; Glantz hints at the creation of mutant mortgage-backed securities but offers no evidence to support it.

In other words, renting out 80,000 homes seems like small potatoes for these billionaire robber barons. Glantz doesn’t make a strong case for why we, the readers, should be outraged and not simply see this as sound capitalism (buying low and selling high is Investing 101).

He veers off track in exploring reverse mortgages, as well. These mortgages have been in place since before the meltdown. Are they predatory? Yes. But what they have to do with the 2008 debacle is not made explicit. Still, the story of Sandy Jolley, who lost her family home to a reverse mortgage and then sued the bank for constructive fraud and financial elder abuse is eloquently and poignantly narrated.

This is where Glantz’s journalistic prose shines, compelling and trenchant. Yet, he struggles to connect the story to his general argument. He details how Mnuchin’s OneWest Bank (which purchased failed IndyMac) foreclosed on thousands of reverse mortgages across Southern California, but again, there was nothing illegal about doing that even though no one will dispute the pernicious nature of reverse mortgages.

Glantz makes a stronger argument for the way in which a small cadre of billionaires took advantage of the government’s fire sale on lending banks that had crafted their own demise. He cogently traces the way in which American taxpayers ultimately footed the bill for the bank bailouts without reaping any of the benefits.

In that sense, Homewreckers is a captivating read, almost thriller-like in its way. But Glantz could have benefited from avoiding some of the rather petty and irrelevant asides, such as what fur coat Melania Trump wore and how “flipping wives went hand in hand with flipping houses.”mp wore and how “flipping wives went hand in hand with flipping houses.”