Over a decade ago a Russian businessman was convicted and sentenced to prison in Russia for corrupt business practices. The case made international headlines with almost all knowledgeable and fair observers acknowledging that most of the charges against the man were both undeniably political and undeniably true.
The Russian businessman was Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky and despite his past as one of Russia’s corrupt oligarchs who helped plunge Russia into chaos in the 90s, he became a cause célèbre among both the so-called Moscow liberals and their neoconservative and neoliberal allies in the West. Khodorkovsky became a symbol for repression in Putin’s Russia in the US and Europe even though few inside or outside of Russia doubted he was guilty of corruption.
The hagiography of Khodorkovsky in the Western establishment media reached embarrassing levels with some claiming Khodorkovsky had transformed into a “freedom fighter,” and that he was “putting his life on the line for ideals we claim to hold dear.” Favorable portraits and even a full length documentary were published offering up the convict as the new hope for Russia.
But is Mikhail Khodorkovsky really the hope for a new Russia? It’s a particularly hard idea to accept if you read a recent piece in The New Yorker by Julia Ioffe. The piece, titled “Remote Control:
Can an exiled oligarch persuade Russia that Putin must go?” makes it abundantly clear that Khodorkovsky makes a bad standard to rally around.
Ioffe details what many already know of Khodorkovsky, that in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union he used his cunning and ruthlessness to exploit the chaos of a tragic (Western-pushed) crash privatization program to become a very rich man. Khodorkovsky, his fellow oligarchs, and their Western banking counterparts robbed Russia blind and found innovative ways to hide their ill-gotten gains throughout the labyrinthine off-shore and out of sight banking system.
When it became clear that the corruption and thievery were at long last threatening Khodorkovsky’s own bottom line he pivoted in hopes of building a political movement to rein in if not neutralize the Putin government and rival oligarchs. After undermining the rule of law and property rights to get rich Khodorkovsky wanted to institute those concepts to maintain and protect his plundered wealth. Unfortunately for him, he badly miscalculated the strength of his relative position and soon found himself on the way to jail. Not a particularly sad story really and certainly not grounds for national leadership.
But maybe Khodorkovsky has been reformed in prison? Is he a new man? From the New Yorker piece:
Khodorkovsky offered opinions on a number of issues that evening. He thought Obama was too much of a lawyer. He told a couple of salty stories from tyuryaga, “the clink.” He recalled with fondness an old acquaintance, the unfortunate Kenneth Lay, the late C.E.O. of Enron, who was, in Khodorkovsky’s estimation, a thumbs-up kind of guy. The whistle-blowers in that case outraged him: why did people glorify cowardly spies and traitors, and put them on magazine covers?
Sad trombone. So no, not that reformed though he is openly advocating the violent overthrow of the Putin government which I imagine is not going unnoticed in Moscow.
I asked Khodorkovsky if he was hatching a coup. The Russian people, he said, “are not ready for a coup.” He sounded both resigned and disappointed. He would try to help keep things from getting worse in Russia, but that was not the way to improve the lot of Russian liberals. “The only way to improve things is through violent methods,” he explained, smiling, as if he had reached the satisfying end of a mathematical proof. “You—we all—are not ready for these methods. So then let’s agree that we’re going to use the methods we can use in order not to worsen our situation.”
Khodorkovsky admits his supporters are a “minority within a minority” but says (obviously referencing the Bolsheviks in part) that small committed groups can take power in Russia. Quite a program, the ideals we hold dear, eh?
Is this the best the Putin opposition can do?
Photo by NickK under Creative Commons license.