Alternative Voices on Khodorkovsky


The release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky is one of those events in Russia that it is hard to ignore. Ten years is a significant period and just as there was much discussion at the time of his arrest and trial (and then second trial), his release has taken many people unawares. It feels like an epoch-making moment for Russia as did his arrest in its own way. I was working very briefly at the Moscow Times as proof reader for one of its occasional listing supplements around the time when Khodorkovsky’s arrest was becoming inevitable. I was more interested in following people at the news desk and hearing the latest agency reports than the listings. It sounded exciting to be there at the middle of such a story. Then again I realized that the world view of many journalists changed from one report to the next: it seemed to me then that, apart from the odd general view that they had, their conclusions about Russia’s political system hung on the latest news agency report. I stopped considering that journalists ever had much more of an idea of current events than any mildly-interested and informed outsider (in fact in most cases they had less of an idea). There are, of course, noble exceptions.

The Foreign Correspondent and why they are rarely much good.

I think that journalists such as Julia Ioffe are worth even if they might not get everything correct simply because their articles rarely fit easily into a simple narrative, unlike say many journalists from the British Guardian. One wonders what, someone looking back in a decade or twos time will make of their articles. They will probably be held up to opprobrium as much as we hold up foreign correspondents in Stalinist Russia to opprobrium for missing the essential truth of what was really going on. The Guardian occasionally (let’s say once or twice a year) offers the excellent Jonathan Steele a word in edgeways, but that is about it. The eXile used to have some fine, caustic pieces on foreign correspondents in Russia as well as some fine parodies of the kind of rot they would write. Anyway, maybe things have got marginally better but my guess is that you’re nor going to get much on Khodorkovsky of that much insight in most of the dailies or many of the weeklies.


What’s more interesting, though, are some of the discussions in Russia. To tell the truth a whole swathe of Russian liberals are in ebullient mood, and let’s be honest, at least Khodorkovsky was the only former oligarch to serve time. The others such as Berezovsky and Gusinsky either chose escape from Russia or knuckled down keeping their cash but losing their explicit political influence. Nonetheless, not all share the opinion that Khodorkovsky is some Nelson Mandela-like hero.

Opinions are not nearly as uniform as one is likely to believe even amongst opposition figures. Here are some of the voices who have struck a discordant note in some way.


Vladimir Pozner

The journalist and broadcaster, Vladimir Pozner – occasionally a darling of liberal Russia for speaking out and occasionally damned as someone who doesn’t also fit the role of inflamed liberal oppositionist – was caught saying, at a meeting to promote his own book, that Khodorkovsky was no hero. He had served time because he thought that he could ignore an agreement with Putin that he had made twice. Moreover, Pozner also stated that Khodorkovsky had never really fought for anything apart from money and that he had given money to all parties of the opposition from Communists to Liberals. The interview in Russian can be heard here:

This had many liberals fuming. Pozner was accused of having said mean, detestable, base, despicable things according to the most outraged. Andrei Illarionov, once a Putin adviser who later became one of the liberal (neo-liberal) critics, wrote an outraged denial of all the points made by Pozner. Illarionov even went to compare Khodorkovsky favourably with Mandela who, according to this unreconstructed Thatcherite, had been involved in terrorist activities. It’s always worth knowing that certain Russian Liberals will use arguments long since abandoned by the Tory or Republican Right.

It was left to a couple of other writers to either provide some reminder of the pre-jail Khodorkovsky or to rise above the pros and cons of the man himself and try to work out what kind of historical realities were behind this move.


Alexei Tsvetkov

Alexei Tsvetkov whose fine article on Evald Ilyenkov I translated some months ago for this blog, spoke of the time that he was called to meet Mikhail Khodorkovsky at his Open Society offices in the Moscow Region. Prepared for the meeting by the economist Yasin who gave a pep talk informing participants how important modernisation was and how valuable Khodorkovsky’s time was, Khodorkovsky then arrived. Tsvetkov then mentioned how Khodorkovsky told them about his own success story and a story about how when oil prices were falling he could not pay his oil workers in Siberia. “these same workers who, instead of understanding the economic situation, started to leave their work and smash the regional offices of his company. How, thank God, OMON (the riot police) quickly came and forced these people down with their faces in the snow and how, afterwards, Khodorkovsky arrives and these witless plebs crawled to him on their knees pleading with him not to send them to jail and save their work etc.” Khodorkovsky also reminded his audience how, with his money, he secured Yeltsin’s second term and saved the country from a Communist revanche. It was clear to Tsvetkov that Khodorkovsky wished to play the role of someone who was secure that he would choose the next leader and had an ideology of ‘anthropological superiority’.

Tsvetkov concludes “from jail Kh. wrote rose-coloured letters of the inevitable ‘left turn’ in Russian politics. I never had any empathy for him. I always liked the fact that it was he who was in jail and not I, although it could have easily have been the other way round”

If Tsvetkov’s view of Khodorkovsky was influenced by the way that Khodorkovsky thought of and treated his workers (and I remember at the time a Moscow Times article by one of the more conscientious journalists who went to the town where Khodorkovsky’s company worked- few had much sympathy for his plight and none received decent wages in spite of the immense profits that Khodorkovsky had made), another writer of note has taken on another angle.


Maxim Kantor

Maxim Kantor’s argument involved an attempt to look at things from a much higher political and international level. And so far Kantor is the only Russian to attempt such a complex dispassionate look at events. For Kantor the fact that Khodrokovsky met Hans-Dietrich Genscher at Berlin airport suggested that this release happened at a very high international level. For Kantor, Genscher is one of the greatest European stratgists- possibly equal to Kissinger- and maybe even someone of greater skill. Genscher always knew how to find a way of asserting Germany’s interests against (or, in spite of) the opposing interests of the US and Russia. For Kantor the Khodorkovsky intrigue will become obvious when Khodorkovsky will decide whether to remain in Germany or leave for the United States. In short, this will explain which international card is he playing: a financial one or a political one (the US meaning that there is a financial intrigue behind this and Germany suggesting a more political one).

In terms of the European political intrigue, Kantor, believes that Europe is interested in a figure who will play for Europe- simultaneously against both modern US and against Russia. A pro-Western Russian who will save Europe in Russia and defeat Russian in the world. This is the role that Europe (in the face of Genscher, envisages for Khodorkovsky)- to play for Europe, against the hegemony of Russia in Eurasia and against the hegemony of the US in the world. What did Russia get out of this? Ukraine seems to be the answer.

About afoniya

I am a translator, language teacher, independent film scholar who is interested in many aspects of culture. I have my own blog on Russian and Soviet cinema at and I have also written for journals such as Film Philosophy and Bright Lights as well as Ribbed magazine. Outside of film my interest runs to language, politics, literature and my world is centred around the Meditteranean, Russia, Southern Ukraine as well as the UK.

14 responses »

  1. Thank you very much for this entry. I ran across your blog as someone posted a link to it on The Guardian.

    I’m adding nothing new to the discussion, but will quote what I said over there:

    “Thank you very much for this. I’ve been following the Oligarchs since the late 1990s and for those of us that have been doing so carefully, it’s no surprise to read how Khodorkovsky is tied to George Soros through the Open Society Institute, and how Khodorkovsky had his workers beaten by police for daring to demonstrate because they weren’t being paid.

    My curiosity has been piqued by the role of Genscher in all this as he is a man that I admire for very biased reasons. The author suggests that a trade-off has occurred between Khodorkovsky and Ukraine with the role of the former yet to be seen i.e. to become a German (EU) agent or an American one.”


    “And I forgot to mention one more thing: the usual anti-Putin commentariat here will be shocked to learn that Khodorkovsky funded Zyuganov’s Communists, a party which seeks to re-criminalize homosexuality in Russia.”

    • Thanks for the comments – in many ways there is a lot that is unclear. It does seem that Genscher played a major role in Khodorkovsky’s release. I don’t think the release is a bad thing in itself – 10 years is a hefty prison sentence- and I don’t think the trial was an impartial one at all, though it is clear that he broke the law, paid no taxes in the 1990s and was ruthless with business rivals etc.Which, of course, makes him little different from the other oligarchs.
      It’s just that the liberal representation of him as being some kind of great moral figure is so far beyond the truth. That’s why Tsvetkov’s post was important. In showing the previous role of Khodorkovsky that many want to hide.

      Kantor also has a very positive view of Genscher – he knows him personally. For Kantor, Genscher represents not only a great European strategist (who wants an free and independent role for Europe- form the US as much as from Russia) but also someone who still represents the anti-fascist vision of Willi Brandt. Kantor. for me, is a very interesting writer and thinker. Russian liberals despise him but these were the same type of characters (and even at times the same characters) who during Soviet times were obedient servants of Brezhnev.etc and denounced Kantor then. Kantor makes some splendid and very original arguments regularly on his facebook page. many of them have ended up in a book just out. I’d say that Kantor is one of the writers who most needs to be translated (he is a very important artist too). His most recent novel ‘Red Light’ is a historical and philosophical novel – a look over the twentieth century- a very fine reading of contemporary history. To my mind he remains Russia greatest contemporary intellectual but there are many envious authors and artists who would demur and would speak of Kantor in bitterly disparaging terms. It is not as though I’d agree with everything he writes but there are things that he wrote with which previously I strongly disagreed but in retrospect I’d say that he had a much more accurate view than other commentators who I agreed with.

      • Thanks for the reply Afoniya. Kantor is unknown to me (and to most Westerners, I imagine) so I’ll start digging into anything of his that is available as I’m always willing to learn more about Russia, a country that continues to puzzle non-Westerners to this day, although us Slavs outside of the old USSR have better tools to understand the country, in my very biased opinion.

        That leads into me agreeing with you on Khodorkovsky. There was a political element to him being put on trial, that is without doubt. But what saved Putin at the ECHR for example was the simple fact that Khodorkovsky was a crook, and a big time one at that.

        I watched the press conference yesterday, and he came across as reciting some carefully-practiced words which to me suggest that he was coached into saying what he had to say to conform to whatever deal was struck.

        I don’t trust that he will not try and interfere with internal Russian affairs and that he will have a year or so in which he will ‘cool’, but this is simply my speculation.

        As for Genscher, I do agree with you in the assessment that he is trying to place the EU as a middle ground between the USA and Russia instead of being a lackey of the former and too influenced by the latter. Recall that it was Schroeder who teamed up with Putin in 2003 (along with Chirac) to reject the call to invade Iraq. This for me was the first attempt to get the EU out of America’s direct geopolitical control by playing it off against Russia.

  2. Pingback: Alternative Voices on Khodorkovsky | Research Material

  3. Good information. Khodorkovsky never fooled me, but that is only because I have been to Russia.

    The West is lost in misinformation or better yet propaganda generated to always keep Russia on a defensive. “We are the good guys and they are the bad guys.”, this must be repeated at all times to keep the subjects in a trans. I am not suggesting that Russia is free of this type of manipulation but rather that we in the West are not immune to being treated like people in “1984”.

  4. Unbelievable. Check Point Charlie. Why not Frankfurt am Main? Wink wink ..

    Choosing Germany as the first place to go really says it all. This is An Amazing Circus.

    • I’d love to know what the quid pro quo here is, especially in light of Genscher’s involvement.

      Afoniya has posted Kantor’s speculation, but I’m not exactly sure how Khodorkovsky would work as a proponent of the EU to keep Russia from being dominant in Eurasia and the USA from global dominance.

      • The sole thing that comes to my mind is that “they” are trying to maintain his image as being that of a fighter of the corrupt system in Russia. “Lets not say anything about his money and how he got it but lets just keep showing him glued to symbols that the sheep will equate with Freedom”, so the Check Point is a good place for a circus. A place to represent the doors to reach Freedom. Ha ha ha …

        I would have placed him at the Führerbunker or shipped him of to Guantanamo . 🙂

      • I’ll try to keep you up to date with Kantor’s view. Interestingly Khodorkovsky’s interview with the New Times has come out on youtube – its section on nationalism and Khodorkovsky’s on the Northern Caucasus is quite scary. He suggests that Russia should be prepared to go to war to stop Northern Caucasus states from seceding – because this was land won by the Russians and no one gives up their own land. He also says that Russia must go through the phase of becoming a national state. I’ve always found Russian liberals potentially more nationalist than Putin – it’s one of those paradoxes. (then again there are liberals and liberals- I’d say that there is a kind of socially-oriented liberal who are generally anti-nationalist. In this interview Khodorkovsky seems a positive warmonger:

      • Afoniya, this bit about the Caucasus is very interesting and I’d love to learn more on what exactly he said.

        Your statement about the paradox of Russian liberals is interesting, especially when one adds Navalny’s comments on Caucasians to the mix. Naturally these comments never made it into the western press.

  5. Pingback: Scattered thoughts (2) on Pussy Riot, anonymity & other political prisoners. | Afoniya's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s