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.
THE REACTION IN RUSSIA
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.
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 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’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.