How to slay a dragon — and avoid creating a new one Mikhail Khodorkovsky on his new book, Russia without Putin, lustration, and building a new civil consensus

November 10, 2022

Since the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine, not only Ukraine’s, but also Russia’s own survival has become a topic of heated discussion. Will Vladimir Putin manage to stay in power? Will Russia itself continue to exist in its present form? These are just two of the many currently open questions that Mikhail Khodorkovsky urges Russians to debate — in order to develop a new social consensus in advance of the inevitable regime change. Khodorkovsky’s new book, “How Do You Slay a Dragon: A Manual for Start-Up Revolutionaries,” is an attempt to jump-start that public debate, and to propose some solutions for reorganizing the Russian state in such a way that would prevent future abuses of power. The book’s central argument is that a parliamentary republic, with a carefully calibrated system of checks and balances, must replace the current model of Russian statehood, in which the president is vested with an extraordinary range of powers — and way too many opportunities to make unilateral decisions. This article is based on Khodorkovsky’s extended interview with Margarita Lyutova. Our free translation condenses his key remarks on what would be a good outcome for Russia from the viewpoint of a cautious optimist.

Regime change and a new vision

Today’s Russian society doesn’t show much demand for a visionary approach to the future. True, this demand is present among the opposition. It’s also cultivated among the political elites. Still, the greater part of Russian society are now in a kind of hysterical state, in which people cannot process long texts, or follow a complex argument.

The West, by comparison, shows a much stronger demand for vision with regard to Russia — both among the immigrants and their Western allies, partners, and so forth. This actually matters because, by a twist of fate, those people have a significant say — not a decisive say, but still significant — in the question of which way should we steer our country, given that its military defeat will probably lead to regime change.

The current sanctions preclude technological development in Russia. Any government after Putin will have to deal with this problem, and it would make sense to begin discussing how to solve it ahead of that time. Western society doesn’t reach consensus instantly — it needs time to come to terms with any proposals, especially since people in the West aren’t all that clear about what’s happening in Russia. What we need to do is offer them something that they could think about, for a while.

Given the way the situation is developing — and it’s going towards Russia’s military defeat, certainly not victory — Putin will have to step down in 2024. I should emphasize that this is my considered optimistic forecast, not a conviction or anything as strong as that. All the same, in the event of defeat, by 2024, Putin will become a liability to his colleagues. If he can approach the situation rationally (though I doubt that he can), it would be safer for him to leave.

In that situation, the regime itself would go on existing without Putin, and Putin would preserve the possibility of forming a new cabinet, which would be certain to continue the present regime’s policies. My moderately optimistic forecast is that this interim cabinet might hold up for a couple of years — until around 2026. After that, we can really start talking about regime change.

One of the key questions I constantly grapple with is the question of state governance. With regard to Russia, the West, especially the United States, likes to promote the idea of “a good Czar.” I think this is completely wrong-headed, but this idea is even harder to get rid of in the West than it is in Russia. I’m not talking about top experts — only about people to whom Russia is just one of many questions they have to address. For them, it’s much easier simply to have “their guy” in Russian presidency. They prefer this model to figuring out a complicated political system that stems from the parliamentary model.

This is why they don’t want to give up the simple, traditional model of Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Yeltsin. Some of those figures got along with the West, some of them didn’t — but presently, I think, we’ve come to a place where “not getting along” can end very badly for the whole civilization. We see it with Putin and with his repeated nuclear threats to the rest of the world.

Will Russia fall apart?

A significant part of Western society and its politicians think that it wouldn’t be a bad thing if Russia simply ceased to exist. They wouldn’t mind if it fell apart — be it five, six, or twenty small states that came of it. Talking to such people is hard, because we have completely different objectives. All the thinking in my new book is concerned with preserving Russia as an entity. Maybe within revised borders. Sure, some ethnic groups might decide that they don’t wish to participate in establishing a new Russia. But, on the whole, we’re talking about preserving the country as such.

If someone thinks this a pernicious goal, it’s hard for me to dialogue with them. I do try to persuade them: Yes, I say, Russia might be a problem for them today — but a disintegrated Russia would be much more of a problem, while the Russia which I am proposing will solve many problems confronting the West, and human civilization broadly speaking.

Regrettably, Russia’s disintegration is still a realistic scenario. By now, Putin has convinced many regions — not the majority, but many — that the federal government is a liability for them. With its weakening — which is certain to arise from military defeat, or in the course of regime change — people in the regions can make a rash decision to dismantle the country.

When the USSR fell apart, we all thought that it disintegrated peacefully — but, over the next 30 years, all of its borders grew hot. Russia’s disintegration would create a vast quantity of new state borders. I don’t know how anyone could be certain that those borders would not become hot within the next one or two decades. And nuclear weapons are not going anywhere — they may instead end up on both sides of new borders.

I very much hope that the regions and their elites have enough smart people to understand that this isn’t a good idea.

Lustration in Russia

During the war, the barricade has only two sides. You cannot stand up in the middle and say “I’m awesome — I see that you’re both right!” For now, it’s all clear-cut; you’re either on one side, or on the other.

But this shouldn’t stop us from talking to the other side, from inviting them to look at things differently, and to figure out what we’re all going to do tomorrow — when we run out of ammunition, figuratively speaking, or else, when we realize that we’re all out of food. In today’s world, you have to negotiate with the same people you opposed before.

Yes, some of them will have committed serious crimes, and will land in prison. But you have to ask yourself: How many people can I send to prison before I myself become “the dragon”?

People in law enforcement are much less likely to under-think the question of violence than people in other segments of Russian society. In my view, they think about this question in much starker terms than the rest of us do. In their heads, the things that we don’t dare speak of are framed in far starker forms than the way we normally think about violence.

I think it very important to tell the law enforcement: you will have a chance to take the side of opposition, or at least to stay out of its way. Even if you do get in the way, we will first consider simply arresting you. But if you oppose it violently, don’t imagine that the democratic liberal government would be somehow soft and spineless. Liberalism is not spinelessness but personal responsibility — your personal responsibility for your own actions. This would be an honest message — and it would also help dispel the law enforcement’s mistaken, I think, wariness of regime change.

I have no desire to depart from a liberal position on personal responsibility to say that a person marked “FSB” or “Federal Guard” must automatically be an enemy. He might be an enemy today and an ally tomorrow. He might even be an ally today.

A human being is too valuable for our not all that numerous people to write off 100,000 — not by killing them, but by writing them off socially and politically. We cannot dismiss the 10, 20, or 30 thousand in their midst who happen to be our allies. We cannot just say that “when you cut the forest, wood chips fly.”

Russian opposition abroad

There are three basic ways of influencing a situation.

First: you are a manager. You have a scope of responsibilities, and you do what you think is right — or else, whatever it is that you can do. The Russian opposition doesn’t have this option.

Second: you take part in active struggle for power. What does this mean? Presently, this probably means armed struggle, fierce armed struggle over state power, and it can only be very brief. It cannot go on for years — we’re talking about weeks, or months at most, possibly even days. Opposition can only deal this kind of blow when the situation is ripe — because losing this fight leads to years of negative consequences, just like those we see now in Belarus. Russia clearly isn’t ready for this.

Finally, the third option. You consolidate your following, persuade your opponents, expand the sphere of people ready to support your views — or at least, to abstain from opposing you. This is just what the opposition is doing, because there are no other options.

Russian opposition is not all that divided: we simply have several of them. We have a national-patriotic opposition, a democratic opposition, and a few other kinds. If we take democratic opposition, once again, it’s not all that deeply divided. There’s the Navalny camp, with a clearcut position of not joining any coalitions. They think that you either join them, or you don’t. It’s all very clear — but we still invite them to participate in joint events.

But even Navalny himself, in his latest article, writes about the parliamentary republic. I was very glad that the gap that used to separate our views is no longer there.

The “good Russians”

Russian citizens are in a very tough situation. It’s different in different countries, and I’m mainly speaking of the West, which I understand and where I also have some influence. It’s, frankly, a very hard and unfair situation. I think that, in the liberal-humanistic framework, a person is a person, and the state is something derivative. You cannot make the doings of the state a person’s responsibility. The person is more fundamental.

This doesn’t affect me much personally: I’m a very well-known person and, obviously, I’m treated differently. But the less well-known people are met with suspicion. Public figures, high-profile people have an easier time. They can say, here’s what I’ve written, here’s my anti-war position, and so on. But what about an engineer, or a software developer? What are they going to present as their anti-war position? Their code? This raises the question of how to help those people, and it comes down to the art of the possible.

A “good Russian’s passport” is simply something you can present. Here’s a private person, he didn’t write about the war on the social networks — he is in Russia now, he doesn’t want to be arrested, he doesn’t even know how to write very well. So here it is: his signed declaration. These are his views. Treat him as a normal human being, not as a Russian citizen whom you mistakenly assume to be Putin’s supporter in an aggressive war.

The advantages of considering Russia from abroad

When debating with my compatriots, I often hear this argument: “You’ve been out of touch for so many years, you can’t possibly understand a thing.”

Good point — but how would you find out whether this is true? You could, if you looked at my past predictions. A person writes something, and then it is confirmed. Or else, he writes that something will happen, and it doesn’t. If you look back and what I’ve been writing, those predictions came true, more or less, more often that not.

I know very few such intellectuals among those who work on Russia and its problematics. It requires that you spend at least ten hours a day on Russian problems: reading, discussing, analyzing, and so on. If you cannot manage to do this, if you have other interests and can only spend an hour or ten minutes a day on Russia, then, of course, you’re going to fall out.

But there’s one serious advantage to being abroad. Putin’s propaganda is extremely effective. And when a person is enclosed within that bubble, apart from general intelligence, she or he needs a very particular kind of personality and mindset to maintain the capacity for independent thought. Not everyone can do this — far from everyone, I’d say.

This is why I dislike judging people who live in Russia and embrace some strange position, as it might seem to us here. When you find yourself in the same situation, take a good look at yourself. Turn on the Russian TV for one month, watch and read nothing else — and we’ll see what happens inside your head.

Being removed from this 3-D propaganda machine sometimes lets you see the situation even better than it can be seen from the inside. Granted that you spend at least ten hours a day on staying informed and reflecting on the Russian situation. And I do spend those hours. This was a decision I had to make when I went abroad. There were two possible solutions. First: forget about Russia like some terrible dream, and get on with other things, lots of those being available to choose from. Or else, consider myself a guest outside of Russia, while living intellectually immersed into Russian problematics. I chose the second path — partly, because I left Russia at too mature an age. To pluck those 50 years out of my soul didn’t seem to me exactly impossible — it just wasn’t all that interesting.

Those of us who are now away from Russia are acutely in need of information from those who remained. And those of us who remained are acutely in need of communicating their thoughts and ideas abroad, through people who don’t risk being immediately arrested. From this perspective, it’s a symbiosis of those who left and those who remained. It’s a very important symbiosis, and that’s the way it should be considered.

On building a system of checks and balances

Who has power in present-day Russia? First of all, large groups of people holding various views: national patriots, democrats, maybe communists (but probably not), and the law enforcement bureaucracy. All in all, this might come to 30 percent of the whole society. The other 70 percent associate themselves with their regions. As a result, the regions themselves represent the kind of power that the federal center will talk to.

In order for their opinions to really matter, people must have sufficient power to influence government decisions. An individual, or even a large group of individuals, cannot be assumed to make this kind of difference. How can we, then, empower them — short of giving them all weapons as a tool of immediate “influence”? Our civilization’s answer to this question is to create systems of checks and balances.

When powerful forces of the state and society are in equilibrium, even the smallest pebble or a grain of sand will set that system in motion. The question is how to construct this kind of system. A kindly czar may very much want to hear every person in his kingdom, but he can’t. And since our czars usually aren’t kind, it takes sometimes 30, sometimes 50 percent of the population to get things moving. But what we want is for even relatively small groups to able to have their interests represented and protected.

So, how do we build a system of checks and balances? Regrettably, Vladimir Putin has plunged us to the barest foundations of civilization, where all that matters is force. We have yet to return to civil society where you don’t need force to be a player in the game.

What to do with Russia’s resource rent

I don’t think that Russian society today is mature enough to get by without some degree of state paternalism. I’m not in favor of paternalism, but it seems to me a necessary measure, up to the point when the society finally matures. By the way, if Putin hadn’t been shoving us backwards for the past 20 years, today’s Russian society would have been sufficiently mature to cope with its problems without requiring the state’s paternalistic involvement.

Still, the societal course I envision and write about is a course of transferring the functions of social support from the state to grassroots organizations, or even to individuals.

When we speak of resource rents, we invoke different possibilities. One of them is this: “Why don’t we take the resource rent collected now by the state, and direct it to social assistance projects for the population, in the name of the state.” What I think dangerous about this possibility is that the state and its functionaries mislead the population by creating an impression that they’re giving them their own, government money — instead of distributing something that already belongs to the people. Meanwhile, “in exchange” for these infusions, the state and the bureaucrats demand the people’s loyalty. Which is just what we’ve been witnessing for the past 20 years.

Resource rent belongs equally to all the citizens of Russia. The reason is simple: resources are tied to the land, and defending the land, as we know from our history, is the work of all the citizens.

Resource rent must bypass the functionaries and go straight into citizens’ accounts. Of course, if these investments were immediately poured onto the market, inflation would result. Instead, there should be certain limits on their use, structured into pensions, medical insurance, education — goals that are common to every person in a modern civilized state. Meeting those goals would not result in inflation.

For the time being, we cannot get away from paternalism. But all the steps that I’m proposing are steps that diminish the state’s arbitrary power in questions of social support. These steps are designed to take the mechanism of resource rent distribution out of the hands of state bureaucrats.

Resource rent will always be there. It used to be the production of hemp and honey; it now lies in the energy sphere; and it might become clean water or something else in the future. But it will always exist. So, when we say that it’s dangerous to hand it over to the state, this, too, seems to me an enduring concept. If we look at lots of different countries, we will see that very few of them were able to get out of an authoritarian rut if they handed resource rents to a centralized power. This dreadful weapon needs to be knocked out of the hands of the state. But if we hand it over to the regions, we’ll only wind up with a bunch of little kings instead of one big one. So it’s best to hand this weapon to the people themselves.

Nationalization and privatization

I think that if there’s someone like Mr. Rotenberg, or Mr. Chemezov, who have personally appropriated a significant share of state property, the only way to solve this problem is to take that property back from them.

A revolutionary redistribution would take the country farther away from civil society; so, there should be a reasoned confiscation, which is nationalization. And since letting the state retain this property would be a great mistake, this needs to be followed by privatization. Regrettably, there’s no other move here, apart from first taking away what has been wrongfully appropriated, and then privatizing it again.

The first post-Soviet privatization, in the 1990s, presented business with some lessons. Business always runs according to the laws in place in a given country. If it ran according to some other laws, it wouldn’t be business, and we’d call it something else. If the state passes unfair laws, business would need to subscribe to exceptionally high moral and ethical standards not to take advantage of those laws.

For me as a businessman, that place was unreachable, for the simple reason that a person doing business concentrates all energies on that business. When I was a businessman — and until 2003 I was 90 percent occupied with business — my main priority was to make the enterprise in my own hands successful. This took up all my time, all my energy — though to look it now, from this distance, it certainly wasn’t what mattered most. But unless you experience it as the thing that matters most, you simply won’t do it! This is precisely why I don’t do business now — for the reason that I no longer experience it as something that matters more than the rest of life.

Should we hold people like myself responsible for not having looked at things more broadly? Probably. But how many business people in the world have such high ethical standards that they would do what is ethical on their own? I think 20 percent.

In Russia, the business sector would have had a greater responsibility for the wrongs of privatization, had there been corruption. But the first round of privatization was conducted by Anatoly Chubais. I don’t know what happened later with his Rosnano and the rest, but at that time I hadn’t seen him involved in anything corrupt. Collateral auctions were managed by Vladimir Potanin — it would be really something, to see a corrupt Potanin.

Yes, we are all responsible — for taking advantage of the laws in place at that time. Each person confronts this responsibility on his own. I realized it around 2001–2003, which is why I appealed to the government and the president to introduce a compensation tax. Some people learn sooner, some later.

On tyranny

I’m very glad that Alexey Navalny has written an article about the parliamentary republic. I know that my concern with tyranny is not tied to Navalny himself. Take me for example: if I came to power — let’s imagine that I’m 20 years younger and ready to become a head of state — here’s what would happen. I understand very well that my own presidential toolkit would sooner or later nudge me towards the authoritarian model.

This would happen for the simple reason that “I know better.” “I know better what to do, and you won’t agree with me. Let me go ahead and coerce you.” We have seen this happen with Boris Yeltsin. “But he had good intentions in 1993!” And where did that get us? I don’t think myself better than Boris Nikolayevich — who was a very democratic person early in his career.

Let’s not hand all our power to a single person. Let’s build a system of checks and balances, in which no individual can make unilateral decisions. I’m saying this regardless of that person’s last name, because a person comes to power as a democrat and liberator — and leave it as a tyrant and oppressor.

Original interview by Margarita Lyutova.

Adapted for Meduza in English by Anna Razumnaya.

First published at Meduza