Khodorkovsky – The Personal Enemy of Putin

July 5, 2012

The following exclusive interview was published in the monthly French Philosophie Magazine. Mikhail Khodorkovsky talks about the “Russian spring”, the global perspectives for Europe as well as his detention conditions.

The December Spring

Did you ever imagine that an opposition movement the likes of which Russia has not seen for twenty years could arise after December’s Duma elections? A year ago, in one of your interviews, you expressed regret that there is no civil society in Russia. So what happened? Has it been slowly brewing and has now come to fruition? Has it appeared spontaneously out of nowhere? Or maybe it is just a flash in the pan? Are you glad about what is going on or do you fear provocations, debauchery, and violence? What advice can you give to those who have come out to a demonstration for the first time? Should the actions of the FSB be cause for concern?

Such a mass outpouring of people onto the streets was complex to imagine. There was a confluence here of several irritants and the maturing political self-awareness of the middle class. However, the key moment became the problem of the current power’s deficit of legitimacy. At the same time, what took place is not a fact of the presence of an influential civil society, but merely evidence of the preconditions for its appearance. I hope that this will take place in the next two or three years. I am without a doubt glad about what is taking place, and of course I do fear provocations, just like any person who knows the traditions of our shameless siloviki bureaucracy, which enjoys state power today.

What’s going on with Putin?

How did it happen that a significant part of the Russians who were grateful to Putin for the increase in their standard of living and the rise in Russia’s prestige has suddenly expressed disappointment in him? Why has the PR image of the “macho Russian” that Vladimir Putin personified but a few years ago stopped attracting the masses? Nevertheless, Putin was elected right away in the first round based on the results of presidential elections that were dubious from the point of view of independent observers. Will he change is policy? How is he going to respond to the inevitable criticism from the street?

Vladimir Putin came at very much just the right time, to replace the old and sickly Boris Yeltsin, of whom the public had begun to get weary. Young, active, brutal – a living, breathing answer to what the public was calling for. People’s well-being increased along with oil and gas prices, which formed the main articles (more than 50%) of Russian export. Up until a certain moment, only specialists cared anything about the causes and threats. The rest were too busy living, not only catching up for what they had missed in the years of the heavy reforms of the 90s, but also trying to live for their parents and grandparents, who had not been able to live a decent life in Russia’s horrible 20th century. Over 12 years they have begin to get weary of Putin himself. Weary of his “machismo”, of the loutishness of government officials and policemen, weary of the state’s constantly expanding interference in human life coupled with its inability to properly handle its own functions – building infrastructure, maintaining public utilities, the health-care system, etc. Weary of the constant reliance on the development of the siloviki structures, the tales about some kind of mythical “orange threats” and “overseas sponsors”. Weary of having to openly pay off Caucasian bandits, victory over whom had been declared many years ago. Despite all this, many people are still not prepared to take on responsibility for their own personal fate, and all the less so to firmly demand such an opportunity. Therefore Putin’s election was inevitable. At the same time, going forward all of these problems continue to get worse. What is to be done is known. It is known to Putin, it is known to a series of not-stupid people in his administration, including the current President Medvedev. But everything that is needed goes against the instincts, the internal self-sentiment of a no longer young person who was reared in one of the most conservative Soviet organizations. He is not going to change, and is going to get in the way of the country’s changing. I feel sorry for him, but for the sake of our children I hope that the interests of the country will win out.

Uncertainty about the future

Do you deem that the acknowledged longstanding leaders of the democratic opposition – Boris Nemtsov, Grigory Yavlinsky, Garry Kasparov – are sufficiently strong to embody the Russian thaw? Who can become the Russian Vaclav Havel? At demonstrations, the democratic opposition is mixed all together with the communists and the nationalists. One of the leaders of the movement, lawyer and blogger Alexey Navalny, who has proven himself in the fight against corruption, recently participated in a “Russian march”. Should there be concern about an “Arab scenario” in the event of an opposition victory – with “patriots”-xenophobes in the role of the Islamists?

The current leaders of the democratic opposition are good people, but they too belong to the previous generation. What is going to be taking place is called a revolution, whether we like it or not. The time for soft, slow reforms has slipped away. Our main task is for a non-violent process to “get going”. The former leaders don’t have enough drive for a revolution. I can tell by myself personally. I’m one of those “formers” myself. The new young leaders of the “December spring”, they are completely new, they are different, not like the former ones. They are capable of taking the lead with changes. Of course there is risk. Someone of the new leaders likes nationalistic rhetoric more than it deserves, while someone is “ochlodependent”. Nationalism, attractive for its might, energy, ability to raise up the masses, is hard to keep within rational boundaries. What is needed is balance, what is needs is kindness towards people, an ability to understand and forgive. To be able to accept something alien and incomprehensible. A readiness to respect something that is unlike, that is other, to seek and find compromise. Honesty, together with rational compromise, must become the key slogans of the new opposition. Our generation’s responsibility is that we must help the new young leaders, and if we fail at this, there will be big trouble. The need for moral leaders like Vaclav Havel in our society is extraordinarily great. Time will provide the answer to this burning question as well. I will admit that I had hoped for a real rebirth of religious spirituality, but alas, the main confessions have for now preferred the more familiar place “at the court”.

The experience of detention

What has changed in your everyday life after your transfer to Karelia? How does “one day in the life of Mikhail Borisovich” pass? You write that jail makes you free”. In what sense? You have likewise written that camp is an anti-world, where lies are the norm. What specifically did you mean? You were a communist in the 1980s then an oligarch in the 1990s. Now you are Vladimir Putin’s personal prisoner. Do you feel yourself to be a dissident in the way that Andrei Sakharov was in his time? Penal servitude at hard labor in internal exile profoundly changed Dostoyevsky’s view of the world. In the course of four years at this he got to know the real Russian people. Has your conception of the world changed after eight and a half years of detention? Does camp represent all of Russia in miniature? After all, it is specifically in Russia that one of the biggest systems of concentration camps in early modern history [sic] is found. You and your contemporaries have lived through extremely different historical phases in only a few decades: communism, perestroika, anarchic democracy, Putin’s “vertical of power”… Which of these phases has had the biggest influence on you? Do you feel nostalgia for any one of these phases? Which of them do you prefer? Russia is a riddle for the West. Why, starting with the revolution of 1917, if not even earlier, has it been impossible to establish a way of life based on personal liberties in Russia?

In contrast with the Moscow SIZO, here in Karelia you can stroll around in a small yard in the open air. Life takes place in the barrack – a dormitory for 150 people, where there are no locked cells and where they take you out to work, to the workshop. There we carry out low-skill work. However, this is better than sitting the whole day in a SIZO cell. At the same time, here there is one television for 150 people, and you can watch the news on it only on channel 1, and only once per day. You can work and read exclusively in the evening, after a whole day in the workshop, moreover they constantly distract you with different nonsense. But then once every three months you can spend 3 days in a special room with your family. So working is harder, but the living is better. Today, being found in jail, I feel myself to be independent. I am not responsible for either a company or for people. You can toss me into the dungeon – which has happened many a time – however, in comparison with deprivation of liberty, this is a trifle. So my “internal censor” is oriented exclusively at my own notions of what is the right thing. Outside circumstances play a much smaller role than before. And in this sense I feel myself to be more free. It needs to be understood that Russian courts and law-enforcement agencies look far less like the European structures with analogous names than the ordinary Russian looks like an ordinary European. A European policeman might sometimes lie to a citizen or to a journalist. Much less often to a judge. But his would more likely be an exception. A Russian policeman, as a rule, is going to lie in accordance with the wishes of his bosses, while honesty, on the contrary, will become a pleasant exception. In jail, such a line of behavior is imposed on the inmates as well, and they embrace it. Here, deception is the norm. Everybody lies to everybody else, albeit a bit less within the corresponding communities. But “less” means “nearly always”. Of course, with time you learn your way around and, in general, with sufficient precision. However, morally it still feels revolting. During the time of my first trial, I allowed myself to say publicly that I was surprised how the judge puts up with it when the prosecutors lie to her without interruption. They are caught at it, but they don’t get flustered, and lie anew, and that, for example in England, there would be a very harsh reaction to such a thing. The judge noted in response: “This isn’t England. Regrettably.” And so, in camp, such a style of behavior is the norm. In Karelia, true, it is a little bit better than in Chita. People are more sincere. But only a little bit. It’s all one system. For me, Sakharov is a good example. He too was a part of the system, he had done a lot for it, and then something happened and his fate became different. The person changes, although all the experience, personal ties, mutual relations with many people remained. But something new appeared, which became much more important than the previous life, the previous achievements. Sakharov, insofar as I imagine him to myself, was not a pure idealist. He remained a pragmatist, who reconsidered his life goals right on down to the core, having placed human, individual rights and liberties in first place. Perhaps we are alike in this. Such a hypocritical, such a corrupt power turned out to be morally unacceptable for me. I had hoped that these people wanted to change, as I myself had changed, as those whom I knew and respected had changed. When it turned out that they were taking a different approach to the situation, considering changing people to be liars or suckers, our paths diverged. The power deemed me and my friends to be sissies. Not true. We’re just different. Without a doubt, throughout more than 8 years of detention I have changed, my view of the world has changed. Although, unlike the nobleman Dostoyevsky, I had no need to “get to know the real Russian people”. These are those same people with whom I studied in school and worked at the factory, who were my parents’ factory colleagues and my employees at the company. The wonderful poet Guberman wrote: “You can not spend a life in Russia without having experienced jail.” Unlike Europe, in Russia there is practically not a single family in which someone has not done time. At the same time, understanding the essence of the psychology of our “law enforcers” became a revelation to me. I had somehow always instinctively not tried to have contact with them, but now I have had to. This is an absolutely special view of life: a clear-cut separation into our own (co-workers) and outsiders (everybody else). It is a readiness to execute any order from superiors and to push around subordinates. Generally speaking – gang psychology. Of course, people are different, there are enough perfectly commendable ones among them; however, normal ones “adapt” much worse and, as a rule, leave. But absolutely the most important internal change that I noticed became a changed sense of time. In jail, every day drags on for a long, long time, while weeks, months and years pass by quickly. In jail you get used to lengthy comprehension and manifold rethinking of words, events, and actions. There is no place to rush to, there is time to calm down and think everything through. You get used to such a style, and you find a peculiar charm in it that is not inherent to our age. And now I can say with confidence: the speed and efficiency of adopting decisions are parameters lying in different planes of existence. For getting things done it is useful to have people who are used to existing in different ways. In relation to historical phases, you are right. I myself am sometimes amazed and delighted by what an interesting, diverse life my generation has had the occasion to live through. Nostalgia never troubles me: I remember what has passed with pleasure, embrace the present with interest, and impatiently await the future. I consider Putin’s vertical to be an unavoidable digression backwards, to the Soviet psychology, comfortable for man of my not-young and/or not very educated compatriots, for whom fast changes turned out to be beyond their strength, psychologically uncomfortable, and the need to determine their fate by themselves – an undesired burden. There is nothing you can do: we will retreat, let them adapt, and move on further. And we’ll put the law enforcers who have lost sight of shore back in their place. It is likely that they simply should have been turfed out into private life, as was done in many countries that had gone through an analogous transformation. Our mistake. We’ll take note. A very interesting question – the reason for the slow embracement in Russia of a way of life based on personal liberties. There exists a minimum of two points of view: historical mentality and climatic-natural conditions (Gumilev, Païn). I think that it happens to be a combination of both factors. On the one hand, you can not just ignore the historical traditions laid down by the peculiar way of assimilating the territories on which the Russian state was created, as well as the actual history of the creation of Russian statehood under the Mongol-Tatar semi-occupation. On the other hand, the replicating of traditions signifies the presence of objective preconditions. In our situation this is huge distances and heavy climactic conditions. People are scattered about the territory of the country in such a way that they can not (could not until the spread of the Internet) sense mutual support, community of interests, or their own effect on the power. Even in contrast with Canada, inasmuch as there, the greater part of the population is congregated in a narrow band of land along the southern border. The inhabitants of a not-large Russian town have for long ages, and even today, been unable to come to the capital and to have an impact on the power, while the power, conversely, can easily gather the necessary forces to suppress resentments in one town; it cut it off from the delivery of fuel or food. Thereby bringing it to its knees. The situation is changing. Modern-day technologies are improving the coordination of the parts of civil society, but the sense of one’s own strength is permeating people’s consciousness very, very gradually.

Your future, near and distant

The calls for your release are multiplying under the pressure of the demonstrators. Such ideas are even being expressed by people close to the Kremlin. Is there hope for your release already in the current year? Upon getting out of jail, you may turn out to be a person sent by providence. What will be your priorities in public life? To restore your honor before justice? To attach yourself to a political party? To reactivate your Open Russia NGO? To write prison memoirs? Whether this is fair or not, in the eyes of a part of society you seem to be the embodiment of the economic convulsions and social cataclysms of the 1990s. If you present your candidacy for a responsible political post, do you think that you will be able to get a majority of the voters’ votes?

I do not want to discourse upon the possibility of my getting freed, and all the less so about subsequent actions. One has to live in the here and now, otherwise one can lose years on fruitless dreaming. It is hard for me to agree with the thought imposed by propaganda about the big business of the 90s’ responsibility for social convulsions. We were not oligarchs, which, without a doubt, many people from the Putin entourage are, like Sechin. It is specifically Sechin and those like him who simultaneously run business units and state siloviki structures. It would be a mistake, after the manner of Berezovsky’s braggadocio, to reassess our influence on the policy of those times. But propaganda does its work. Fortunately, there are many educated people in Russia who gather information from independent sources and are capable of its analysis. Way back at the beginning of my jail path, I decided that I would orient myself specifically at these people, inasmuch as I do not want to fight the power’s lies with also-lying populism. I know how to, but I won’t. Not only is it repugnant, it also feels shameful before my children. Since then, I have been speaking with those with whom it is interesting for me to speak, including with smart opponents. I write what I think. Not always everything and all at once, sometimes I change my position with time, but this is my sincere position. That is how I want to keep on living. Can one count on political success in today’s Russia in such a case? I don’t think so. Although I do hope that one can count on the respect of a certain part of the people. Is it important for my country to have examples of the preservation of human dignity in a not very human situation? I think it is important. Maybe this is enough for me and my friends, my colleagues, to consider that we are not living in vain?

Russia in 20 years

Twenty years ago, the Soviet Union disappeared. Today the new Putin order is wobbling. How do you see Russia in 20 years? An ageing, corrupt as ever country that talented youth has left, and that China has colonized? A liberal state, a member of the European Union? Leader of the Eurasian Union that Putin is trying to create? A powerful democracy of a new type?

In 20 years, our children are going to be the ones defining life in my country. I see and know them better than many do. These are completely different people. They are freer and bolder than us. And, of course, they are Europeans, irrespective of where they live – in Chita, in Moscow or in Karelia. Will Russia be able to become a country with a modern economy in such a time frame? That’s complex for me to say. Over the past 10 years, the Putin regime has undermined the dynamic of changes quite noticeably, but to turn around the course of history is beyond its strength. Of course, much is going to depend on the Europeans. Are they going to want to invest their time and a part of their current happy tranquility into the necessary changes in mutual relations? Russia and the other European countries together comprise (could comprise) a mighty world center with a high level of common culture, technologies, resources perfectly sufficient to provide for a common inheritance and its dynamic development, alongside other centers of today’s human civilization. The Eurasian Union in its new composition is perfectly capable of retaining its leadership. However, an attempt to determine a “raw materials” or even an “industrial” specialization for Russia by way of restricting its access to technologies and technological markets would be absolutely unacceptable. It is comprehensible: in order to take such a path, Russia herself, first and foremost, must change. Become a law-based, democratic, free society. If not, perhaps Western Europe will repeat the history of the fall of Rome, gradually turning into a dusty museum periphery of the new world. I would not want this. I consider that today’s Europe, including Russia, has prospects for mutual renewal.

Philosophie Magazine Interview with Khodorkovsky – July 2012