Mikhail Khodorkovsky: If America Is Batman, Putin Is The Joker

October 13, 2017

Mikhail Khodorkovsky interviewed by Joshua Johnson on America’s National Public Radio.  You can listen to the whole podcast online here.

Joshua Johnson: Vladimir Putin is not the retiring type.  His term in office ends next year and he’s widely expected to seek reelection, and many expect he will win another term of 6 years.  While President Putin was celebrating his birthday Russian investigators raided the homes of at least five people working for an exiled oligarch who at one time owned the country’s biggest oil producer, YUKOS: Mikhail Khodorkovsky.  The Kremlin sent him to prison where he spent a decade behind bars.  His trial was condemned as a sham, his sentence considered payback for his political ambitions.  He now continues to oppose the Russian president outside of Russia, and he is inside our studio now.  Mikhail Khodorkovsky, welcome to 1A.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Good day to you

JJ: You are living in exile, Yukos filed for bankruptcy some years ago, it’s pretty clear you probably will not be able to go back to live in Russia.  It would seem that the Russian authorities have kind of ‘dealt with’ you.  Why do you think that they are still so upset with you?

MBK: You know, sometimes I wonder that myself.  But I’m trying to do what I can to show Russian society that there is more than just the Kremlin’s opinion out there.  The Kremlin has a very unique way of thinking.  They think that money is everything.  And since they know that I have money, they view me as someone dangerous.

JJ: Why are you here in Washington DC? Who are you speaking to? What are you doing? What’s your agenda here?

MBK: The main reason that i’m here now is because some friends of mine asked me to come.  I was very close with congressman Tom Lantos and his family have now put together a Lantos lecture series in conjunction with Johns Hopkins University.  They invited me to come and give the first of these lectures.

JJ: You laid out a manifesto for Russia’s future recently in an article in the New York Times.  In part you write that “Russia has once against become an authoritarian state.  The same inability to build democratic institutions plagued the leaders of the February revolution of 1917 which led to the Bolsheviks taking power later that year.  Russian authoritarianism has profound consequences not only for Russian citizens but also for neighbouring countries and the rest of the world.” Do you see Russia as being at another tipping point 100 years after the February revolution? Is another revolution afoot?

MBK: One might wish to think that years which end in 17 might have some kind of mystical significance, but I don’t think so.  I think that Russia today is in a position that is more comparable to the situation it was in in 1983.

JJ: I feel that as an American I sometimes don’t know what to believe about Russia, what to think about Vladimir Putin, what’s real, what’s not.  Can you help me, as an American, understand what’s going on in Russia? What does Vladimir Putin want from us?

MBK: That’s probably the toughest question, but its a spot-on question too.  Everything that Putin wants he in fact wants from America.  For Putin America is important in two ways.  But these issues are neither about money nor technology, as Americans think they are.  America needs to acknowledge that Putin is a very important person.  America needs to continue, as before, to be the main threat to Russia.  The reason for this is very simple.  The opposition in Russia is either very week, or Putin needs to show Russian society that he has dealt with it.  So to make an enemy out of China is a bad idea, as China is very close.  Making Europe into an enemy doesn’t work either because the countries there are all fairly small.

But if you don’t have an enemy then whose fault are all those problems that we’re having? Could it be the Kremlin, could it be Putin? No, let America be the reason for our problems.

But it’s important that America not ignore the fact that it is being made into an enemy, because if American ignores this then Russian society can say to Putin, perhaps you’re not really that important, American doesn’t even notice you.  So therefore America has to be the enemy, and at the same time it must respect Putin.

JJ: What you’re saying sounds a little insane.  It’s like what you’re saying is that Vladimir Putin doesn’t really want to defeat us in some way, he just wants to remain engaged.  We’re batman, he’s the joker and he just wants to keep fighting forever and ever and he needs a worthy opponent to distract from his own insanity.  Is that it?

MBK: You’re absolutely correct, and the fact is that there are people in the US who are willing to play along with this particular scenario.  Unfortunately the older people are leaving the scene like Zbigniew Brzezinski, who died recently.

JJ: How do you feel about how President Trump has dealt with Russia? What is your view on the whole Russia investigation? Do you think that America is focusing on the right thing, or is there something else?

MBK: The last thing that I would want to do is give US citizens advice as to how they should deal with their own internal political situation.  If there was indeed interference, and I think we can say that there was some attempt at interference, I don’t think that it had any substantial impact.

I think more likely Putin would want Russian people to believe that there was Russian interference and he did have an impact.  On the other hand it’s another question whether he still wants this as much as he did a few months ago.  A few months ago the Kremlin was saying “we’ve got our guy in the White House now”, these days they kind of prefer not to say that anymore.  Whether or not criminal actions had a serious impact on the results of the elections or not, either way law enforcement should be investigating if there is reason to assume that there was criminal action.  It’s another question whether it makes sense to elevate this to a very high political level.  That’s a question for Americans themselves.

JJ: What do you think the world should do about Vladimir Putin?

MBK: The only thing the world is capable of doing today is accepting that reality that exists.  That reality is that as long as Putin remains in the Kremlin, Russia is going to be an unpredictable place.  I know that other countries also have some not very predictable leaders, but democratic countries have constitutions which balance out the stability.  Russia does not have such institutions.  As a result, the course that Russia takes in the near future will remain unpredictable and will be something that everybody is going to have to live with.

JJ: One more thing.  As an American, I get the sense that because of all the controversy around Vladimir Putin I never feel like I ever get a really clear picture of Russia the way that Russians see it.  If I could see Russia the way you see it, what would I see that’s different from what the average American can see?

MBK:  This is actually very funny because when we look at the way you all look at Russia, the impression we get is that of a scientist who is looking at a bug though a microscope and gets scared the bug because it looks so big through the microscope.  I’m sure you understand that Putin  is a person who has built a pyramid.  You know that pyramids are an extremely inefficient way of running things.  You know this, I know this, but for some reason Putin doesn’t know this.  The country lives its own separate life, the Russian government lives its own separate life.  There is a small group of people in the Kremlin and the only advantage that they’ve got is that they have managed to capture the post of the President.  All they can do is hold on for dear life to this post and suck money out of the country.  They can’t do anything else.  If we look at the rest of the country, it lives entirely separately from the Kremlin.  In this way, Russia is very similar to America.  We in Russia like to sit down and talk about America, but really we don’t care that much what goes on there.  Unless Hollywood releases some incredible film, or Apple launches a new gadget, that’s  interesting too of course.  Russia is big country, we’re doing our thing, and the Kremlin is doing its thing.