Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Conversation at The Guardian

February 23, 2018

On February 15 Mikhail Khodorkovsky sat down with Shaun Walker, the Guardian’s departing longterm Moscow Correspondent, to discuss his life and legacy, as well as to discuss prospects and predictions for the future of Russia.

The Guardian’s very own Kings Place theatre in London was brimming with spectators who had come to hear Khodorkovsky’s unique perspective on current affairs in Russia, as well as his life and experiences as formerly Russia’s richest man and subsequently its most famous politicial prisoner after taking on the newly-elected Vladimir Putin.

We have gathered some of the highlights of the evening here for you in English translation.

The Russian presidential elections:

“My approach to these elections is simple: any action is better than inaction.  Go to the polls, vote for you think is the best candidate, if such a candidate does not exist, then spoil the ballot paper and write down ‘I’m done with Putin’.  There’s no point in saying ‘well if you do this you’ll make it easier for Putin to fabricate the vote’, or that a different way of voting might make it harder for him to fabricate it — he’s going to fabricate the results anyway.  What’s important is that you show your own political position known, and reflect it in the way that you vote.”

“All the major decisions are taken in big cities in Russia. So if Putin gets fewer than 30% of the vote in Moscow, then this would seriously undermine his legitimacy and would be lower than that of the Mayor of Moscow.”

Political protests:

“I would hate to see the scenario when tens of millions of people go out and protest, which is possible.  But Russia is not France, where a million people in the streets is quite an ordinary event.  If a million people go out into the streets in Russia then it would be a revolutionary situation, and a bloody one at that.  Unfortunately every such revolutionary situation in Russia basically ends in a return to authoritarianism.  I believe that a gradual change would be far more beneficial for Russia, but unfortunately I do not believe that this is going to happen sometime soon.”

Shaun Walker: There are plenty of people who fell out with Putin, were pressured and left, who now live very pleasant lives with their yachts and luxury lifestyles in the West.  Are you never tempted to think you want to give up on Russia?

Mikhail Khodorkovsky: I think that we can still do something today.  What’s important for us is when change does eventually come, and it will come in the medium term, that by that time we should have young politicians in place who are ready to act as political representatives for different sections of society.  These people should be known within society, and they should gain political experience.  This is exactly what Open Russia is doing.

Shaun Walker: What about your own personal ambitions?  Is there a scenario in which you would want to return to Russia and take part in some political process at some point in the future?

Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Well I hope that Putin isn’t going to live eternally.  I’m younger than Putin by about 10 years, so I hope to see the day when Putin will be forced to leave the stage.  What is important to remember is that if another person comes to fill Putin’s shoes, that means that nothing is going to change.  In Russia the presidential chair is much more important that the person sitting in it.  What I would really like to see is for the system to change, so that we could at least go back to the Constitution of 1993, or even better back to a parliamentary republic.  In that case I could happily stand for Parliament.

‘The terrible 1990s’:

“I think it’s a joke when Putin and his entourage talk about ‘the terrible 1990s’, I want to remind you that in 1994 Putin was the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, not a small city.  Then by 1996 he was already in the Kremlin, also occupying quite an important position, and in 1998 he became the director of the FSB, and then in 1999 he was head of the government.  So when he proceeds to rail against the 1990s I have to ask myself: ‘who is he criticising? Himself?’”

“What I didn’t understand well enough at the time that I was running Yukos was that what was important for the country was not just the development of the economy and of industry, but the development of society.”

The Yukos case:

“When the Yukos case started the regime did give me the chance to leave the country.  I left and said goodbye to my friends and then came back to Russia.  I was quite pragmatic in my thinking when I did this.  I had a company with around 100,000 employees, and I knew very well that if I left the country, these people would think that I’m guilty.  If you’re an employee in a gigantic company you don’t know what’s going on at the top, and when investigators come to you and say ‘your company has committed crimes and you are a part of that criminal scheme’, you start to think that perhaps it is.  In such a case people would begin to think of themselves as criminals, tens and hundreds of thousands of people with whom I had worked for 7 years, and they would consider me to be a criminal.  In that case I would never have been able to get my voice heard by those people.  The only way I had to be heard was to go to court, look directly into the eyes of the prosecutor, and the judge, who is also just a prosecutor, and say: you are lying.  And that would have been my chance to save my reputation.  I knew I would have to pay for that, but one has to pay for everything in life.”

The Kremlin and Vladimir Putin’s regime:

“Russia has 142 million people, the vast majority of whom are just ordinary people like anyone else in Europe.  This is easy to observe when Russians move to western Europe and adapt very quickly to the new way of life.  Russia has an ordinary state, of course it’s not quite as efficient as what you have in the UK, but more effective than the one in Greece.  Then there’s the Kremlin, which is a like a very small group of criminals, maybe 100 people at most.  It’s not even the largest criminal gang in Moscow!  The only advantage they have is that they have captured the chair of the president, and constitutionally in Russia the president controls the entire state.  They operate just like any other organised crime group; they want as much money as they can get their hands on and to avoid accountability.  That’s it.  They’re not interested in anything else, not in Russia, not in the development of society, not in their international standing; they’re only interested in getting more money.”

“So how can you deal with such people? Try and sign a long-term agreement with them? Well, you could, but they really don’t give a damn.  What you can do is to remind them every time that “we are stronger than you, we can create more problems for you than you can for us.”

‘The real Russia’ and how the West can improve relations with Russia:

“What does the Kremlin criminal group do when they are confronted for their crimes? They run and hide behind the backs of 142 million people and they say “Look! They’re against you!”  This is a very important point that I’m always trying to remind my western colleagues.  The West is not in conflict with Russia, but with the Kremlin.  The interests of the Kremlin and Russia’s interests are completely different.  When western countries introduce sanctions against “Russia”, it is a mistake.  Instead they should say to the Russian public: “we are trying to help you get rid of the people who are robbing you blind, violating your human rights and then go and live in countries where such rights are respected.” — only then are you helping Russia.”