Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Fear is on the rise in Russia, but so is fearlessness

May 4, 2017

Last week the Russian Prosecutor General’s office pronounced the UK-based organisation Open Russia officially ‘undesirable’ in a high-level attempt to intimidate and demoralise the Russian opposition.  Just three days after the decision – and two days after unmarked investigators raided Open Russia’s Moscow headquarters – the #Enough demonstrations took place across Russia.  Thousands of people came out onto the streets to deliver their demands in written form to the presidential administration calling on Vladimir Putin to decline from standing for a fourth presidential term.

Russian writer, poet and literary critic Dmitry Bykov sat down with Open Russia founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky on the eve of the #Enough demonstrations for an in-depth discussion of his campaign, Russia’s much-needed post-Putin reforms and what role, if any, he is willing to play in this process.

Dmitry Bykov: Now I’m always thinking: after a conversation with you, how can I go back to Russia and work?

Mikhail Khodorkovsky: How can you work? You’ll have to be brave.

DB: Do you not have the feeling that they’ll start arresting everyone?

MBK: They’re not going to do that.  Anyway, believe me, the demonstrations will take place relatively peacefully.

DB: How did you come to that conclusion?

MBK: Simple.  [The Kremlin] can not resort to mass-arrests as they are not prepared to deal with the consequences.  For every 1000 people that they arrest, they’ll create at least 500 fearless fighters.  Russia is an outstanding country in the sense that not just fear, but fearlessness grows epidemically.  Once they fire in to the crowd, that crowd will become unstoppable and they know it.

DB: Who came up with the slogan #Enough (#nadoel)?

MBK: It was a collective effort.  But there’s really no need to make anything up, we have really had enough of [Putin].  Around 40% do not want Putin to run for a fourth term, and around 10% are prepared to come out on to the streets.  This is nearly five-times more people than a year ago.  The authorities are aware that there has been a shift.

DB: Last time we spoke you said that Putin will win once more and then leave at the end of his next term.  Many thought this was a fantasy, but now it looks like it’s going to happen.

MBK: I made that prediction because that’s what I would do if I were in his position.  This is the best decision for him in his current predicament.

DB: Do you think that this will all take place without a revolution?  

MBK: You mean a civil war? Yes, I believe we’ll avoid that.  At the moment, it is possible to get out of the mess that the elites have got us into if the next president assembles a constitutional meeting and undertakes serious political reforms over the course of the next two years.  These reforms would first transition Russia to a presidential-parliamentary republic, and then eventually to a parliamentary republic.

DB: Do you not think that we are currently coming to the end of Russian civilisation as defined by the official ideologues?

MBK: Firstly, the very concept of a Russian civilisation – opposed to the world, living by its own laws – is merely speculative and is only used to justify despotism.  They say that we have a different type of democracy, different traditions, and a special relationship between the people and the tsar etc.  Even the ideologues don’t believe in it.  It’s always obvious when propagandists believe what they are writing and when they are simply doing their job.  Russia is part of European civilisation.  In every country there is a ruling political class, we of course have to leave behind the idea that the state is run solely by the people.  However, the people can and should decide their fate through electing those who govern them.

DB: But in Russia this ruling minority has for a long time been formed through adverse selection, and as a result we have what we have…

MBK: That’s not true.  In Russia, as strange as it sounds, any deputy of today’s Duma is more politically intelligent than the average voter.  If we wasn’t, he wouldn’t be there.  Lukashenko is politically more intelligent than most Belorussians, if he wasn’t he wouldn’t have been in power for 20 years.  All these deputies will start to show different qualities when it is necessary.  Today they are imitating idiocy, as an intelligent parliament not the sort that’s needed in Putin’s Russia.

DB: Who could become Putin’s heir, in your opinion?

MBK: A year ago I thought it would be Medvedev.  Today it’s clear that he hasn’t got a chance.  There are two possibilities.  The first is a rampant security official who will further involve himself with the security services, strengthen the dictatorship and will lead everything quickly to an unpleasant ending.  The second possibility is a different kind of person who will have to deal with the country’s problems and so will be forced to conduct political reforms.

DB: Do you exclude yourself from taking part in government after these political reforms?

MBK: I can spend two years participating in reforms under the condition that afterwards there will be free and fair elections and a new government will come to power.  I do not want any power for myself, the thought of it terrifies me.

DB: It came as a shock to many when you supported Navalny.  Why is that?

MBK: There’s nothing to be shocked about, Navalny is a talented person, and today he is the Russian opposition’s strongest candidate, particularly for the destruction of the current regime.  But in the event that he comes to power, everything will need to be done to make sure he’s not alone.  In today’s system it would be possible to make a Tsar out of Navalny.

DB: Has your opinion of Putin changed? Does he still have the capacity to surprise you?

MBK: He has surprised me a little, yes.  The biggest surprise came after the Panama Papers were released.  For a long time I thought that Putin isn’t about the money, that for him that’s not the most important thing.  Sechin is all about the money, he has no other interests.  I’ve spoken to him a couple of times and everything was clear from the outset.  Putin seemed different to me, then I found out about the his friend Sergei Roldugin, the cellist.  It did not quite register properly in my head: how can you look someone in the eye and tell them that all of this money is used to buy vintage musical equipment for young geniuses?  After that many things stopped surprising me.

DB: Why do you think that Putin let you go in the end?

MBK: It was a combination of unlikely circumstances.  He was at his peak, and he thought he’d remain there forever.  He thought he’d show some mercy, reconcile some unpleasant past memories.  He didn’t realise that soon he’d take a sharp fall from that peak.

DB: Do you think there’s a chance that a gigantic “Right International” conservative revolution could sweep the world, as the traditionalists in Russia dream about? Trump, Le Pen, the German right…

MBK: The Kremlin hugely miscalculated the Trump phenomenon.  They thought that he was close to Russia, but he isn’t.  Whether this was some kind of business strategy, I’m not sure.  Putin is not a strategist, he is a tactician.  That’s where the hope not only for “Crimea is ours” but “the world is ours” came from.  Meanwhile, Europe can change, but it will not become Putinesque.  I actually think Trump will be one of the main factors of change in Russia.

DB: Will it be possible to negotiate with Putin if the situation in the country becomes critical?

MBK: The situation is already complex and is worsening in front of our eyes.  Yes, I think that Putin is totally capable of compromise, however not with rational arguments, but with force.  If he feels that the siloviki will hesitate to open fire on the crowd – siloviki are a bunch of cowards, otherwise they wouldn’t be so reliant on force – then it will be possible to negotiate with him.

DB: So you don’t think there will be a Tiananmen Square scene?

MBK: Absolutely not.  That will not happen in Moscow.

DB: After the raid on yours offices and the ruling of the British organisation Open Russia as ‘undesirable’, will your work in Russia be forced to come to an end?  

MBK: No, it will not come to an end, and they haven’t succeeded in scaring anyone.  The Kremlin doesn’t even count on scaring me.

DB: Why?

MBK: Because they know that i’m in it for the long run.

This interview originally appeared here.  The English version has been slightly abridged.