Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “I Do Not Believe That Vladimir Putin is Ready to Carry Out Mass Repression”

June 26, 2013

Part two of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s interview with The New Times magazine (read part one HERE)

14 March 2002 – 19 months before the arrest: President Vladimir Putin at a Kremlin meeting with the chairman of the Yukos oil company, Mikhail Khodorkovsky


You keep insisting that liberals have to work with the current authorities. Sergei Guriev also thought that — and now he’s emigrated. Igor Fedyukin (deputy Minister of Education until May 2013) did take office, attempted to do his job honestly, and got booted out with a dishonourable discharge. With this in mind, do you really believe that everyone should try and work with current regime?

I am forced to agree: the authorities are now more frequently imposing conditions that mean working together is at odds with one’s sense of self-respect – including accepting prohibitions on expressing your own opinion, the methods used in criminal cases and restrictions on economic freedom. And the big question — why? Someone who is good at their job can earn enough money without agreeing to this, especially when there are fewer opportunities for actually having an impact on something, and therefore for job satisfaction. Added to which, a professional seeks respect among fellow professionals, who are exactly the people who are being rudely pushed out of power.

But we must still try to work together, if there is an opportunity to agree acceptable conditions. Is there such an opportunity right now? I don’t know. I’m afraid that the authorities believe that money dictates everything.

Do you not think — this is what Garry Kasparov, for example, believes — that professionals and experts are merely helping to prolong the life of this regime? Aren’t they putting their authority and their knowledge not at the service of the country, but in securing their own personal objectives – not least as experience shows there is little they can do to change anything?

A professional person who is just a hired hand and for whom the objective is not important, does help the authorities and does harm the country. A professional person who honestly solves the country’s problems, and not the government’s, serves society. The stage when there is no alternative other than to refuse any sort of cooperation has not yet come, in my view. I hope it never will come, although the trend is distressing and the line between what is acceptable and what is not is quite close at hand.

The opposition appears confused — some are afraid, some don’t have a message, others look back to the 1990s, and there are others who prefer to emigrate. What do you think are the principal mistakes of the leaders of the opposition?

The opposition is a victim of post-modernism, where words have replaced actions. But in Russia, politics are still done the old-fashioned way — with a truncheon and jail. We are paying for this antiquated political structure with low growth rates and the archaic structure of the economy. But the demand for change at the federal level (or by having honest elections, which would amount to the same thing) will require a forceful opposition, something society is not yet ready for.

What idea today could unite the public who don’t like the political and economic situation in the country, but who do not see an alternative to Putin?

It is imperative to point out that the lack of candor and honesty in modern-day politics is one of the most important problems for both the government and the opposition – and something that is true not just in Russia, but beyond its boundaries as well.

Similarly, today’s situation in our country is associated not only with the lack of normal institutions of a democratic state (such as honest elections, an independent judiciary and an influential parliament), but also with the low level of trust, skills, and mutual aid within society. It is precisely this problem that the “little things” policy could resolve, it is precisely this kind of civic activity that one can and should be engaged in today: from volunteerism to participation in municipal councils.

And Putin will eventually go away, although even when he does go away, there will still be those who opine that “nobody will be able to replace him”.

The liberals are often accused of “rocking the boat”, that “a guy with a scythe” or even fascists might seize power, replacing the people there today. Many recall the horrors of the Russian uprising and the danger of an insurrection by an uneducated mob. What would you say to this argument?

We’ve certainly got a lot of human sheep among us, but there actually aren’t nearly as many of them as there might sometime seem to people looking at Russians filled with their own ill-judged preconceptions. So we shouldn’t allow a fear of criticism and political competition to be covered up by a disrespectful attitude towards one’s compatriots.

Russian society is very atomized. One is constantly hearing that liberals shouldn’t sit together with nationalists in the same Opposition Coordination Council; that one must not go to demonstrations side by side with those who carry leftist slogans. Is it possible to get everybody to get along with everybody else? Is it necessary? How would you respond to those who are fighting for ideological purity in the opposition?

Ideological purity is good in science, but in practical politics such “purity” is a synonym for totalitarianism. A modern-day democracy is a way for minorities to co-exist. Co-existence without cooperation and compromises is hard to imagine.

How far could repression go? What do we need to wait for? How deep could the descent into dictatorship be and do you believe there is a danger of such an outcome?

I do not believe that Vladimir Putin is ready to carry out mass repression: jail is too dangerous a university for the authorities, especially when it is young people being locked up. But beyond that the only thing left would be capital punishment – not of maniacs moreover – but of ideological opponents. No, no matter what I might think of Putin — I do not believe he is capable of this.

He is certainly capable of continuing down the path to dictatorship, continuing to clear out political opponents, destroying society’s immunity and intensifying the role of the special security services. At some point, a future dictator will certainly emerge, and then — God save us all, including Putin.

What kind of situation could arise, who or what could in principle — convince the government to stop tightening the screws?

It will need every decent person – at whatever level they are in society – to accept that an essential condition of working with the authorities is that they must stop “tightening the screws”. The other possibility is an economic crisis, arising from people’s mass refusal to be economically active in Russia. We are already moving along this path. A synergetic effect is likely.

Do you think Putin is here forever?

His coterie believe this is possible, although I personally have my doubts.

The “YUKOS case”

With regard to the “experts’ case” and the “Guriev case”, there is now talk that the authorities are preparing a third case against you and Platon Lebedev. What do you think?

The pretext is no worse than the previous charge of having stolen all of YUKOS’s oil. Where there’s a team, there’s a way. But in general it is already hard for me to imagine the possibility of release: ten years in jail is no laughing matter.

What are the authorities, Putin, and Sechin afraid of by continuing to hold you in jail? Why are they so afraid of you?

I cannot see a rational explanation. The irrational explanations have been discussed many times by experts. Understanding this is beyond my reach.

Does the merger of Rosneft and TNK-BP mean that the efforts of former YUKOS’ shareholders to secure the return of their stolen assets has now failed?

I have always been skeptical about these attempts. As long as power remains in the hands of Vladimir Putin, a return of these assets is impossible; later — a redistribution is inevitable, but other people will become the beneficiaries.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the sentence for you and Platon Lebedev after your second trial was excessive. If you become a free man in August — what are you going to do? Will you stay in the country or will you leave?

I am very doubtful about the possibility of my release, but what I am sure of is that I’m not going to be given the right to determine where I will reside.

The New Times, Yevgenia Albats, 25.06.2013