Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Speech at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute: “For your freedom and ours”

March 11, 2014

Dear friends, I greet you all, I’m truly grateful that you have gathered today to listen to me.  I think this demonstrates your interest in Russia in general and in dissidently-thinking Russia in particular.  Many thanks to you.

I want to apologise in advance for what will be a somewhat rough-edged presentation and because I’ll be speaking from notes, because I haven’t had any opportunity to do any public speaking in the past ten years for reasons I’m sure you understand, and I’ve lost the skills over that time.

I had asked for the opportunity to meet with the student body of a technical university precisely because throughout my entire professional carer I was always involved specifically with technology and with technical universities.  We worked together with the Tomsk Polytechnic University for many years, and I’ve grown accustomed to regarding university students as one of the support posts for industry, for that line of business in which I spent my entire professional biography.  But besides that, students, instructors, and the cultural elite are an extremely important factor at the stage of revolutionary changes.  What kind of society will be built in the new Ukraine depends specifically on what position you are going to take.

But besides Ukraine’s problems—which are what worries you most, no doubt—there are also Russia’s problems.  What is happening today in the Ukraine is important in a much broader context as well, but I’ll be speaking about this.  My lecture is called “For your freedom and ours”.

We have recently become witnesses to tragic events   that affect every Ukrainian, every Russian, and every European.  Recognising the scale of what is taking place, I have taken a decision to come to Kiev and to speak here for three reasons:

First, to demonstrate in this way my personal position  and to show solidarity with the people of Ukraine.

Second, to present to you a view of the events on the part of that segment  of Russian society which is pursuing Russia’s real, not imaginary, national interests and, of course, that segment of society which has not been zombified by tele-propaganda.  I would like to say once again:  I represent the interests and the opinions specifically of Russian society, which may differ from your views, but it would probably be useful for you to know these views.

I would like to also outline some proposals that could contribute to preventing the situation from sliding into a long-term standoff between Russia and Ukraine, and most importantly, between the Russian and Ukrainian people.  It seems to me that this would be very important.

I would like to define my own personal position:  I am an unconditional supporter of building a law-based democratic nation-state with a unitary civil nation in Russia, and unconditionally support the analogous aspirations of the Ukrainian people.

Second, we must be consistent:  and if I call upon my compatriots to defend land belonging to Russia, including in the North Caucasus, including with weapons in hand (which I spoke about as soon as I got out of prison), I am obligated to recognise that the Ukrainian people also have this right.  I hold to this consistent position.

Over the past few months—and for hundreds of years before that—Ukraine has incessantly been the object of the exertion of efforts on the part of practically all of the world centres of political power, including Russia.  And this is normal – we are all interdependent.  However, having begun an expansion in Crimea, the aim of which appears to be the annexation of Crimea or the creation of a pseudo-independent state along the lines of Abkhazia or South Ossetia on its territory, the Russian state (I shall underscore once again – the state, the government, and not Russia as a country, not the Russian people) has drastically departed the existing international-law field, the Russian state has set itself off against the greater part of the global community (we can see this with our own eyes in the world’s mass information media).  The government of my country is in this way resorting to the 19th century practice of resolving territorial disputes.  This step will unconditionally have the most serious consequences, both for the world as a whole and for Russia itself.

To be fair, it needs to be said that the question of the fate of Crimea is an extremely sore point for both Ukrainians and Russians.  This is no mere territorial dispute about a few extra square kilometres.  Crimea has no reserves of oil, and for the Russian economy it is more likely a burden than an acquisition.  But for Russians this is a sacred place, a most important component of their historical memory, and the biggest open wound from the times of the collapse of the USSR.  I do not think I will be mistaken in saying that for many Russians, Sebastopol is like a piece of the Holy Land.  This needs to be taken into account as the formula for a settlement is sought, or else there will be no settlement.

Nevertheless, in the eyes of Ukrainian society, neither the  symbolic significance of Crimea in the Russian consciousness, nor Russia’s historical rights to the territory of Crimea, nor the civil conflict in Ukraine, nor the change of political regime, nor references to analogous actions by third countries are a justification for such gross interference in the affairs of a historically friendly state.

Acquiring a territory filled with the palaces of “servants of the people” in the interests of politicians who want to go down in history as land collectors, we lose Russian-Ukrainian friendship.  We, the Russians, are losing the friendship of a fraternal people, we are losing a financial and moral resource that we need so much for our own reforms.

Whether they are doing so intentionally or not, the people who do not understand the significance of these losses today (and there are unfortunately many of us in Russia who do not understand this; I am afraid to say it, but the majority do not understand this) are acting against not only Ukraine’s national interests, but Russia’s as well.

The precedent created in this way is dangerous first and foremost for Russia itself – “sow the wind, reap the whirlwind”.  As I have already said, Russia is saddled by no smaller a number of similar problems than Ukraine.  It can not be ruled out that in the future someone is going to make use of the technologies that Russia has worked out today against Russia itself.

I can understand why after the Olympic construction projects, some Russian politicians and the entrepreneurs close to them would find it more interesting to concern themselves with Crimea and not with Voronezh, Vologda, or other Russian regions that need attention and resources up to here (gestures with his hand across his neck), where the real problems of Russian citizens need to be resolved.

What I do not understand is something else—why some of my fellow citizens do not understand that right now the one thing is being substituted by the other.  This is what I do not understand, and I would very much like to change this.

This is why I feel that the best solution might be to keep Crimea within the makeup of Ukraine, but with the creation of the very broadest autonomy (for example the one that Scotland has within the makeup of Great Britain) and with granting the population the unconditional right to use their native language.

We might give thought to an agreement between Russia and Ukraine on the creation of a joint economic zone on the territory of Crimea.  Russia would be able to implement programmes for the economic development of the region within the framework of such an agreement.  If my country truly does want to help compatriots, it needs to be given such an opportunity.  And for this it is not at all necessary for our country, for Russia, to take away territory from a friendly neighbour, from a historically fraternal state.

But in any case, Crimea has now become a problem for decades to come, and this problem needs to be resolved.  It seems to me that it would be useful to convene an international conference on Crimea, with the broadest possible representation from the “leading minds” of our age, global  moral authorities.  This is a conference can create a commission on Crimea, which could help in the resolution of the conflict and its repercussions.

But the problem of Crimea is only a preamble to a much bigger and more important question—the question of attitude towards the historical memory of the Russian and Ukrainian people.  It  is a question of attitude towards common historical memory.  This is an endless topic, but I believe that the history of the Crimean War is just as much Ukraine’s history, for example, as it is Russia’s history.  And when it comes right down to it, let us not forget that the city of Sebastopol is a city of both Russian and Ukrainian military glory.  Of course, in theory one could just brush aside the imperial period of history, as a period of occupation, and start building life anew from that point onwards.  But it would be far wiser for everybody concerned – both Russians and Ukrainians – to learn how to derive benefit from common historical experience.  Mikhail Bulgakov is as much a Ukrainian writer as he is a Russian one, while Gogol and Shevchenko as writers are as Russian as they are Ukrainian.

In fact, just today, as I was coming over here to you, I passed through the premises of a museum.  Listen:  Korolyov, Mendeleev, Chelomey[1]…  How is all this supposed to be divided up?  This is a common history, and it has to remain a common history in this part, despite the fact that our peoples are building two independent nation states today.

A second essential aspect: The Russian authorities prefer to talk about how a constitutional overthrow has taken place in Ukraine, meticulously avoiding using the word “revolution”.  It is very difficult to agree with this.  First of all, you can  have an overthrow where—and only where—there is a functioning constitutional regime.  Ukraine under the Yanukovich regime—just like today’s Russia as well, in fact—can hardly be called a constitutional state, despite the existence of the written text of a Constitution.  A rule-of-law state exists only where and when there is real separation of powers, an independent judiciary, and true, real changeability of power as the result of honest elections, and where law and order are assured.  It is perfectly obvious that there was and is nothing of the sort either in Ukraine under Viktor Yanukovich or in Russia under Vladimir Putin, and this means you can not overthrow something that never was.

In actuality, nobody with the exception of the Russian authorities has even the slightest doubt that what took place in Ukraine was a real revolution.  And after a revolution inside a country, and beyond its borders as well, people independently determine their position with respect to the question of how they are going to relate to this revolution.  What should be the determining factor is understanding was the revolution just or not?!  Since the times of the founding fathers of the American constitution, it is universally considered self-evident that a people has the right to rise up against those  who have usurped power.  Those  who deem that a revolution always tramples on a right are therefore deeply mistaken; it can happen that it restores a right that had been trampled by the previous regime.

The second Ukrainian revolution is a revolution of justice.  I was on Maidan yesterday; I saw what a high price the Ukrainian people paid for this victory.  It is hard to imagine, even for someone like me who was a participant in the conflicts in Moscow both in ’91 and in ’93.  Shame on those who unleashed the violence against their own people and shame on those who sponsored them.  Shame.  But the blood that has been spilled must not have been spilled in vain. The people who stood shoulder to shoulder on Maidan had different views of life, but there were two aims that united them.  Both are absolutely comprehensible and worthy.  On the one hand, this was a national revolution, the latest stage in the Ukrainian people’s struggle for self-determination; on the other, it was a standoff against a corrupt crazed-with-greed regime that had forgotten about the existence of any other interests besides the interest of stuffing its own pockets.. .  I want to specially underscore that our people, the Russian people, needs to resolve these very same problems today.  And this is exactly what is causing concern for the Russian authorities.

The second revolution in Ukraine is an event of a global scale, its significance extends far beyond the boundaries of Ukraine alone; what is happening now in Ukraine could result in a reformatting of all of European politics.  Unfortunately, not everybody understands this yet, and not thoroughly, yet this problem needs to be treated very seriously indeed.  We are in a real way reconsidering the entire European structure for the first time since the Yalta Conference.  I am confident that the true merit of the achievements of the Ukrainian revolution—specifically as an example to be emulated—will in due course be fully appreciated in Russia.

But, having given the achievements of the Ukrainian revolution their due, neither can we silently ignore its mistakes.  Just like any other revolution, the Ukrainian revolution is a serious ordeal for the people.  First and foremost because in the course of a revolution, the radicals from both sides inevitably come to the fore, and  this can often lead society into a dead end or doom it to an exhausting civil standoff, where in my opinion, the external factor – something everybody likes to talk about so much these days – does not play a decisive role at all (I know there is a contrary point of view, but specifically this is my conviction).  A united nation would have nothing to fear from such external pressure.

The radicalism of a part of the Maidan activists became among others one of the reasons why Ukraine is now literally on the brink of sliding into a civil standoff (I read very tensely – I thing you do to – about the events in the eastern regions of Ukraine).  We must nonetheless remember that the Crimeans, and the residents of the eastern regions, and the persons serving in army units who have renounced their oath are citizens of Ukraine, and a standoff with them means a civil conflict (I shall repeat, I am not talking now about the significance of other factors – for example, interference from without, which did take place, but it has taken place in other civil conflicts as well, starting with the American revolution, the revolution in Russia that was in ’17, etc.).

By slavishly following the lead of radical elements and repealed the law on the status of the Russian language in a dashing cavalier attack, the new Ukrainian authorities committed a fatal mistake that has aggravated the internal and external political situation in Ukraine.  And even though the reasonable part of the Ukrainian establishment realised this mistake very quickly, it was unfortunately already too late to make any difference.  A significant part of the population of Ukraine felt a threat to itself in a most sensitive question – the question of language.  We remember the years of forcible russification in Ukraine and have no intention of pretending they never happened.  They did happen.  But this lamentable fact in and of itself is not an excuse to undertake a forcible ukrainianisation or even to think that such a ukrainianisation is possible even in principle, and you understand perfectly well how any news story like that gets blown up with the help of propaganda.

In order to restore peace between the nationalities in Ukraine, to suppress separatism today first and foremost intensive efforts are needed to restore confidence between its two largest communities – the Ukrainians speakers and the Russian speakers.  Moreover, what we ought to be talking about is a complex of measures of both a legislative and a political character, capable of convincing both sides that there will be no forcible assimilation of Russian speakers, nor the kind of creeping russification in the Soviet spirit that was encouraged by the former metropolis.  People have to acquire this confidence.

Just one signature was enough to undermine the confidence.  To restore this confidence will require a long-term and balanced policy and legal guarantees on the part of the state.  This is a mandatory condition for restoring civic peace in Ukraine.  Ukraine is not unique in this regard, after all.  The situation of the residents of Quebec, the situation of the Scots, or the situation of the Swedish speaking residents of Finland differs little from the situation of the Russian speaking residents of Crimea.  Neither guarantees granted to them nor opportunities for cultural autonomy undermine the foundations of the state; on the contrary, they strengthen it.  In general, a situation that would to my view be absolutely ideal for Ukraine would be one in which every resident here speaks a minimum of two languages.  Like in that same Switzerland.  I think it is actually like this already – the majority of the residents of Ukraine speak two languages.  And this situation does not hurt either Swiss or Belgian independence.  It is hard for me to imagine how this will harm Ukraine’s independence.

I have considered—and still consider—that joint movement in a European direction would be the main unifying factor for mutual relations between the Russian and Ukrainian people.  This is the main thing that needs to unite our countries in the political sphere.  But, if at the beginning of the 21st century it was Russia that could have become the engine of the movement in a European direction, in the direction of European values, now a switch has taken place, and Ukraine  can become the leader of post-Soviet Euro integration—if it wants to.  The new Ukraine can become a beacon and a source of values, of values guideposts, for the new Russia, which is yet to be created.  But it would be a big mistake to start moving into Europe having filled one’s car with a radical mixture of ethnic intolerance or a sense of revenge in relation to former political adversaries and opponents.

Humanism and toleration for Ukraine – today this is not an empty sound, not a loud phrase to be uttered and immediately forgotten.  This is your weapon today.  And furthermore, I will tell you that this is the only powerful weapon you have.  In the military and economic sense, Ukraine today is weak in the face of any potential aggressor, and in the face of a crisis that could be worse than an aggressor.  If you can not be stronger than your adversary, you have to be more moral than him.  Your moral superiority materialises into a strength that will force him to stop.  But if it turns out that you are on the same level as he is in the moral sense—if you start settling scores with the vanquished, if you are going to resort to extrajudicial reprisals against the losers, turning justice into nothing more than a cheap spectacle (as happened here, as is happening as of today in Russia), if you will not quickly and effectively put a stop to displays of nationalism even at the level of single isolated excesses (and such excesses are taking place)—then you will lose twice.  And if Ukraine really does intend to move into Europe, then why not start here, with the great European humanistic tradition.
I suggest that you consider inviting prominent Russian human rights leaders to participate in the resolution of the inevitable individual conflicts that are going to take place with the Russian speaking population of Ukraine.

The position of prominent, independent people from Russia would help not only to resolve the problems themselves (I realise that you can manage to deal with this on your own as well), but it would help to reduce the propaganda effect of such situations being used by interested persons to deteriorate relations between peoples.  I am ready to render any necessary assistance to facilitate the organisation of such work.

The next question.  The reputation of a government that is facing the task of pulling the country out of a civil standoff has to be absolutely irreproachable.  Part of this irreproachable reputation lies in ensuring the absolute legitimacy of the elections that you have scheduled for May.  But the problem with elections consists of the fact that you can already predict in advance today that the losing side is likely going to be insisting that the elections had been unfair.  Particularly dangerous is the inevitable attempt to claim that there were violations based on the ethnic principle or to use ethnic motives in the course of the election campaign.  And I am not even talking about how your opponents today have an interest in having the elections not take place at all, because a non-legitimate Ukrainian government is a wonderful opportunity for further aggressive actions.

If such ethnic motives do emerge, then there should be no doubts:  the opponents of a free and independent Ukraine will certainly notice such an opportunity for achieving their goals.

Those are no less, I am afraid that Ukraine is not Chile, where one candidate comes to the other candidate in a hotel with flowers to congratulate him with victory.  Regrettably.  And this means that observers are going to play a very big role indeed.  But there is a problem here as well – here too you can already predict in advance that there are going to be two teams of international observers, and that they are going to be competing with one another, including within the OSCE:  the Europeans and the ones we shall provisionally call the “Churovites”.[2]  In Europe they are going to believe one team, but in Russia they will believe the other one.  And this is very dangerous, because the illegitimacy of the government is going to be a serious argument inside Russia for justifying aggressive actions in relation to Ukraine.

So what is the solution?  It seems to me that there is one – to invite yet another team of international observers, one that Russian society trusts.  Such a team could be the professional groups of independent observers from Russia who played a most important role at the Duma and Presidential elections of the years 2011 and at the elections of the mayor of Moscow).  I would be glad to help organise their work in Ukraine, if this can smooth over the conflicts and will increase the legitimacy of the result.

No matter how great the bitterness of defeat may be today, no matter how much the fresh wounds may bleed (both literally – I was in a hospital yesterday – and figuratively speaking), we still need to understand that the greatest risks that exist today have a long-term character.  It is not so much a matter of the fate of a concrete Crimea or of some specific political regime, but of the historical destinies of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples.  They have been moving along parallel roads for many centuries, but this is the point where may go off in different directions, breaking away from one another for evermore and continuing their further movement through history separately.  But we are each other’s closest neighbours, and there is no avoiding this.  Such a buffer zone will take centuries to overcome—if it will even be possible to overcome it at all.  It is precisely for this reason, I believe, that the Russian authorities’ decision to grossly interfere in the revolutionary process in Ukraine was a historical mistake.

It is precisely for this reason that I consider that along with all the political measures to settle the Ukrainian crisis, as strange as this may seem, a very important role needs to be played by the efforts of society to preserve that traditionally benevolent aura of Russian-Ukrainian relations that is literally vanishing into thin air right before our eyes.  There may be those to whom this might seem a trifle of little consequence.  But in actuality preservation of this aura is the most important thing.  If we retain a “corridor of trust” between the societies, then sooner or later we will force the governments to come to terms on the political level.  If we lose this aura of trust, then we lose each other for evermore.  Today is that very moment when culture can determine and give direction to politics.

But a paradoxical situation has emerged today, when the Kremlin has, figuratively speaking, monopolised the function of defending and developing Russian culture and first and foremost of the Russian language in Ukraine.  And what we get is a kind of “package deal”:  if you are a Russian living in Ukraine, or, if you are Ukrainian, but you find the Russian language and Russian culture interesting (I mean this in the ethnic sense here), then you have to get this in one big package that also includes supporting the current Russian regime’ policy in relation to Ukraine, becoming a kind of “fifth column”.  But if you do not want to be a “fifth column”, then you have no other alternative.  I do not think this is right.  I consider that  all the opportunities need to be created inside Ukraine among the Russian speaking residents of Ukraine, for all Ukrainians who find the Russian language and Russian culture interesting.  We need a cultural “dialogue box”, inside which we can gradually restore and even expand interactions.  I know that much is being done in this direction, but right now we need to be doing even more, and we need to be speaking about this.  Speaking about this both for Russia and for those Russian speaking Ukrainians who have doubts about their cultural prospects as of today.  I would be prepared to support the creation in Ukraine of a “Society of Russian culture” with the very broadest enlightenment functions, which would become a “hub” for supporting the most diverse cultural programmes.  But of course it will be up to you to resolve this problem.

A distinct role in preserving this aura of mutual relations between peoples belongs to public opinion leaders;  only they can stand up at least in some measure to the uncurbed propaganda that is taking place today on the federal channels of Russian television.  Everyone whose name and position in society allow him to mould the position of a significant number of people has a duty today to understand that the Ukrainian revolution is his question, the stopping the standoff between our peoples is his responsibility.  I consider it possible in this regard to propose holding a Congress of the Russian and Ukrainian intelligentsia in Kiev or in any other city in the nearest future, even before the elections in the Ukraine—and I am prepared to work towards getting all the significant forces of the Russian elite that are independent of the authorities to take part in it.  I consider that this would be very important both for the Russian people and for the Ukrainian people.

Ukraine has got to become a modern European state.  For this it is necessary to resolve two closely related tasks:  eliminating corruption and attracting foreign investments.

It needs to be said straight out – Ukraine and Crimea are potentially the modern-day analogue of East and West Germanies, where the question of the competitiveness of Western values in a changed world is being resolved.  If the West allows itself  to lose  in this values standoff, this means that something else will follow after Georgia and Ukraine.  We went through all this 70 years ago, we know all this from our common European history.  This means a Marshall Plan for Ukraine is imperative.  A Marshall Plan that—besides the financial component—has got to include an anti-corruption component, which as of today for Ukraine—as for Russia as well, of course, by the way—is just as important as de-nazification  was for Germany in ’45.  These tasks are of comparable importance.  But the main thing is that the success of democratic construction in the Ukraine is the prologue for the creation of  a new Russia – a country of justice and democratic values.  On the other hand, should this fail, expect a continuation of the expansionism that is senseless for Russia but advantageous for the current regime, and this, as I understand it, means war in Europe.  Perhaps a bit sooner, perhaps a bit later.  We need to understand:  this is precisely how the question stands today.

I personally am prepared to do everything to prevent such a scenario, and I think that everybody sitting in this hall may have analogous thoughts.

Thank you very much for your attention.

March, 10, 2014