No More Czars: An Open Russian, Part II

July 16, 2019


July 16, 2019 6:30 AM

A visit with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, ex-oligarch and ex–political prisoner

Editors Note: This article is the second in a two-part series. You can find part one here. Please note, this article was originally published on the National Review website.

Some prisoners emerge untouched by their experience, or essentially untouched. They are in balance. They are without mental and emotional scars. Other prisoners emerge very touched indeed.

To many of us, Mikhail Khodorkovsky seems in the former category: untouched, balanced, happy, serene. What does he say? He says, “I think my family was much more touched than I was.”

In the course of our conversation, I mention “home.” Then I realize that “home” can be a complicated concept to an exile. Where’s home for Khodorkovsky? “Home is where my family is, or a majority of them. If they went to live somewhere else, I’d feel at home there, too.”

He now lives in Britain, and, as I’ve mentioned, we are talking in London. On the very day he arrived in this country, the Russian state hit him with a murder charge: the murder of a Russian mayor in 1998. They do this, the Russian state, comical as it may seem to outsiders.

Asked about the murder charge against him, Khodorkovsky quips, “I’m rather upset because Bill Browder has been accused of several murders while I am charged with only one.”

True, true. Browder — the financial investor who turned human-rights campaigner — stands accused of several murders, including the one of his own lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, whose murder by prison authorities turned Browder into a human-rights campaigner in the first place.

In 2014, Khodorkovsky relaunched his Open Russia, designed to promote democratic values, including the rule of law, in Russia. More recently, Khodorkovsky launched Justice for Journalists, whose purpose is signaled in its name. (The same is true of Open Russia, to be sure.) Russian journalists have a strangely short lifespan. Khodorkovsky is tired of seeing them killed with impunity, and he would like to do something about it.

When he started Justice for Journalists, he said, “All my life I lived in a country where the most dangerous people are not the bandits or the criminals, but the government. And that’s why I see the most important role of journalism as balancing the government.”

I wonder how his fellow Russians abroad treat him. Do they regard him as a hero, an inspiration, an embarrassment, a villain, or what? It depends, says Khodorkovsky. In the U.K., about half the Russians are pro-Putin and about half of them anti-. In other parts of Europe — Germany, for example — the majority of Russians are pro-Putin. They have business interests back home and so on.

Obviously, the anti-Putin Russians like Khodorkovsky more than the pro-Putin Russians do. But he can and does talk to anybody, as long as there is good will. The extreme Putinites are out of the question. But with others, he says, “I always find a common language quite easily.”

I wonder how many people in Russia know about Khodorkovsky and his Open Russia movement. It is hard to give a precise answer, but whatever it is: It is a lower percentage than you might think, or than I would have thought. Khodorkovsky smiles and says, “I think Stalin was unique in that most people knew who he was. At the moment, 97 percent of Russians know who Stalin was.” I tell him, “I wonder about the other 3.”

He then tells me a story — a joke from Soviet times. A woman wants to travel abroad, and, to do this, she must sit in front of a committee and answer some questions — questions regarding the history of the Soviet Union and of the Communist Party.

The first question is: When was the 25th Congress of the Party? The woman says, “I have no idea.”

The committee says, “Okay, tell us when the Communist Party was founded.” Again, “I have no idea.”

The committee finally says, “Do you know who Brezhnev is, at least?” The woman says, “Sorry, no.”

The head of the committee asks her where she lives. She names an obscure provincial town. He sighs, “I want to go live there.”

Khodorkovsky says that Russians as a whole are alienated from politics — “the result of so many years of not being able to influence what happens in politics.” This, says Khodorkovsky, “is the problem of contemporary Russia.”

Was he ever harmed or impeded by anti-Semitism? If you look at responses to him on Twitter, he says, you will find lots of anti-Semitism (par for the course). And he heard about anti-Semitism “in successive Russian governments, including Yeltsin’s.” He heard about statements and grumblings behind the scenes, when he was not present.

“But in practice, I did not really experience anti-Semitism or have problems with it in my life.”

People wonder how much money Khodorkovsky has, from his former fortune. I wonder too — but I don’t ask. News reports estimate hundreds of millions. In any case, it is a fortune, though not like before.

Does he have a business itch he would like to scratch, amid his human-rights work? Does the entrepreneur in him need to start another company? No, he says. “I have no impetus, no stimulus. I have plenty of money. The desire to do something grand, something really large-scale, such as I did in Russia, has disappeared.”

I have the impression that, if he went broke next week, he could make it back in about a year. He does not disagree with me, citing his record. “It’s like a skill, which I have.”

We talk at length about the last three leaders in the Kremlin — from 1985 to the present: Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin. (Dmitry Medvedev was a placeholder for Putin for a few years.) Khodorkovsky has had personal dealings with all of them, and has watched them closely. He considers each of them, in his way, a tragic figure.

“My attitude toward Gorbachev is multi-faceted, not straightforward,” says Khodorkovsky. Gorbachev did a lot of good for the country, in Khodorkovsky’s view — but not necessarily on purpose. This is in interesting contrast with Yeltsin.

“My personal opinion of Yeltsin is quite high,” says Khodorkovsky. “I was there with him on the barricades twice. He was no coward. And that was the most important thing for me. But if we assess him objectively: Putin is, in fact, the inheritor of what Yeltsin put in place. Putin made good use of the things that Yeltsin put in place. So, this extreme presidential control is not the invention of Putin; it is Yeltsin’s.”

Yeltsin’s great, tragic problem, says Khodorkovsky, was that he could not imagine a Russia that departed from the monarchical paradigm: the czar, the master of the Russian lands. Yeltsin did not believe in monarchical dynasty. He did not hand power over to a son. (He had only daughters, regardless.) He did hand power over to Putin.

“Yeltsin,” says Khodorkovsky, “will be remembered as a very Russian czar.”

So, consider Gorbachev and Yeltsin, in the reverse order: “Yeltsin tried to do what was best for the country, but was not quite capable of it. He was a bit too old and not particularly sober by the time he arrived in power. Gorbachev was the opposite. He did not want what was best for the country, but it somehow turned out that he did it.”

Putin? Believe it or not, Khodorkovsky feels pity for him. He believes that Vladimir Putin is utterly unsuited to the leadership of Russia; that he is in way over his head. Putin is a classic KGB man, Khodorkovsky says, trained to see threats everywhere. He is unable to see the opportunities (except for personal corruption). He has no vision of the future of Russia. He has no sense of what it would take to lift Russia up.

Putin is like a guard dog, Khodorkovsky says, very well trained. He knows how to do one thing: guard the master. But when the master collapses on the floor, the dog will not let a physician reach him — and the patient, the master, dies. Putin thinks he is protecting Russia, says Khodorkovsky, but he is doing the country no good. Quite the opposite.

Yeltsin, in effect, told Putin, “Take care of Russia.” And Putin is doing so in the best way he knows how, which is a tragic way. Retrograde.

Having no vision of the future, Putin is holding on to Soviet ways — going into Africa, for instance. Russia needs great change, but Putin is not willing to implement it. Not willing to dare it. International politics — foreign policy — is safer ground for him. The person who brings change to Russia, says Khodorkovsky, will not be loved or liked. Certainly not at first.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky very much wants to change Russia. He wants, in the words of his organization, an open Russia. He sees no reason that Russia cannot be a democratic state — observing the rule of law, affording the rights that people enjoy throughout the world. Russia is not genetically or otherwise barred from joining the family of democratic nations.

What does he want to accomplish with his Open Russia movement? He does not want “to accelerate Putin’s departure,” he says. Putin will eventually go, one way or another. “The key question is, What’s going to happen after his departure? We have a quite unpleasant tradition in Russia of getting rid of one czar, only to see him replaced by another. So what I want to do is try to change that tradition.”

In the eyes of many of us, this is a noble way to spend one’s time — and money — after 17 years in business (so brief a career) and another ten in Russian prisons. At this stage, Khodorkovsky could be putting his feet up, perhaps on a Caribbean island. No one would blame him. Instead, he is in the trenches, on the battlefield. He has his critics, who don’t do half as much good, or who, more likely, do none at all.