Speech to Prague Forum 2000

October 12, 2014

The following speech text from Mikhail Khodorkovsky was delivered this evening at the Forum 2000 conference in Prague titled “Democracy and Its Discontents: A Quarter-Century After the Iron Curtain and Tiananmen.”


1. Dear Friends, It is a great honor for me to address this Forum, one of the founders of which was the prominent European humanist and democrat Vaclav Havel.

Twenty-five years ago, Prague became the capital of the “Velvet Revolution”. But the revolution would not have been all that “velvet” had it not been preceded by the great “Prague Spring” . Speaking figuratively, without Havel and Dubček there would never have been a Gorbachev as we know him. Without Gorbachev there would never have been a perestroika. Without perestroika there would never have been the Russian thaw against the backdrop of which the “Velvet Revolutions” took place. The fresh wind of change that blew from Prague in the distant year of 1968 came right back here twenty years later, changing the world forever.

2. The Prague Spring re-inaugurated the era of dissidence, it made heroes out of those who do not march in lockstep with everybody else, those who are not afraid of speaking out against an aggressive “super-majority”. Inseparably linked to dissidence in its turn is a new chapter in the history of political repressions. Many worthy people paid with their freedom, and some even with their lives, in order to travel the road from the “Prague Spring” to the “Velvet Autumn of Communism”. Thanks to the heroism of these people the dissident movement won a moral rather than a political victory over the totalitarian regimes. It is important to remember this, especially in today’s Russia, where great courage is once again required even to merely not blend into the crowd.

3. Political repressions in Russia, the so called“new Russian political prisoners” shall be the subjects that will I dwell upon relentlessly. I shall specifically dedicate my major speech in Oslo two weeks from now to this topic. But today I would like to talk about something different – the strategy and the tactics of the democratic movement in Russia against the backdrop of the rapidly escalating degradation of the political regime and its drift towards “neo-totalitarism”.

4. Following an emotional upsurge that characterized the movement “in favor of the fair elections”, which in its turn resulted from the protests against rigging of the results of Parliamentary elections in 2011, the Russian democratic movement went into decline marked by confusion and despair. Under such circumstances many people who suffer from internal discomfort watching Russia recoil back into the Soviet past continue to be passive spectators, putting their trust entirely into dipping oil prices. It’s not that oil prices could not possibly drop – no one can rule this out!- but the effect thereof could turn out quite different from what many are secretly counting upon. Despite all of the difficulties confronting the Russian economy today one should not underestimate its potential and the level of diversification.

Therefore sitting back and doing nothing expecting that world market changes will naturally eliminate all of the political problems and open up the road to democracy in Russia would be at the very least imprudent. Dropping oil prices per se will not be a decisive factor in the democratization of Russia, no new political order will come about overnight after stock exchange plummeting.

5. There is a social class in Russia which in general terms takes interest in democratic change and is capable of standing up to the required historical and political challenge of reforming the Russian society and the state on the new democratic basis. But from a political prospective this is still but a “proto-class” that has so far reduced itself to a state of powerful political dormancy. Nevertheless, one can’t afford not to notice it: Russian capitalism is not made up entirely of “Putin’s Friends”. There are millions of independent entrepreneurs who develop their businesses across the country and shape up the new economy against all odds. There are tens of millions of well-educated solid professionals who go step by step forming a new “middle class”. These people are not into politics and hardly ever exchange comments in social networks. Instead they meticulously improve an enormous country each in his own place. They will grow … modern technologies extract the notorious oil, build roads, set up retail chains – in other words, they do business. They are the fore-runners of the true Russian middle class. It has not yet come into being, but it is in the making. And therefore there are the prerequisites for both democracy and liberalism. Today’s strategic objective is to awake this class to an active political life, to make it aware of its political interests and to incite it to start acting, to take charge of the democratic movement for the sake of its own benefit as well as that of the entire Russian society .

6. The biggest problem lies in the formulation for the benefit of the democratic movement of only such political tasks that it is capable of handling. Today we have in front of us an obstacle course of multiple “minor chores”. Noone is fond of chores and drills – and this come very handy for the regime trying to maintain its legitimacy. they distract their kind from direct confrontation with the regime. Of course we would all like to see the Good win a quick the victory the Evil, an instantaneous collapse of autoritarianism, a crashing defeat of the corruption and a complete annihilation of lawlessness. Yet one should not propose to the people the methods they are not ready for. It takes sweating it out to fully appreciate the change. It takes meticulous assembly of the infrastructure of the civil society and maturation of a class which shall become the builder of the Russian democracy. Therefore the priority should be given to the small thing and drills, they can help accumulate the potential indispensable for real and not decorative change.

7. Why do the democrats have to take up boring routine and sometimes dangerous instead of just waiting and anticipating the “last and decisive” battle with the autocratic regime? Because neglect of routine democratic work, expectation of the impact of the world crisis and contemplation of the revolution does not and never has brough about anything worthy in Russia. Actually, deteriorating world markets coupled with the impact of the anti-Russian sanctions may at a certain point trigger a coup d’état in Russia similar to the one that had taken place almost 100 years ago in 1917. But is unlikely that it brings about constitution-based rule of law.

8. At the same time one should not cherish illusions to the extent that the regime will relax and give the democrats an opportunity to peacefully go about their “little business”, such as “defending of political prisoners and seemingly futile” election battles at all levels for the purpose of mobilization of the power of civil society. No totalitarian regime will passively observe anybody training its undertaker. In Russia in particular little business usually entails huge repercussions. It is therefore conceivable that the democrats in Russia will have to endure challenging trials. There will be heroes and victims, there will be pressure and detentions. Under certain scenarios repressions may become massive if the regime senses a real danger. Because this regime has nowhere to fall back to, it has gone so far that its peaceful evolution into something decent seems highly unlikely. Therefore hearts and minds will be hardened and we should be ready for it.

9. One of the major threats to the democratic movement in Russia is the precipice between the democratically minded masses and their vanguard. The history of Russia teaches us that the more passive the democratic mass is, the more radicalized its vanguard becomes. There is simply no other solution to this problem then for them to move towards one another. On the one hand, the political vanguard must appreciate the actual condition of the democratic masses and be able to monitor its sentiment and the degree of readiness for change. On the other hand, millions of the so-called “concealed democrats” who are not form of totalitarianism “deep in their minds” and condemn it out-loud only in their “kitchen-talk”, must support and respect their political vanguard, the ones who are already to give up their consumer comfort, their freedom and sometimes their life for the sake of the decent future for Russia. True, to a man on the street these people appear at times embarrassing , they look obsessed, harsh too straight-forward and sometimes even obnoxious. But without such people there is no moving forward, they are the catalyst of change. Ilya Erenbourg once called the “left vanguard” a quintessential contemporary art from that can be consumed in its pure form but when diluted materialized in hundreds of masterpieces of writers, painters and composers of the future generations. The political activists of today are in essence the gist of the Russian democracy, their fighting deserves support and appreciation on the part of the class whose interests they defend so courageously.

10. One more observation: The isolation of Russia is only in the heads of those who have sealed themselves out of the real life inside the Kremlin wall. Russia is a part of the global economic and political system and other states, including the United States and the members of the European Union can influence the situation in Russia. But here comes a word of caution. It’s just that one should be very careful using this influence since its result can sometimes be worlds apart from the desired. It appears that the imposition of sanctions was inevitable and warranted in the situation when the Kremlin regime turned into Europe’s main bully But getting carried away with sanctions is not advisable either – it is a tricky instrument and an excessive isolation of Russia, especially in the field of culture may actually play into the hands of the regime. Visa restrictions hurt the self-esteem of the new class in the making that perceives itself an in integral part of Europe. The reaction of the international community should be targeted not against Russia but towards creating an atmosphere of moral alienation for the champions of the regime, at the prevention of export of corruption and unprecedented laundering of money stolen from the Russian people. More often than not a more efficient means of achieving this task is not as much the sanctions but strict fulfilment of relevant applicable anti-corruption and counter –laundering laws and the international agreements. The Russian democratic movement is in need of sophisticated and considerate influence rather than continuous pressure on Russia and Europe and I hope that the European civil society, including its representatives at this Forum will help us foster such a coordinated effort.