No Alternative – Khodorkovsky 10 years later

For years I took flak over my unrelenting position on Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his ridiculous martyr cult. At one point I was banned from a Khodorkovsky support page simply for asking the page’s admins to explain how Khodorkovsky originally made his fortune. The responses I got from them fit nicely with those I got from everyone else. “Sure he was an oligarch,” they’d say, “But everyone was doing what he did in the 90’s!” Actually, “everyone” was not doing the same thing Khodorkovsky did. Most people were trying to survive, and if everyone had been doing what he did, everyone would be as wrong as he was. “He wanted to transform Russia with transparency and rule of law,” they’d say. I “wanted” to join the French Foreign Legion and design video games. Do I deserve a white kepi and a position at Electronic Arts in spite of the fact that I didn’t actually realize either of those youthful ambitions? No? Then I don’t give a damn what Khodorkovsky supposedly “wanted to do.” “You sound like a Kremlin supporter,” some of them would say. The day that people are forced to concede that Russia’s only choices are Putin and Khodorkovsky is the day that we must all acknowledge the country is irreparably doomed. I’m not convinced that day has come.

Those were dark days indeed, when someone like me would be lumped in with the Putin fan club just because I refused to slavishly admire self-manufactured saviors whose sole claim to moral superiority is their professed opposition to Putin and their suffering at the hands of his regime. Surely Russian prisons are full of individuals who curse Putin’s name; I doubt any of them would make good leadership material. To their credit, however, many of those people probably did far less damage to Russian society than Khodorkovsky ever did. In case I haven’t driven the point home hard enough, I am quite confident that if you threw Vladimir Putin into a small room with a rabid male platypus shot up with methamphetamine, that rare freak of nature would probably show itself to be quite opposed to Putin. Notwithstanding this, I would not support its candidacy to lead Russia or any other country for that matter.

After all these years I feel somewhat vindicated by Julia Ioffe’s recent New Yorker piece all about Khodorkovsky, who was famously released from prison in December of 2013. Ioffe points out how Russia’s liberals and opposition tended to hold their tongue about Khodorkovsky while he was in prison, but now that he’s out they feel more relaxed about criticizing him. Perhaps many of them simply got submerged in his PR and forgot how he acquired his position in the first place. Perhaps now that they have begun actually dealing with him face to face or at least directly without Kremlin interference, they are starting to realize who he actually was before he went to prison. Garbage in, garbage out.

One thing I must praise about Ioffe’s work is that she doesn’t cover for Khodorkovsky in the slightest. Doing what other Russian opposition-supporters used to refuse to do, she carefully details the history of how Khodorkovsky amassed his fortune via fraud and connections in the state, along with his personal philosophy that gleefully put profits ahead of people. It was a worldview that characterized 90’s Russia. While millions suffered, a tiny minority partied. Ioffe’s retelling of this all but forgotten story is concise, clear, and incredibly useful to me ever since I gave away my copy of Marshall I. Goldman’s The Piratization of Russia. My edition was published prior to Khodorkovsky’s arrest in 2003, before he had become such a cause célèbre among Russian liberals and their like-minded supporters abroad. Thus the book contained an interesting passage about Khodorkovsky’s then recently-started PR campaign for transparency and better business practices, noting that it remained to be seen whether he would actually back his words with action. My guess is that if Khodorkovsky somehow achieved power in Russia, something he apparently still openly desires, he would not.

The crowning achievement of Ioffe’s article is that it provides the strongest case against Khodorkovsky as an acceptable alternative to Putin using the ex-oligarch’s own words. What I got from reading about the man, his behavior, and his ideas tells me that not only is he wholly unqualified to lead Russia or any other country, but that there is no reason to believe that he wouldn’t either become another Putin, or at least create the sort of conditions which would open the door to another Putin-like figure in the future. At his core, Khodorkovsky embodies the same toxic mentality of post-Soviet Russia. He is narcissistic almost to the point of psychopathy. While seeking the highest power in Russia, he clearly feels no responsibility or accountability to the Russian people by his own open admission. He clearly does not understand the concepts of democracy, nor does he understand the system of government in the Western countries he so admires. His understanding of the world doesn’t seem to be that much more rational than that of Vladimir Putin, and the way he runs his projects suggests that he can be just as dictatorial.

Clearly the strongest indictment against Khodorkovsky, the one which so eloquently demonstrates his lack of understanding and his potential to become another Putin, can be found in this passage:

“He recalled with fondness an old acquaintance, the unfortunate Kenneth Lay, the late C.E.O. of Enron, who was, in Khodorkovsky’s estimation, a thumbs-up kind of guy. The whistle-blowers in that case outraged him: why did people glorify cowardly spies and traitors, and put them on magazine covers?”

Note the utter lack of irony from a man who asserts that he was innocent of any crime, and who was accused of being a traitor to Russia by the government. This is also a man who is supposed to be a “liberal,” who was for years a figure of admiration for Russia’s “liberals,” and yet he has nothing but kind words for a man whom American liberals rightly scorned.There is a far deeper meaning in this sentence, however.

One paradox of Russia is that supporters of the Kremlin and Russia’s “liberals” both see people like Edward Snowden as traitors to their country. Even the enthusiastically pro-Russian Americans, Canadians, Britons, and other Westerners are traitors in the eyes of both Russian sides. In the eyes of the Kremlin supporters and their media organs such as RT, these are useful traitors, but traitors nonetheless. The “liberals” also see traitors, largely because their unqualified admiration of the West and their misguided belief that all politics should be reduced to an absurd false dichotomy.

As it stands today, Russians of all walks of life generally cannot understand an Edward Snowden, a Martin Luther King Jr., or a John Brown, and this is a huge problem. There are times when one’s country, or at least its government, is morally wrong. Opposing this often means breaking the law. Of course Russian liberals would claim that they totally understand this, pointing inaccurately to Khodorkovsky. But Khodorkovsky did not deliberately break an unjust law. He got rich off of the absence of rule of law, and went to jail over his riches. It was the liberals who transformed him into a hero simply because he was opposed to Putin. Merely being opposed to Putin does not denote any moral superiority. Rest assured the Kremlin and all Moscow’s halls of power are crawling with all sorts of individuals who are secretly opposed to Putin, and a great deal of them may be far worse than him.

Getting back to the point about traitors, if Putin can openly and publicly indulge paranoid fantasies about “fifth columnists” and “national traitors,” judging by Khodorkovsky’s own words there is a good possibility he might do the same. This is a man who reviles corporate whistleblowers. How might he react to dissent in his hypothetical regime?  Can Khodorkovsky and many of his supporters truly grasp the slogan, “Dissent is patriotic?” I have my doubts, especially as so many of them are all too willing to label any Westerner who speaks out against their own societies’ as pro-Kremlin dupes, even when they haven’t a kind word for Putin or his clique. How can they supposedly aspire to our standards of human rights and free speech if they expect us not to use them?

What about the topic of rationality? Ioffe’s article reveals that Khodorkovsky has a very bizarre belief about homosexuality, not much unlike the clearly anti-scientific beliefs of Russia’s right-wing legislators. Khodorkovsky suggested that it is a natural evolutionary mechanism for controlling population growth. This isn’t too far removed from the apparent beliefs of infamous figures such as Yelena Mizulina, who often claims her “family values” crusading is aimed at fighting Russia’s population decline, even if it means forcing people who have no sexual attraction to each other to have children they don’t want.  I’m not trying to say this means Khodorkovsky is a raging homophobe; he may very well not be. What I am saying, however, is that he is by no means the voice of reason Russia sorely needs. That the topic which demonstrates this fact happens to be LGBT issues is peripheral.

Of course some of the most disturbing traits which cast doubt on Khodorkovsky’s qualifications to lead Russia are his lack of basic understanding of American government and the fact that he does not speak or read any language fluently other than Russian. When I point out how many of Russia’s pro-Kremlin “geopolitical experts” and “America experts” can’t speak English, it is a source of amusement. These are people whose entire life revolves around hating America and to a lesser extent, the English language. Khodorkovsky and his followers, however, have near uncritical admiration for the US. The US is often presented as an epitome of what Russia could be, and what it should be. Suffice to say it is very important that these people know what they are talking about. Learning that Khodorkovsky doesn’t is pretty damning for him. Sure, many ordinary Russian liberals don’t get the West either, but they don’t have his influence. Khodorkovsky has the money and drive to cause some serious problems.

Khodorkovsky’s unqualified admiration for the West, rooted in ignorance, is part of a larger problem with Russia’s “liberal opposition” going back to the 90’s, if not the late Soviet era with its “dissidents.” These were not sincere advocates of human rights, democracy, and rule of law, but rather they were a cargo cult that believed shouting these phrases repeatedly would some how make the concepts materialize. I’ve said before how confusing it can be for some foreigners hear how Russian government supporters will openly scoff at the words “freedom” and “democracy,” and I have to remind them that this is due to an association of these terms with the breakdown of society in the 90’s. Everybody associated with that disaster seemed to have those terms on their tongue at the same time. ‘Cum hoc ergo propter hoc’ this belief may be, but it is at least understandable. The sad thing is that so many years later, a leading figure of Russia’s liberals still doesn’t seem to get it.

Russia’s early “democrats” or “liberals” never looked at the West critically. They saw only the good, that much is true, but it often seems they never understood how that good came to be.  That’s why “liberal” figures can’t understand why Americans would protest against their government or its foreign policy. “Our government is so much worse! Look at all the stuff you have!” Indeed, the American government is morally and structurally superior to that of Russia, but it is far from perfect and it took decades of struggle just to get it there. If Russia ever throws off the yoke of its own system and adopts a functioning form of liberal democracy, there will still be massive issues which must be tackled. What exactly did all those advocates of “civil society” expect civil society to do once they unchained it?  Russia’s “liberals” then, as it seems they do now, saw the West’s freedom and prosperity as something they could “get,” not something which had to be earned and relentlessly guarded. This is what they offered in the 90’s, and they failed to deliver. Eventually, a man came along and offered them something else, “stability.” That, of course, was Putin.

This is what I mean when I say that Khodorkovsky seems to embody the same bankrupt mentality that has been strangling post-Soviet Russia from the beginning.  Putin promised to give people order and most of all, “stability.” Nobody had to actually do anything other than give up their choice and rights. Now Khodorkovsky comes along offering “democracy” again, and all the Russian people will have to do is give him the same deference they gave Putin. Nobody has to struggle for anything, nobody has to work to actually make rule of law or democracy a reality. All you need is a cult of one man and a belief that he will hand you everything you want.

The other indicator that Khodorkovsky is cut from the same cotton-padded material as Putin is his utter lack of accountability for his past actions. He feels absolutely no responsibility to the people of Russia. Now Russian citizens are supposed to grant this man power over them? What is to stop him from becoming another Putin? What is to stop him from musing about Pushkin and bears eating berries in the forest at a press conference fifteen years after he somehow gains power in Russia? I think what a lot of people fail to see when Putin rambles on about his fantastical view of the world is that he’s sees things that way because he’s insulated and isolated from reality. He has never truly been held accountable for his actions in power and he’s never really had to face their consequences. He feels no responsibility to Russia’s citizenry whatsoever, and his utter lack of a coherent plan in the face of the looming economic meltdown is proof of that. Now here we have Mikhail Khodorkovsky in this interview, demonstrating quite clearly that he has the same psychopathic lack of accountability for his actions. It wouldn’t be long before such a man sitting in Putin’s chair might begin to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor.

I often tell leftists in the US that Russia is no alternative to the society we have there. Likewise Khodorkovsky is no alternative to Putin. What is more, he seems bent on financing and directing a revolution from abroad, one which will clearly do little more than get a lot of otherwise well-meaning people harassed, jailed, or worse. Of course Khodorkovsky won’t feel pity for them. He owes apologies to no one, even those who go to prison naively supporting his cause. For that reason alone his cause should fail. I only hope it does not drag too many of Russia’s last independent-minded people down with it.


8 thoughts on “No Alternative – Khodorkovsky 10 years later

  1. Asehpe

    Out of curiosity, who would you see as a good alternative to Putin (or Khodorvosky) in Russia? Who might actually do a better (albeit imperfect, for all the cultural reasons you mention) job of steering Russia in the right direction? Navalny? Udaltsov? (I know this comes dangerously close to “if not Putin, then who?”, but to some extent this is a valid question– whoseever fault this is, it does seem the case that the Russian society has not really developed any potential leader who could do a better job than Putin… which might in the end make Khodorkovsky a plausible alternative. Despite all his shortcomings, he and his “change of heart” just might be able to nudge Russia in the right direction.)

    In other words, mightn’t even Khodorkovsky be better than just tossing the coin after some little post-Putin chaos and hoping that whoever ends up in the Kremlin has a better sense of reality than Putin?

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Very tough question. Honestly at the moment, I see no one. But I have to qualify that by pointing out that Putin deliberately engineered the system that way. If you want to survive in political circles, you don’t show yourself to be a potential leader. You play your role. That, incidentally, is what ensures disaster after he leaves, one way or another.

      Obviously that collapse and a power vacuum opens the potential for positive change, but only because there’s no potential at all now, and I don’t think that is unlikely. It is said that Putin manages ethnic nationalism, one of the most dangerous threats to Russia, but at the same time he covertly cultivates it too. Far-right wing extremism would dwarf the nationalist presence in the Maidan movement, for one thing. I’ll be honest, I don’t see much hope for this place even after Putin, and the fact that he created this scenario is probably the worst thing he’s ever done.

      All I can think of is that maybe it’s time for Russian citizens to change their politics so as not to be based so much around charismatic leaders and their cults. One thing you’ll notice about Maidan is that it never had one leader. Occupy had virtually no one who could claim leadership(to be fair that was by design). Most protest movements are about politics and policies, not people.

      On the other hand, look at that Navalny movement. Of course you can extrapolate political ideas from his recent case- again a lack of independent courts and rule of law. But its so focused on Navalny the man. This is really bad in a very atomized society where people care very little about others, or at least those outside their family. When the movement is about ideas, people can understand how they may benefit from their implementation instead of deciding whether or not they like this or that blogger. Also, it’s a lot easier to say that Navalny is a fifth columnist working for the US than it is to say that a movement for say, independent courts is anything but a movement for independent courts.

  2. Maria

    “How can they supposedly aspire to our standards of human rights and free speech if they expect us not to use them?”–Very well put!

  3. Bandersnatch

    I have to say here Sisterfriend, MK was punished for 10 years in a Russian prison. And even though it was not for stealing and exploiting and obviously for threatening Putin’s power, he still went to prison for a decade. Which is more than many other oligarchs can say. I don’t think MK is a martyr. And people make way too much of him, agreed. But let’s at least recognize that he got his. And many others didn’t.

    1. Dimitri

      Yes, but he deserved it. Going to prison for crimes you actually committed is not the same as being punished for petty politics.

      What about Alexei Kudrin as an alternative? He seems to at least understand economics.

      1. Jim Kovpak Post author

        He is a very intelligent person and very honest. Then again even Medvedev is far more realistic and honest in comparison to Putin, who rarely seems to talk about any real issues these days. But still, I think movements based on personalities won’t work in Russia. It needs to be about concrete ideas.

    2. Jim Kovpak Post author

      To be fair, when this came up in 2013 I did say, “Alright, he served a decade for tax evasion.” My problem at that point was that he wasn’t punished for his much greater crimes.

  4. Asehpe

    Kudrin? Medvedev? Unless the media establishes a myth (and in Medvedev’s case, is that even remotely possible now?), I don’t see them getting any power. Shoigu maybe? I don’t know. The one that creeps me out, though, is Surkov. For some reason, he makes me think of a younger, and admittedly more hipster-like version of Dr Strangelove. I hope he never comes close to becoming president.


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