Khodorkovsky’s time

By John Lloyd
December 27, 2013

After ten years in prison, one surreal day of release and a private jet to Berlin, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, was facing the press in the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, which houses an exhibition in his honor.

Facing a scrum of reporters, Khodorkovsky was rational and in command of his surroundings. He was modest about his suffering. In the camps, he said, “they can still demean people, put pressure on people, but the hunger, the cold that prisoners spoke about in the past, that doesn’t happen now.”

The political prisoner who comments so judiciously about the conditions of his imprisonment is rare. Even rarer is one who can make a joke. Khodorkovsky said he “won’t be buying a football team,” making a dig at fellow oil magnate Roman Abramovich’s well-known ownership of Chelsea Football Club.

Khodorkovsky’s release is likely a public relations cleanup ahead of the winter Olympic games in the Russian Black Sea region of Sochi. It could also be, as Julia Ioffe wrote in the New Republic, the display of clemency by one who reserves the right to loosen just as much as he will bind.

For the moment, Khodorkovsky retains the power to attract attention and to sway minds — at least as long as media attention will last. He has established a credible track record of concern for his country — a country that has seen little real concern for human rights, that now faces a worsening economy and that has few of the structural reforms that could raise the growth rate and living standards. With his present fame and past record, Khodorkovsky could do much for Russia. His most valuable deed could be to confront the legacy of his class.

The oligarchs, of whom Khodorkovsky was a leading member, became fabulously rich in the early 1990s. They had the quickness of insight and courage to grasp what the collapse of the Soviet Union was offering: the vast mineral wealth of a country where all resources, industry and services had been commanded by the state.

Everything was for sale, mostly through auction. The people were issued vouchers entitling them to a share of the wealth, however, most — hard-up in a world in which pay and pensions were often stopped for months — sold them to their companies or to the new class of banker-oligarchs.

In the mid 1990s, as the Russian government was desperate for money to fund President Boris Yeltsin’s re-election, the banker- oligarchs proposed that they be given shares in the most valuable assets — mainly energy — in return for huge loans from their banks. A new class was born and the mega-yacht industry was given a new lease on life.

It was a dirty deal, organized for (and partly by) insiders. Yet it was probably the least bad solution for an economy that could swing back into the hands of the Communist Party, which had increased its popularity. But if it was the least bad solution, it was also desperately unfair.

A state where most people lived in rough equality became the wildest of capitalist societies. The Mercedes limousines of the new wealthy class splashed dirty snow on rows of begging babushkas at metro stations. The capitalist transition left Russia with a super-wealthy top layer, a growing middle class, and mass poverty; especially in the small towns and villages that were once sustained by state farms and enterprises.

Khodorkovsky spent much of the 1990s constructing a corporation to rival the western oil giants and he became a multi-billionaire in the process. In the 2000s, he began to change. He put some of his fortune toward the service of civic renewal in the years before his imprisonment. He spoke of the need for democratic renewal. He harshly criticized corruption at the top of government. On one memorable public occasion his criticism was directed at Putin, who saw him as a competitor for his seat. That act of  resistance may have cost him his freedom. The supreme leader cannot bear to be challenged in public.

A decade later, Khodorkovsky’s defiance of the state and his subsequent punishment gives him the moral platform to lead a reflection on what big business has meant for the Russian masses, what corruption it rests on, and what copycat corruption it prompts in officials. He can fund real analytic work on what can be done to reorient the economy to one that ensures the needs of the majority are better met and the still-frail institutions of civil society are given support.

The great robber barons of the late nineteenth century in the U.S. — John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie — gave much of their fortunes to civic causes. Khodorkovsky might see something in their examples. But in addition to philanthropy, he should develop a critique of his government that points not only at its corruption and its repression, but also illuminates how little post-Soviet society has done for the Russian people — many of whom were glad to see the old era go and many of whom now regret that it did.

It will be a hard row to hoe, not least because, if Khodorkovsky is a hero to many in the West, he is a thief to many in Russia. But he can do his life’s best work.

PHOTO: Freed Russian former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky (R) poses with father Boris and son Pavel (L), ahead of a news conference in the Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, December 22, 2013. REUTERS/Michael Kappeler/Pool 

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Comments
23 comments so far

This article is not John Lloyd’s normal style.

A bit too sugar-coated, too sweet. The word sycophant comes to mind. The youth of today call it kiss-up.

Part of our human nature, unfortunately. Who isn’t susceptible to it?

The story of the oligarchs is so much deeper and darker.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

“it was probably the least bad solution for an economy that could swing back into the hands of the Communist Party”

Your “least bad solution” involved allowing the crown jewels of the country — oil, gas, nickel, etc — to be given to a small group of oligarchs. Anyone who wants a little more reality with their news should go to the CFR’s website and read “Putin and the Oligarchs.”

I’ll bet Lloyd thinks the choice Bush II and Obama made was correct because there were only two alternatives: doom or hundreds of billions of dollars worth of bailouts given with no conditions. Here’s a clue: there are many shades of grey in life.

Here’s another bit of trivia: Clinton pushed Yeltsin to sell the country’s assets. He said regarding the 1996 elections, “I want this guy to win so bad it hurts.” At the WSJ read “Yeltsin’s Russia.”

And guess who was running Treasury during Clinton’s reign of terror? Larry Summers, Timmy Geithner, and Bob Rubin. And guess who was running Obama’s Treasury until recently? Geithner and Summers. Are you noticing a trend here in terms of giving all assets to a handful of oligarchs?

Posted by baroque-quest | Report as abusive

Why do you make a distinction between political parties reign of terror destroying America? Your “Soma” medication must be working good. (Brave New World Predictions by Aldus Huxley)

Posted by Vuenbelvue | Report as abusive

Maybe he should confront the bloody legacy of his tribe.

Ideological shape-shifters. Communist killers then, capitalist thieves now.

Posted by f00 | Report as abusive

I hope that Mr. Khodorkovsky will be wise enough to follow Mr. Gusinsky’s path. Going to Israel, and live long and prosper.
The confrontation with Putin would end up with nothing. As Mr. Berezovsky’s life perfectly showed.
Khodorkovsky’s time as a public figure is long over. But he can live his life happily.
But please further from Russia.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

Just a comment from one who was there in the 1990′s when dead bodies were strewn by the wayside from St Petersburg to far off UFA in the race to seize mineral assets. No one seems to ask the key Question as to how Mikhail Borisovich K’s Menatep bank was able to pay $300mm for Yukos assets. The answer is that he electronically paid an account of the State with a loan from the Central Bank. An electronic debit and a credit. With no money down he became the owner of a multi-billion dollar enterprise. If any Central Bank officials balked, partner Nevzlin was there as the trigger man. As for Roman A, he attached himself to Berezovsky who used Chechen warlords as his trigger men. This alliance between Jews and (radical violent) Muslims is common in Russia. As insurance in the West MBK maintained on retainer Rothschild in the UK and Kissinger in the USA hoping to have Blair and Bush in his pocket for the few million he shelled out each year. When this insurance policy refused to pan out, they called me. I tried but Siloviki member Bogdanchikov turned it down saying “too late, what will be will be”.. Explains why the common Russians think MBK is a “thief”, no different than any of the other old Oligarchs. As for his “wealth”, he does not have it. Remains to be seen if Nevzlin will part with the $3billion or so that he stashed away from non Russian asset sales safe under his own control in Israeli banks. Be interesting to follow the “come-to-Jesus” meeting between the two old comrades-in-arms after ten long years. As for Roman A, the man is smart and well entrenched in London. Unlike MBK, he corrupted the “right” conduit to Blair – Lord Goldsmith. MBK is whistling Dixie if he thinks he can touch Roman A through the UK courts, or scare him employing trigger-men… http://www.houseofshah.com

Posted by Bludde | Report as abusive

@Vuenbelvue

I am assuming you were referring to my comment. Next time, use one of these techniques:
@baroque-quest
baroque-quest wrote “.”

I did not differentiate between the parties. I could have included examples of incompetence of all presidents from Reagan to Obama, but then my comment would have been very long and unreadable. Clinton’s actions were relevant to Lloyd’s post so I included them. And you ignored the part about “the choice Bush II and Obama made.”

Making remarks such as “Your ‘Soma’ medication must be working good” only serves to confirm everyone’s opinion of you as a pile of smegma.

Posted by baroque-quest | Report as abusive

@Bludde

Good post.

Yulia Latynina commented that Berezovsky “demonstrated a remarkable ability to change his testimony every five minutes, saying whatever he thought would be most advantageous at any given moment and never worrying about the truth.” And that’s why he lost in his recent suit against Abramovich. Khodorkovsky has been reborn in the eyes of the West, with everyone forgetting (if they ever knew in the first place) that he is no different than Putin, Berezovsky, and the rest. It was amusing for Khodorkovsky to call for the release of former oligarch Yulia Tymoshenko (a/k/a the gas princess) given that they are two of a kind.

Posted by baroque-quest | Report as abusive

Are these glowing pro Khodorkovsky PR articles paid for or it’s someone’s IOU?

Posted by boreal | Report as abusive

“Insight and courage”? Where did “murder” go? Oh, wait- the tribe writes the history. I forgot.

Posted by rvm3 | Report as abusive

Yukos was built by a string of assassinations. Berezhovsky could have been hanged in Red Square.

Posted by rvm3 | Report as abusive

In discussing the plunder of Russia by the tribe, let’s not forget the role played by Jeffrey Sachs, who went over there on the taxpayer’s dime then abandoned this role in order to grab as much for himself as he could. All the while, Sachs advocated for the “shock therapy,” the tribal euphemism for hundreds of thousands of Soviets starving and freezing to death.

Posted by rvm3 | Report as abusive

Dear Mr. Lloyd,

You see, the problem propagandists of your class have, is that there still remain people with long attention span and capable of independent thinking and analysis. No matter how hard media here tries to breed brave new generations with attention span of few days, ready to swallow and promulgate whatever they are told, and without any ability and desire to think, analyze, and put things in perspective of facts, the present and the past.

Nevertheless, the few with attention span and ability to think may ask you: how can you speak of morality and forget the murder of the just elected popular mayor of the city where YUKOS’s main assets were located? The man that was on a hunger strike, protesting the YUKOS’s purchase by Khodorkovsky’s bank? The murder that happened on MK’s 35th birthday? The murder that let thousands of protesters in that city march on YUKOS’s headquarters, as they were convinced that mayor’s blood is upon YUKOS? The murder that mayor’s widow still blames on MK and his associates?

Well, as you say, or rather imply, – why should we remember Salvador Allende? Let us focus on Litvinenko instead. But even that becomes harder and harder – you know, those without the attention span do not remember, those with – know better. Bummer.

Morality, you say?

Posted by BraveNewWrld | Report as abusive

I was in Moscow in the summer of 1995 when the General / Advisor to Yeltsin went “Gus-hunting”. Gusinsky boarded his helicopter and flew straight for the Airport. His “protector” – Yuri Luzkov – Mayor of Moscow, let him exit for Israel, an option not available to Berezovsky. It appears that neither the author, nor the commentators, are aware that Israel has secret protocol arrangements with the “dreaded” Putin. Berezovsky was persona non grata in Israel which is why he had to shell out 3 million GBP to Blair for 3 passports in 3 different aliases. I suspect that MBK is similarly barred from Israel (Nevzlin insurance?) which is why he plans to reside in Switzerland – the Swiss, being neutral, not having any protocols with Russia. With Cameron in power, and without access to his “loot”, a UK passport is impossible. When the Germans awake to the reality that, without Nevzlin, MBK does not have any real money, they will abandon him too. Most unfortunate but the reality is that “Money Talks and BS Walks”..

Posted by Bludde | Report as abusive

This guy is a dodgy criminal who came to power with the help of the Jewish Mafia. He embezzled billions, then he tried selling the nation’s oil wealth for pennies to the highest bidder. (Chevron) Frankly, he should be happy that he was not hanged for treason.

Posted by Renox | Report as abusive

As another person who was visiting Russia several times in the early 1990′s and working on setting up a small business employing Russian technical people, to mutual benefit, it soon became apparent that I was in way over my head. Protection rackets and gangsters murdering each other, were everywhere, just as Bludde says. It was apparent to me that successful people, or even people who looked like they might become successful, needed to act illegally and against common morality, have body guards, and even be ready to kill others to protect their business. I have taken much interest in the specific lives the Russian oligarchs, but have little doubt that they must all be criminals.

Mr. Lloyd, as others suggest above, in my opinion you are ignorant of the situation, or you diminish yourself by drooling over just another money-grubbing, power-hungry oligarch.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

Correcting a typo:

As another person who was visiting Russia several times in the early 1990′s and working on setting up a small business employing Russian technical people, to mutual benefit, it soon became apparent that I was in way over my head. Protection rackets and gangsters murdering each other, were everywhere, just as Bludde says. It was apparent to me that successful people, or even people who looked like they might become successful, needed to act illegally and against common morality, have body guards, and even be ready to kill others to protect their business. I have not taken much interest in the specific lives the Russian oligarchs, but have little doubt that they must all be criminals.

Mr. Lloyd, as others suggest above, in my opinion you are ignorant of the situation, or you diminish yourself by drooling over just another money-grubbing, power-hungry oligarch.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

Let’s dig a little deeper for the truth
http://www.voltairenet.org/article168007 .html

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

This oligarch sounds like a typical Russian opportunist or “capitalist” in the poorest of definitions, more like a thief as the average Russian see’s him. If he REALLY wanted to help his country he would find a stable uncontroversial residence and hire a brilliant person schooled in democratic institutions and Russian history. He would then establish a relationship with an independent media outlet and begin a news and commentary line where the average Russian can provide ideas. Under the byline of Mikhail he would begin the serious dialog with the average Russian about what the institutions and constitution and legal principles the “New Russia” should have, so that a lasting representative government could emerge.

Posted by gregio | Report as abusive

Dear Mr Lloyd – Oxford Don of Journalism…. It is the height of indiscretion of me to name names, dates, and places BUT I figure it is water under the bridge. It is a matter of record, even my involvement. When I was a guest in a London Mansion and privy to one end of a telephone conversation between an “Indian Oligarch” and Blair’s representative – replete with epithets cursing those damn Russians for raising the price of Baksheesh – I was truly shocked. I never imagined it was possible in jolly old England. The next day I confided to a “Temple” Barrister that we had retained, and that evening to an Editor at the Independent. While the Barrister was doubtful, the Editor tried to publish BUT was stopped by “Lord” O’Reilly. The Newspaper was fearful of the “dogs being unleashed”. I later found out that meant “Inland Revenue” – an old Nixonian tactic familiar to Americans which was pciked up by President Obama it seems, to stop the Tea Party.

Posted by Bludde | Report as abusive

This man became a billionaire without owning a single penny, amazing story, just that “amazing story”. How it all unfolded is so convoluted and unbelievable, a man who is a “hero from zero”.

Posted by politicaljunkie | Report as abusive

Khodorvksy is done with trashing Russia. He got a few hundreds millions stashed somewhere, and first thing he will surface up, will be…Israel- no extradition. Same as Nevzlin, waiting for the murder charges.

Posted by kommy | Report as abusive

Any man who can afford $4,400 a night in the Adlon is not fit to speak for people. he, like the rest of the pack of vultures, are eating up the planet and have absolutely no scruples. It’s a DNA thing… You either have humanity, altruism, and a sense of sustainability, or you don’t. If you don’t, you get to the top, and really valuable people just have to bend …. Then comes revolution.

Posted by Talleyrand02 | Report as abusive
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