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