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What Khodorkovsky Knows About Freedom

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, until last week Russia’s most famous political prisoner, gave an interview to a group of Russian-speaking journalists in Berlin over the weekend that showed both why he was such a threat to Vladimir Putin and why he is no longer such a threat. The New York Times has a translation of the interview, and it’s notable for both his clear-eyed understanding of the politics of freedom as well as his personal modesty inflected with a sense of defeat.

The most obvious reason Khodorkovsky was a threat, of course, was money. He was an oligarch in the most important industry–oil–and therefore was in position to test Putin’s autocratic tendencies. Khodorkovsky was emblematic of virtually every aspect of the new Russia: the concentration of wealth thanks to what economist Marshall Goldman has called the “piratization of Russia” after the fall of Communism, the bare-knuckle business world of the Yeltsin years, and the strongman politics of Putin’s reassertion of state power and control.

When Khodorkovsky challenged Putin in the political sphere–virtually unavoidable for an oilman in the era of pipeline politics–Putin made him pay the only way an unreformed KGB thug knows how: he stole everything of Khodorkovsky’s and locked him up on trumped-up convictions after a show trial. Now that Khodorkovsky has been freed as part of Putin’s pre-Olympics public-relations campaign, will Khodorkovsky–once considered the best hope for the opposition, and a far more appealing candidate than the nationalist Aleksei Navalny–rejoin the political sphere? Probably not:

Q: Are you going to be involved in politics?

A: I am not going to be involved in politics as a fight for power. But if we are talking about the fight for liberation of political prisoners, not just the Yukos ones … how can I behave otherwise? I don’t think that even our power would expect me not to do it. Not to do or say anything.

But in the larger sense I have a position which I don’t think was the reason for my arrest, but nevertheless I declared it back in 2002-3. I think the Russian problem is not just the president as a person, the problem is that our citizens in the large majority don’t understand that their fate, they have to be responsible for it themselves. They are so happy to delegate it to, say, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and then they will entrust it to somebody else, and I think that for such a big country as Russia this is the path to a dead end. Which, in a particular fashion, is where we are now.

You have to explain, “Hey, guys, if you want to live in a democratic country, you have to change the system.” I always took the stand that Russia has to be not only really democratic, but a parliamentary system, or — for the start — a parliamentary-presidential situation.

And the problem is not just that the present government doesn’t like this, the current society doesn’t like it. And you have to persuade it.

Putin can breathe a sigh of relief, one supposes, that he will not be opposed by Khodorkovsky, though it’s not as though Khodorkovsky has many options. For now, he probably can’t return to Russia at all, let alone regain the financial clout necessary to have a singular voice in Putin’s Russia. It’s no surprise that Putin won this battle; the deck was, and remains, stacked against his opponents. Khodorkovsky has been left without much of a venue or platform for political activism, even if he’s become an icon of those hoping for a freer Russia.

At the same time, the Russian opposition would do well to take Khodorkovsky’s advice. He understands that Putin is the main obstacle to democracy, but not the only obstacle. He elaborates more on this point later in the interview, and offers a glimpse of just how potent an opposition figure he could be:

Q: Does the opposition in Russia have any future, and who is the main person there?

A: I don’t agree with the very paradigm of the juxtaposition of Putin versus an opposition leader. And the most important person in the opposition, I don’t agree with this paradigm. If you have a most important person in the opposition, as a result you will get another Putin. Maybe not us but our children. Vladimir Vladimirovich is a healthy man. So it could go on for a long time.

I think the opposition will be real when the society will acquire a need for self-governance, to take its fate in its own hands. And there will not be the very main person to whom we entrust our future. But there will be different structures, parties, deputies and so on — those people whom we as citizens and voters will appoint. Or control. They will represent our interests, and when they will stop representing our interests, we will remove them. But not one person.

At present, the perspective of opposition is not very strong, particularly because this request in the society is articulated pretty weakly, although much more strongly than it was 10 years ago.

There is a difference between freedom and self-government. They are intertwined, but they are not the same thing. Freedom is a noble goal, and in 2013 it is long overdue to those who want it. True freedom must be political, however, and not just personal. Without political freedom, there is no way to safeguard any other kind of freedom.

That’s been the lesson of Putin’s Russia. Putin’s grand bargain with the Russian people was that they could have their American movies, their Italian operas, their French wine, their German cars–they just had to stay away from Russian politics. But of course businessmen–like Khodorkovsky–as well as artists, teachers, musicians, and the like ended up in prison. Journalists too, though too often they were simply eliminated.

Khodorkovsky’s advice for Russians who truly want to be free is to replace the system, not just replace Putin. It’s easier said than done, of course. But he is also probably correct that those who invest their hopes in one person are bound for disappointment. And perhaps some jail time.

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