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‘I’m not trying to climb to the top’ Meduza’s interview with Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Source: Meduza
Photo: Christopher Morris / VII / Corbis / Vida Press

After spending more than 10 years in prison, Mikhail Khodorkovsky received a presidential pardon in December 2013 and went free. In the year and a half since, the former businessman—once Russia's most famous political prisoner—has managed to meet with dozens of oppositionists, entrepreneurs, human rights activists, and state officials. He reestablished Open Russia, which today is a website, an organizer of lectures, and a protest community. (In April 2015, police raided Open Russia's Moscow office.) Khodorkovsky insists he is a social figure, not a political actor. His goal, he says, is to change the country, pulling Russia out of isolation and restoring political and economic competition. Meduza's co-founder and deputy chief editor, Ivan Kolpakov, spoke to Khodorkovsky about the reasons for the raid of Open Russia's Moscow office, his ties to activist Alexei Navalny and Russia's new democratic electoral coalition, the role of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in Russia today, and about Russian bureaucracy.

"I want to change the country"

If you could relive the last year and a half, what would you do? 

Overall, I’d say I did what I wanted. I gradually raised the level of [my own] awareness and rebuilt the organizational structure that I thought needed rebuilding. Of course, if at the beginning of this path to awareness and preparedness I’d had everything I’ve gathered now, after a year and a half, then I certainly could have avoided many mistakes. And I could have done it all a little faster and cheaper than what I've done so far. 

I am, of course, very happy that I managed to be with my mother for her final six months on Earth. [Marina Khodorkovskaya passed away in Berlin in August 2014.] Probably if I'd known that the doctor wasn't mistaken, I'd have seen even more [of her], though my mother wanted to spend more time in Russia. [Khodorkovsky's mother didn't relocate to Germany immediately to be reunited with her son.]

Mikhail Khodorkovsky with his parents in Berlin on December 22, 2013.
Photo: Michael Kappeler / Pool / AFP / Scanpix

You weren't tempted to return to Russia to be with your mother? 

I know exactly whom I'm dealing with. I still think they're playing a game with me and they're playing to win. I simply cannot weaken my position by becoming dependent on my adversaries. If fate has given me the opportunity to break free from these people, I won't pass it up, as much as I'd like to return to Moscow.

What is the most important thing that happened during the last year and a half? 

It's hard to boil it down to one thing. If you remove the family matters, which I don’t want to speak about in detail, the most important thing for me is that I was able to rekindle lasting, heartfelt relationships with so many people from my old life. After all, we usually make our best friends before the age of thirty. Then we're really just collecting acquaintances. The older we get, the harder it becomes to find true friends. 

As for my work, there's no one all-important element. I'm constantly building a structure and working to enhance its potential for the moment when action is necessary.

What is it you're building?

What I'm building I've discussed from the beginning, since I was released from prison, but our culture has a problem with terminology, so people still don't understand. I am building a civil society organization. Why this and not a political party? Because civil society organizations aren't involved in the direct struggle for power. Instead, my group should help forces in Russia that share my ideological views to attain political representation under the next regime. You don't have to be at the top of the pyramid, though this would probably be the overarching goal. At any rate, my organization should help these groups get adequate political representation. 

Your organization wants political representation for itself?

Not us, but the forces close to us ideologically. Why don't my colleagues and I set out to grab this for ourselves? That's because I understand, better maybe than anybody else, how turbulent transitional periods can be. A lot depends on the particulars of every case, and there are always new people and new structures emerging. I'm not trying to climb to the top. 

My goal, you might say, is even more audacious: I want to change the country. If I see people and organizations improving things in Russia today, I need to have an organization of my own that is ready to help.

You see, it's impossible to tell people for years that we're coming to power, and then say suddenly, "No actually we're going to help someone else, instead." It's a clash of ambitions. So we say upfront that we're here to help—yes, maybe we'll end up helping ourselves, but that's not the goal. So we'll work with the people who are committed to precisely this task. Those who succeed won't necessarily be us, but it will definitely be people with similar views and ideas. And we'll be ready to help, wherever we find ourselves in the new pyramid, if we find ourselves anywhere at all. That's why I founded a civil society organization and it's why I'm always talking about it.

And nobody wants to hear this?

And nobody wants to hear this.

So you say your task is to create conditions that will help ideologically-friendly organizations come to power. You've also said you're prepared to serve as Russia's "anti-crisis" president, under the right circumstances. Everything is hypothetical: maybe you will, maybe you won't. Your precise political goals remain something of a mystery. You obviously have thoughts on this subject, but you don't come out and say, "I want to be president in 2022."

People without my experience, who haven't spent years at the top of the pyramid, like to think it must be some sweet deal that's impossible to refuse. Realize that it's not a sweet deal; it's a cross that nobody really wants to bear. 

In Russia today, there are two opposition politicians whom everyone knows—you and [Alexei] Navalny, who's a very grounded person, with clear, concrete goals: a visa regime for migrants, fighting corruption, and, in 2013, trying to win Moscow's mayoral election. You, on the other hand, use abstract terms like "economic competition" and "political competition." Who would oppose anything like that? It seems like you're avoiding practical issues. This is especially noticeable when comparing you to Navalny.

It's hard for me to comment on Alexei's political aims. I'm strongly in favor of his anti-corruption efforts, and we're both aware that Russia's current system is incapable of meeting this challenge. 

But for me, this means that there's not much practical sense in any of this. And for [Navalny] it’s probably not terribly practical, at least when it comes specifically to the things he's trying to do. He see some other reasons to pursue these goals. These other reasons don't appeal to me, so I don't get involved.

Maybe because of our different ages and life experiences, Navalny and I are simply planning on different time frames. For me, what happens in five or ten years is always more important than what happens tomorrow. That's how I ran a large corporation. When people ask me, when will Putin go, I say I'm 50 percent certain that he'll leave in the next 10 years. 

It's just a different approach to life. It's more important to look to the future than take up today's battle against corruption, knowing that you can't fight it from outside the political system. So Navalny uncovered a bunch of information about various officials' illegal mansions. Then what? Were any of them fired?

In the long term, I don't see myself participating in the country's political life—I mean in the administrative-political sense. I don't see myself coming to power through elections. But if there is a crisis in which there is no choice, and a government of transition is required, then so be it. 

But will I want it? No. Because the risks—the personal risks—are too great. But the consequences for the country are likely to be good. 

So I don't want power. I'm an adult and I understand what it will cost. But we all have priorities in life, and mine is changing the country. If sacrifices are necessary, okay. I've already been in situations where sacrifices were required. If I find myself there again, so be it.

Alexei Navalny meets with Moscow voters on August 23, 2013.
Photo: Nikolai Vinokurov / Demotix / Corbis / Vida Press

Aren't you afraid of losing your competition with Navalny?

I'm not trying to compete with him. I have a feeling that we're moving on different planes. These planes can intersect at some point, but they're fundamentally different.

What do you hope to accomplish in elections?

[I want to] help the democratic candidates who have any chance of winning. We evaluate them and help, if we think they have a chance. The mechanisms for offering assistance will vary, ranging from organizational resources, like help with collecting signatures and organizing campaign events, to trivial financial assistance. Thank God, people who have Russian citizenship—regardless of where they live and whether they have any other citizenship—can participate in elections, including the right to make contributions to election funds.

You promised not to fund the opposition.

I'm not going to fund the opposition. But I believe it's justifiable to help the opposition raise money for election campaigns, when its candidates can win. And I'm going to do it.

I didn't promise to use my own money for one simple reason: it would be too easy for the authorities to trace and intercept it. But here, abroad—where I'm often traveling and holding meetings—I'm more than capable of raising a few million dollars to help people.

So you're talking about fundraising?

Yes. And after a year and a half, I see what's possible here.

"Most of the bureaucracy understands the danger of isolationism"

From your interviews and speeches I have the impression that your vision of the future is something like this: everything collapses on its own, all you need to do is sit and wait. You'll make certain preparations, but speeding things up or slowing them down isn't really up to you. At the decisive moment, however, when everything falls apart, you'll appear.

Except for the last bit, that all sounds right. The last bit should be: I'm working to ensure that, when everything collapses, Russia has political forces (we don't know who exactly) with society's understanding and recognition who will keep the country from making the same mistakes all over again. And we need political forces who would act with a clear plan, putting the country on a healthy democratic track of development, guided by the rule of law, the separation of powers, and fair elections. That's all.

If everything goes up in smoke, it’s more likely that Igor Girkin will come to power than Alexei Navalny.

I honestly don't believe either Girkin or Navalny will be the one to come to power immediately after the collapse. We probably haven't even heard of the person yet—that's usually how it happens. But if this person has more isolationist views than Putin (and when you mention Girkin you're describing someone with more isolationist views than Putin)...

Yes. Or [Dmitry] Rogozin.

It's possible but unlikely. Men like this wouldn't be able to hold onto power. Maybe for a very short time, and then that's it. Why do I think this is unlikely? Because in our country (by which I mean the state, not the country per se), there are several serious forces. The first force is the bureaucracy, and the security forces and law enforcement agencies make up the second force. Parallel to these groups is society, silent and asleep, as they say.

And even within the state there are vast numbers of people who are sharp and understand very well where isolationism leads. They simply wouldn't allow another person to come to power who in a year would smash their heads into a wall. That's why I believe we need to maintain channels of communication, despite our serious disagreements. Because sometimes, in certain situations, our approach is the same. Neither of us want to destroy the country. 

So there would be no purging the ranks under the provisional government of President Khodorkovsky? 

There’d be no lustration. Yes, tens of thousands would lose their jobs, of course. But not hundreds of thousands, and certainly not millions. There are, of course, people who committed acts that cannot go unpunished. Look at the situation with [Chechen leader Ramzan] Kadyrov, for example. We see a situation where the government, bureaucracy, and the opposition all look at the problem in a similar light. Kadyrov demonstrates that the Second Chechen War was a defeat for Russia, not a victory. He demonstrates that Mr. Putin's policies in the North Caucasus have led us all deeply astray. 

People need to look at the situation as a whole and understand that what Kadyrov said recently was no accident. [On April 21, Kadyrov ordered his security forces to "shoot to kill" any police operating in Chechnya without his prior approval.] This applies to what he said about the security forces and about his list of personal enemies. [In January 2015, Kadyrov labeled Khodorkovsky and several others his "personal enemies," in connection with reactions to the Charlie Hebdo attack.] And it's not the first time he’s said these kinds of things. And even the fact that he has gone a little over the line doesn't mean anything. He models himself on Putin, and like Putin he tests public opinion and the country's various political actors with different provocative statements and actions. And then he studies the reactions. If the reaction isn't harsh enough, he takes the next step. If the reaction is sufficient, he can wait awhile before taking the next step.

And in fact, what we have on Russia's own territory [in Chechnya], I wouldn't even call it a foreign state. That would be putting it too lightly. We have something far more peculiar: a territorially distinct ethnic criminal gang that tightly controls its territory's population, and hopes to expand its influence across all Russia. This really isn't a governing body but an ethnic criminal gang made up of tens of thousands of people.

Police search "Open Russia"'s Moscow office on April 16, 2015.
Photo: Veronika Kutsyllo / Facebook

You have said that the real reason for the raids of Open Russia's Moscow office was a film about Kadryov's "place in the current government." What is this film exactly and will it be released?

We believe that this problem has become important—that it goes beyond the problem of law enforcement. This is a problem for all society, so it's necessary to tell the public about it and start offering some solutions. The film presents this issue more broadly than people are accustomed to looking at it. I'm sure most will already know the general facts, but there is some information in the movie that will be new even for a society that's grown accustomed to nearly everything.

And what don't we know about Kadyrov?

We don't know how intrinsic he is to the current political system. We don't understand how deeply he is integrated into the system of power.

And how deeply do you think he's integrated?

The best, albeit imperfect, analogy is the state policy known as "oprichnina" under Ivan the Terrible. I find it amazing how Putin scuttles here and there, borrowing techniques from the 16th century. The number of analogies is mind-boggling. And we're talking about a world 400-years-old, people! 

We live in a different world today, but he keeps dragging us back to the past. This must end. As we know, oprichnina resulted in the economic destruction of Central Russia, and I am afraid that the result of this new oprichnina will be the same: draining the lifeblood of Central and Southern Russia. I think that both the opposition and a large part of the state apparatus share a general understanding that this cannot be tolerated. 

If this is indeed oprichnina, that would mean that Putin controls Kadyrov.

I believe Kadyrov is Putin’s personal vassal. To what extent Putin controls this army, I would not overestimate. Perhaps when it comes to choosing targets for the next showdown, Putin controls him, but when it comes to the distribution of wealth and offices, perhaps he doesn't.

Do you think the reasons for Kadyrov's war against Russian security forces are purely economic?

I would not oversimplify. Of course, Kadyrov's conflict with the security forces has an economic dimension, and I can certainly think of many examples of this, but what Kadyrov really pursues is the destruction of the state as we know it. I'm talking about things like "dual power" [between him and Putin] and instigating ethnic tensions. The other side of this coin are the Black Hundreds [Russian ultra-nationalists]. And when this sort of thing starts to resonate broadly, it starts to shake all of society. I'm convinced that many people in the security forces find this unacceptable precisely from an ideological point of view, and not just for commercial reasons.

But this isn't quite adding up for me. The security forces search Open Russia's office because of a film that criticizes Kadyrov, but they're also in a conflict with him?

There is no single authority in the police. There is the Presidential Administration, and the fact that police came [to raid our Moscow office] was an obvious nod from the Administration. No doubt it was very important for them to know what was going on inside. So they came, they looked around, and they saw everything. Why'd they come? Because Kadyrov, without any doubt, has influential enough allies in the Administration. I expect you even know their names. But you won't hear me naming them.

Why didn't you evacuate Open Russia's staff from the country after the search? 

Reforming a country under an authoritarian regime is dangerous. The problem, of course, is that you can only do it from inside the country. We all know the risks, and we all know, quite frankly, that we won't have the ability to get people out of the country in the event of danger. We do everything to ensure that people do not forget about the risks. Evacuating the hundreds of people working with Open Russia today is simply unrealistic.

But you probably feel some personal responsibility for their wellbeing?

I feel responsible. For me, every person who ends up in jail, or who suffers some other bad fate, is an additional burden on my conscience. Does this mean I'm not morally prepared for this? If I weren't morally prepared, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing.

Does this mean I can be manipulated by threatening the people I work with? No, it doesn't. Will I have to answer for this someday? Of course I will. This is one of the reasons I really wouldn't want to have to lead the transitional government. Because right now we are just talking about individuals, but later on this will be a question about the masses. And someone will have to answer for that, too.

But then, of course, you know... Say there's a call for scouts. Who will step up? The people know that this isn't some movie: only one-in-three or one-in-five are coming home. So people are standing by, waiting, and knowing. But when the moment comes, will anyone go?

But there's some satisfaction in it, right?

It's necessary to find satisfaction, otherwise no one would do it. For me, it's about strategic aims. It's the vision that we're moving towards change in the country, even if it takes 10 years. And for me, this is motivation enough to bear the costs. That's just how I'm wired.

Ivan Kolpakov


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