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Defying Russia’s Despot

Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s new book offers a profile in courage.

· 9 min read
Defying Russia’s Despot
Moscow, Russia. February 27th, 2022. Flowers are placed at the site where late opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was fatally shot on a bridge near the Kremlin in central Moscow, on the seventh anniversary of his assassination Credit: Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy

A review of The Russia Conundrum by Mikhail Khodorkovsky with Martin Sixsmith, St. Martin’s Press, 352 pages (October 2022)

Three prominent Russian men, who might have lived esteemed, comfortable, and (in one case) wealthy lives in today’s Russia, defied Vladimir Putin instead. They did so directly, militantly, uncompromisingly, and from a quality of life perspective they paid a heavy price. One of them, Boris Nemtsov, was a former deputy prime minister in the 1990s decade of rackety liberation and an outspoken reviler of the Russian president. He was shot dead on the Moskvoretsky Bridge in February 2015. Five Chechen men, who had been paid 15 million roubles (over $250,000) for the hit, were found guilty of his murder. Their leader was a bodyguard of the Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, a close ally of Putin now noisily urging the use of greater brutality to quell the Ukrainian military.

Alexei Navalny is a Russian lawyer and opposition leader who has been involved in protesting the corruption of Putin and his regime for over a decade. An FSB (secret service) squad was detailed to murder him with poison, and in August 2020, they almost succeeded. Saved from death by a hospital in Omsk and further treatment in Berlin, Navalny returned to Russia secure in the knowledge that he would be arrested, which he was. From June this year, he began serving a nine-year sentence on a variety of charges (he was designated as a “terrorist”) in a high-security prison called IK-6 in Melekhovo. Located over 200 kilometres east of Moscow, it’s a prison for the most violent criminals, against which allegations of torture, murder, and the harshest of regimes are insistently made.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky is one of the first generation of the ’90s “oligarchs,” and for a time, he was the richest among them due to his ownership of the Yukos oil company. During an August 2003 meeting in the Kremlin between the Russian president and other leading business figures, Khodorkovsky confronted Putin with evidence of corruption at the highest level. He was arrested a few weeks later at Novosibirsk airport as he was boarding his private jet, charged with illegal share-dealing, and spent the next 10 years languishing in a camp. Released in 2013, he left Russia immediately. Though much of his fortune has been lost, he remains a moderately wealthy man, living largely in London and funding an opposition group in Russia, most of whose leading members have now been imprisoned.

Khodorkovsky with Vladimir Putin, on December 20th, 2002. Wikimedia

There are, of course, many others. In 2012, a group of young female activists and performance artists collectively known as Pussy Riot grabbed world attention when five of their number invaded Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ to protest the unholy and corrupt alliance between the Orthodox Church and the Russian regime. Patriarch Kirill—notorious for wearing obscenely expensive wristwatches—demanded severe punishment, and three of the young protestors were duly sentenced to serve two years in a penal colony. Upon their release, they continued their provocations. When they performed a song titled, “Putin Will Teach You How to Love the Motherland,” they were beaten by a group of patriotic Cossacks. At least one member is on a police wanted list, and Maria Alokhina, one of the three previously convicted, escaped Russia earlier this year to evade another spell in prison.

Vladimir Kara Murza, who has been in prison since April of this year, was charged in October with “high treason” following “long-time cooperation with a NATO state,” a charge which carries a 20-year sentence. A close friend of Nemtsov, Murza has twice fallen into a coma, in 2015 and 2017, both probably caused by poisoning. He has said these apparent attacks were ordered in retaliation for his demand that sanctions be imposed on Russian high officials who abuse human rights. In September of this year, the journalist Ivan Safronov was handed an extraordinary 22 years in prison for treason. He had written a series of sensational stories, which the prosecution said exposed top secret information and damaged state security, but which were later found to have been based on freely available information. Ordinary investigative reporting is now clearly impossible without punishment.

In addition, thousands of men and women have protested Putin’s despotic rule and been beaten by police for their trouble. Many have served—or are still serving—time in jail. Many more—and this, if nothing else, must surely cause Putin and his gang some disquiet—have fled into exile in neighbouring former Soviet states, Poland, Romania, and further afield.

Each of these dissidents seems to have decided that they were not going to continue to tolerate the intolerable in Putin’s Russia. Navalny was at one time an enthusiastic nationalist. He might have continued to play that tune and become an occasional adviser, like the Eurasian philosopher Aleksandr Dugin. Nemtsov, on the other hand, might have passed off his earlier pro-Westernism and attachment to democracy as youthful folly, like a BBC presenter shrugging off his post-doc Trotskyism in order to prepare for a working life of impeccable journalistic neutrality.

Khodorkovsky enjoyed a great deal of wealth, which Putin and his cronies might well have thought ought to be theirs—they were running the country, after all, and deserved it. So, he faced a more delicate task. Nevertheless, he could have cosied up to Putin, shelled out millions in bribes, and offered sage and respectful advice on the economy. He might have copied former Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich and most of the other oligarchs in genuflecting to the Kremlin’s present inhabitants.

Instead, these three men and others like them displayed courage of the very highest kind. Navalny showed perhaps the greatest courage of all, by voluntarily returning to a fate he knew would be bad and may yet be fatal—he has been dragged in and out of isolation cells and now passes his days in a prison widely advertised as a torture chamber. Nemtsov broadcast his contempt for Putin as loudly as he could, and must have known that he would pay for it with his life. The four bullets he took in the back from a Makarov pistol killed him instantly.

All this showed the hideousness of the regime, even before the invasion of Ukraine. Khodorkovsky’s 10 prison years, most of which were served in a “Common Regime Correctional Facility” in Siberia, has so far been the mildest punishment meted out. Living in London is, he has acknowledged, no guarantee of safety. Alexander Litvinenko, a defector from the FSB, was murdered there in 2006—poisoned with the highly toxic nerve agent, Polonium 210. Which is why Khodorkovsky takes large and expensive precautions that he is wealthy enough to afford.

Khodorkovsky’s new book, The Russia Conundrum, has been written with the aid of former BBC correspondent and government adviser Martin Sixsmith. It reveals what Khodorkovsky became during 10 years of enforced reflection, and the patience he was forced to cultivate in order to bear the consequent deprivation of family, society, work, and wealth for such a large slice of his life. Always considered and contained in his emotions, he found that “prison allows for introspection and a deeper analysis of external reality”; in the tragic heroes of Shakespeare, especially Lear, he discovered a new clarity with which to look clearly into himself and at the world as it is. The pursuit of money and success, which drove him through his 20s and 30s, fell in his hierarchy of the important things in life. What remains, however, is a continuing and fiery commitment to oppose Vladimir Putin—“he must be stopped, regardless of the risks,” he writes in the book’s preface, “for if we do not, he will land us in a global war.”

Putin’s designs on Ukraine and the danger he posed to the world had become themes of both Nemtsov and Navalny after Russia’s bloodless seizure of the Crimean Peninsula. Nemtsov is now dead and many believe that Navalny will never emerge from incarceration. So, Khodorkovsky remains the only one of these three bold men still alive, at liberty, and with the resources to mount a challenge on behalf of the millions of Russians who hate their president, loathe the attack on Ukraine, and must bear the international stigma of being Russian.

Khodorkovsky is also the only one of the three who knew Putin, and later his entourage, personally. For a while, they met quite regularly after Putin became president in 2000. During this time, their relationship was, if never quite friendly, then cordial. On the president’s side, it was even agreeable, and they discussed the need to modernise and even liberalise Russia. At first, Khodorkovsky was impressed and flattered to be asked for advice, until he understood that Putin was simply using his formidable skill in dissimulation to play the role of a pro-Western reformer.

One incident in particular helped to open Khodorkovsky’s eyes. In August 2000, a Russian nuclear-powered submarine called the Kursk sank in the Barents Sea, north-east of Sweden in the Arctic Ocean. A peroxide-based liquid had leaked from a faulty test torpedo, initiating a series of explosions, blowing a hole in the hull, destroying the bulkheads and killing most of the crew. The 23 survivors huddled in a small undamaged compartment for six hours until their air ran out. A subsequent inquiry found that the rescue mission was hopelessly mismanaged, and that a series of lies were peddled about the nature of the disaster. International help was refused (though it probably would have been too late to save the remaining crew).

Putin, reluctant to leave a holiday on the Black Sea, didn’t return to meet the grieving relatives for 10 days. And then, in an aside to a journalist who had asked for a comment, he callously remarked, “So, okay, it sank.” It was the kind of response, primed with untruths and uncomprehending of others’ misery, that has marked his public announcements on the Ukrainian invasion. The Kursk sinking, and the findings of the report into the disaster—“stunning breaches of discipline, shoddy, obsolete and poorly maintained equipment … negligence, incompetence, and mismanagement”—foreshadowed the chaotic ineptitude of the Russian military’s present invasion of Ukraine.

Upon taking office, Putin had offered Russia’s oligarchs a deal—keep your ill-gotten gains, leave politics alone. Unlike Boris Berezovsky, who had seen himself as the main power behind the Yeltsin throne, Khodorkovsky had thought the deal reasonable. But alerted by the Kursk fiasco, he began to reconsider the deal in a new light. Political meddling, he had previously reasoned, contributed mightily to the corruption that had become a great stain on Russian business and Russian life more generally. But now he concluded that the deal had been designed to allow politicians, a growing number of whom were Putin’s former KGB cronies, to plunder state revenues undisturbed.

His experiences have led him to the view—now common among many within Russia and without—that tyranny remains in the Russian bloodstream, and still courses freely through the body politic. Like Putin, Tsar Alexander I (1777–1825) had begun by portraying himself as a liberal before declining into reaction. Khodorkovsky tells us that in 1809, one of the Tsar’s early advisers, Mikhail Speransky, wrote:

The law is completely dependent on the autocratic will which alone creates it, alone established the courts, names the judges and gives them their rules … what is the use of assigning property to private individuals when property has no firm basis in any respect whatsoever? What is the use of civil laws when their tablets can at any time be smashed on the first rock of arbitrary rule? How can finances be set in order in a country with no public confidence in the law?

The lack of a firm basis for property law must have struck Khodorkovsky particularly hard. His oil company Yukos had been seized by the state, and its oil and gas assets parcelled out to Rosneft and Gazprom, respectively, both of which were run by friends of Putin. This had ended Khodorkovsky’s efforts to create a clean, well-managed independent company that he hoped would serve as a model for others. It also marked the supremacy of the kleptocrats, or as Khodorkovsky puts it, “the inexorable rise of the nationalist conservative forces.” Business and the political class have always been bound together in Russia. The former has had to live with the permanent threat of seizure or closure or of simply being drained (as it is now) by whichever group of bandits happens to be running the country. The theft of property in the Putin era has even bred a new word, reiderstvo, a Russified version of the English term “raider.”

Khodorkovsky credits Putin—and his closest and most sinister accomplice, Yevgeny Prigozhin—with successfully persuading a large section of the American electorate that Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential opponent Hilary Clinton was corrupt. This was important, he believes, because Putin could then relay this lie to the Russian people—further “proof” that the West had no moral standing to criticise his rule. Prigozhin is the creator and leader of an elite mercenary gang known as the Wagner Group, now deployed in Ukraine. According to the CIA, he set up several companies that beamed conspiracy theories and compromising falsehoods into the US in 2016, thereby assisting Trump’s narrow win. Republicans will vehemently disagree, of course, but Khodorkovsky believes that this interference tipped the electoral balance. In any case, earlier this year, Prigozhin was awarded the medal of a Hero of the Russian Federation, an honour likely to bypass Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

It’s unlikely that Khodorkovsky’s rapid enrichment in the 1990s was free of illegality or skulduggery. Building a company and a fortune in Russia was impossible to do by the book in those days, since the books were contradictory. So much Soviet law was still extant and so much new law had been hastily and badly drafted that some of it was bound to be flouted, even if great care was taken (which it usually was not). But his conversion to honesty in his dealings, and the courage with which he has spoken some part of the awful truth to power has been proven genuine. It was proven in Russia’s camps, and it is now laid out in this important book. Even allowing for some understandable self-regard, The Russian Conundrum brings both the hopeful ’90s and the hope-dashing 2000s into vivid focus with an invigorating infusion of angry passion.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this review mistakenly listed the publisher as Penguin. Quillette regrets the error.

John Lloyd

John Lloyd was the FT’s Moscow correspondent from 1991–95. He is co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and his forthcoming book is about the rise of the New Right in Europe.

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