DE PROFUNDIS: THE POLEMICS OVER KHODORKOVSKY’S MESSAGE FROM THE MATROSSKAYA TISHINA PRE-TRIAL DETENTION CENTER

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Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of the YUKOS oil company, has called forth what used to be termed a “broad resonance in society” with his “Crisis of Liberalism in Russia” article in the Vedomosti newspaper.

It’s safe to say that not a single publication of any significance, in Russia or even in the West, has failed to state its point of view on that article. Some of these are quoted by Kommersant-Vlast, in its monthly popularity ranking of Russian public figures based on mentions of them in the media abroad. Kommersant-Vlast reports that Khodorkovsky wasn’t even in the top twenty in February – but in March, thanks to his article, he made the top three, right behind President Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov.

Judging by the reasonably representative sample published in the Moskovskie Novosti weekly, the Western papers have taken a fairly straightforward view. They mostly describe this as “complete and unconditional surrender.”

The Times speaks of a “public climbdown” by the former head of YUKOS, to the point where he depicts the president in his article as “defending liberal democracy from the nationalists” – even though Khodorkovsky and his supporters had previously “lambasted Mr Putin as an authoritarian ruler surrounded by former KGB officers.”

The analysts consulted by The Times have no doubt that Khodorkovsky’s article must have been published with the Kremlin’s permission. The Times concludes: “This fact, and the tone of the article itself, indicate that Mr. Khodorkovsky has already reached, or will soon reach, a compromise with the state authorities.”

The New York Times takes a similar view of Khodorkovsky’s statements: “Mr. Khodorkovsky did not address the charges he faces, but the tone of his remarks, including his acceptance of blame for some of the excesses of Russia’s transition to capitalism, suggested a degree of contrition, though perhaps a calculated one.”

United Press International devoted an article to Khodorkovsky, entitled: “Billionaire’s plea bargain?”

UPI asks why the imprisoned oligarch’s article attacks like-minded liberals rather than Khodorkovsky’s greatest tormentor: the Kremlin. The answer is evident: there is certainly some method to “Khodorkovsky’s apparent madness.”

All attempts at resistance by the owners of YUKOS have thus far proved unsuccessful. “With an army of lawyers and public relations specialists, Russia’s legal system has been put on trial.” All the same, while attempts to defend the rights of YUKOS shareholders continue in the international courts, Russia’s “domestic interest in this story” has clearly faded.

UPI assumes that Khodorkovsky has probably “come to conclusion that fighting the Kremlin in public is futile.”

Then again, in the view of Le Figaro, despite all Khodorkovsky’s attempts to convince the Kremlin that he is no longer dangerous, the “tone and scope” of his article are still more reminiscent of a political program than an ordinary “tactical move.”

In commenting on all these analyses, Moskovskie Novosti chief editor Yevgeny Kiselev notes that the Western correspondents discussing events in Russia remind him of the little boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Kiselev says: “While Russian journalists make lace out of words, showering us with a multitude of theories and opinions, our colleagues abroad use simple, straightforward language, cutting out all excess details and nuances, telling their readers the truth.”

However, says Kiselev, even the experienced Western press sometimes “misses its mark,” resulting in “superficial and hasty” evaluations.

On his part, in evaluating Khodorkovsky’s article, Kiselev does not find it to be “a petition to the Tsar with a plea for clemency, nor a surrender, nor a white flag, nor servile, nor many other things being attributed to this article.”

Actually, Kiselev comments, even if all those accusations are partly true, and “even if somewhere between the lines of Khodorkovsky’s article there is a masked plea for leniency, you should first spend a week or two locked up in the Matrosskaya Tishina pre-trial detention center before condemning anyone else for wanting to get out of there as soon as possible, by any available means.”

In support of his position, Kiselev cites the opinion of “old Soviet-era political dissidents” who agree that “what’s important is getting out of prison, at any price, and we’ll see what happens after that.”

Yet Kiselev emphasises that Khodorkovsky is not agreeing to pay “any price” – otherwise he’d be writing a plea for clemency to Putin, not an article for Vedomosti.

Kiselev concludes by saying it probably makes sense to agree with those interpreters of Khodorkovsky’s article who see it as “a political manifesto, declaring an intention to become the new leader of the democratic movement.”

This article irreversibly changes Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s status to that of a political prisoner, according to Novaya Gazeta observer Yulia Latynina.

What’s more, those behind the attack on YUKOS are taking this situation extremely seriously. In Latynina’s view, this is clearly apparent from the mysterious incident of an abbreviated form of Khodorkovsky’s article being published in advance on the Utro.ru website, entitled “A Manifesto of Russian Liberalism,” written by someone called “Yu. A. Stepanov.”

According to Latynina, this incident – which caused a great stir in the Russian media – can be easily explained. All one needs to do is focus on the current circumstances of Khodorkovsky (who seems to have spent quite a long time writing the article).

“Dear readers, do you have any doubts that every single thing he does is watched, photographed, and copied? In other words, they not only had the opportunity to make a copy of Khodorkovsky’s writing in prison – they were obliged to do so, as part of carrying out their professional duties.”

And once those in the relevant agencies had familiarized themselves with a copy of the article, says Latynina, the question arose of what should be done about the article.

After all, the text written in Matrosskaya Tishina clearly “contradicts all the information President Putin had ever been given about Khodorkovsky.” Latynina assumes that reports of the following nature have been placed on the president’s desk: “Khodorkovsky refuses to compromise. Khodorkovsky called you a yellow earthworm, Mr. Putin. YUKOS is plotting your assassination.” The latter story sounds particularly impressive (a reference to the Rossiiskie Vesti weekly, which is said to be funded by the presidential administration).

But here is an article being written for publication in Vedomosti, an article demonstrating that Khodorkovsky’s attitude to the president is “extremely pragmatic.” What’s more, “he is prepared to make his peace with Putin, because he isn’t thinking about Putin – he’s thinking about Russia.”

Under the circumstances, the timely publication of an abbreviated version of the article, under the name of Stepanov, with all the individual aspects of it excised, was a pre-emptive strike. This attempt to raise doubts about who actually wrote the article about Russian liberalism certainly lowers the level of debate. Rather than polemics about the ideas expressed in the article, the emphasis is shifted to the circumstances of its publication – and the author’s identity. Latynina’s article is headlined “Khodorkovsky as Nelson Mandela, and Operation Stepanov.”

Actually, in terms of comparisons drawn in the past few days between Khodorkovsky and various famous figures, Kommersant-Vlast seems to take the prize.

And the comparisons here are not in Khodorkovsky’s favor. After all, Kommersant-Vlast points out that history has seen many cases of people who fight the authorities being persecuted by the authorities, and their convictions only growing stronger as a result. “There are plenty of examples: Giordano Bruno, Thomas More, the Marquis de Sade, Lenin, Mademoiselle Novodvorskaya.”

Yet the reverse has also been known to happen. The most distinguished example, according to Kommersant-Vlast, is Fedor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky. While he had a fighting spirit in his youth, the writer went through substantial psychological changes while he was a convict, which convinced him that harmony and happiness are only possible to achieve by perfecting oneself, at a very great cost.

In Kommersant-Vlast, historian Yevgeny Ponasenkov quotes the “rehabilitated” Dostoevsky: “There is no happiness in comfort; happiness is purchased through suffering. People are not born for happiness. People earn their happiness, and always through suffering.”

Khodorkovsky might well add: “From Detention Center No. 4, my present location, this might be a little more readily apparent than from other, more comfortable, premises.”

Kommersant-Vlast also recalls “De Profundis,” Oscar Wilde’s famous letter from Reading Gaol: “As I sit here in this dark cell in convict clothes, a disgraced and ruined man, I blame myself… I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds… I grew careless of the lives of others… There is only one thing for me now, absolute Humility… The important thing, the thing that lies before me, the thing that I have to do, if the brief remainder of my days is not to be maimed, marred, and incomplete…”

This agonizing self-flagellation by “the greatest hedonist of all time” was primarily an attempt to draw the attention of those who had already lost interest in him; he was striving to prove that he was fully aware of how wrong his previous way of life had been.

It’s hard to say whether the demonstration of repentance will achieve the desired goal: release from prison. Kommersant-Vlast sums it up in a rather bloodthirsty way: “We recall the example of Comrade Bukharin, who repented before Comrade Stalin, in writing, for his political ambitions. Comrade Stalin accepted his apologies, then promptly had Comrade Bukharin executed.”

Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal observer Alexander Ryklin says: “There is no point in discussing the content of the text published under the name of Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky.” What’s more, this applies “regardless of who the true author of these comments may be.”

After all, this text is not a statement of the views of a well-known business executive now in prison; rather, “it is part of a complex bargaining process – hopefully, one that will soon lead to Mikhail Khodorkovsky being released.”

Apparently, says Ryklin, by no means everyone in the Kremlin believes it’s right to keep Khodorkovsky behind bars for so long (especially after the presidential election, with its outcome a triumph for the Kremlin).

“The goal has been achieved; the oligarchs are scared to death; there is no possibility of opposition from that quarter.” So what’s the point of indulging in “bloody reprisals” which would inevitably “do severe damage” to Russia’s image in the West?

According to Ryklin, Khodorkovsky’s letter is supposed to convince the authorities that Khodorkovsky is no longer dangerous – that he has entirely “laid down his arms before the party.”

But the item by “Yu. A. Stepanov” is the work of those who oppose such a solution; those who are awaiting their moment, when “at the appointed hour they shall whisper into the president’s ear: Mr. Putin, none of this is sincere. This article is a compilation of material written earlier, by others. He’s only mocking you.”

At any rate, Ryklin says: “This work is not meant for my eyes, nor the eyes of anyone else, save for one person: Vladimir Putin. Well, let him read and re-read it; but I’m not in the habit of reading other people’s correspondence.”

However, at least one person has assumed that Khodorkovsky’s article is addressed to him personally.

Leonid Nevzlin, “a YUKOS shareholder,” declared in his “final interview” with the Izvestia newspaper that he will no longer be engaging in political activity in Russia.

In particular, he will no longer provide funding for Free Russia, the new party Irina Khakamada is starting; he will no longer talk to the media; and he will speak out “in the form of polemics or expert assessements” only “if Khodorkovsky needs me to discuss something or pass on some information, via the media or otherwise…”

Nevzlin added the proviso that he has made this decision entirely on his own: “I have acknowledged, and I always do acknowledge, Khodorkovsky’s intellectual leadership… Perhaps I’m making some mistakes now, in his view, but this is a case when truth is not more valuable. He is my friend – and having received his instruction to stand aside from affairs in Russia, of course I will stand aside. This is hard for me; there are people and commitments involved. And I would like to apologise in advance to those whom I will not be able to support properly now, including some to whom I have promised support. But I have no other option.”

Meanwhile, Nevzlin found it necessary to clarify that his decision to support Khakamada had been made because in the wake of the parliamentary elections, “in a defeat situation, she came forward as the person seeking to build bridges between liberals of the past and liberals of the future.”

In Nevzlin’s opinion, the crisis of liberalism in Russia is largely connected with the inability of Russian politicians to preserve Russia’s liberal heritage, sparse as it may be.

Clearly, on this point Nevzlin is not in agreement with Khodorkovsky, although he refuses to argue with Khodorkovsky publicly.

All the same, in his Izvestia interview he states fairly plainly that “our mania for smashing everything down to its foundations and starting from scratch keeps preventing us from reaching a period when there are traditions, stability, and ongoing development… It’s impossible to build everything anew, absolutely rejecting everything already in existence. And whether you like it or not, that means Chubais, Gaidar, Nemtsov, Yasin, Satarov, and Yavlinsky, if you wish.”

At any rate, says Nevzlin, “these people… are much closer to us, and we are much closer to them, than any of us are to Zyuganov or Zhirinovsky – let along Gryzlov or Rogozin.”

Of course, Nevzlin does believe that the opposition needs some new faces. However, the most important objective is a joint effort to create a single civil opposition to the regime by 2007 – and absolutely everyone who wishes to participate in this should do so: “Right-wing or left-wing – that will no longer matter. In a political battle, the goals are different.” What Nevzlin has in mind is something like Solidarity in Poland: “If politicians who hold diametrically opposed views on economic matters unite in a single coalition, this could have a vast impact on the next Duma elections.”

And this, according to Nevzlin, is precisely where the possibility of success in the next parliamentary and presidential elections lies: ” But if nothing is done – by the democrats, I mean – the status quo could last a very long time.”

What’s more, Nevzlin claims that the present regime is “unstable, overall” since it is “totally dependent on petro-dollars. It is incapable of getting anything done. And as soon as it starts doing something – or, God forbid, if the dollar collapses, if oil prices collapse – these two reasons would be sufficient to turn the approval rating into a disapproval rating.”

And then, Nevzlin predicts, it is quite possible that a “time of bloodshed” would begin – known as “a battle for power at any price.”

Nevzlin observes: “God forbid we should live to see such a time in Russia.” And qualifies that: “No, let me correct myself: God forbid that YOU should live to see such a time in Russia.”

Then again, Nevzlin adds: “These are just some recommendations, so to speak, from someone who is part of the ‘brain drain’ to those who still remain in Russian politics. This has nothing to do with my own future actions.”

The Vremya Novostei newspaper reports that Marina Litvinovich, a member of the Free Russia party organizing committee, told the Interfax news agency that it’s impossible to condemn Nevzlin’s decision, although it is regrettable that there will now be some difficulties in creating the new democratic party. According to Litvinovich, Irina Khakamada and her allies “will be seeking other potential sponsors, although many are now afraid to sponsor us.”

Meanwhile, the Moskovskii Komsomolets newspaper features an interview with Irina Khakamada herself, who says the formation of a democratic party should begin with the ability “to be calm about having a support rating of 3-4%.”

The next stage would involve the democrats striving to “unite, gradually” and “without any mud-slinging directed at each other.”

There is another curious line in Khakamada’s interview: the former co-leader of the Union of Right Forces considers that “Putin was entirely correct to start fighting that oligarchy.”

But his methods are potentially capable of generating “an even more frightening oligarchy – in the form of security and law enforcement people who are gaining control of a great many assets.”

Once their control extends to political power, and the business community, and flows of money, says Khakamada, the danger will arise that “anyone at all might be approached and told: get out, or you’ll be imprisoned. There is plenty of room in prison, not only for Khodorkovsky, but for all the others as well.”

However, Khakamada does not rule out that “such a situation might eventually work out to the disadvantage of the current clan in the Kremlin. As soon as their faction weakens, the fearsome mechanism created by them would be used against them.”

In an article for Vedomosti, Vladimir Ryzhkov has offered his own prescription for rescuing the Russian democratic movement from its crisis.

In contrast to Nevzlin, Ryzhkov insists that the liberal leaders who lost the last parliamentary elections and who are “personally responsible for the errors of the 1990s” ought to acknowledge their responsibility and withdraw into the background. “Without this step, there can be no renewal.”

And renewal is essential: according to Ryzhkov, “We are living in a new era, the Putin era, which has delivered a verdict of ‘guilty’ to the Soviet model and the Yeltsin model. The liberals and the Communists still keep on defending their respective ‘lost paradises’ – but the people don’t view those models as paradises at all now. So the people have left the liberal parties unrepresented in the Duma, while reducing the Communist Party’s Duma presence to half of what it used to be.”

According to Ryzhkov, the process of forming a new democratic coalition should begin without delay, with a firm statement to the public that “the model of authoritarian modernization Russia has chosen at present (authoritarianism plus market reforms) will not enable us to solve Russia’s main problems.” And in the long run, it will inevitably lead Russia into a crisis.

Ryzhkov categorically rejects the idea that the institution of the presidency plays a “cementing” role (as Khodorkovsky insisted in his article). In Ryzhkov’s opinion, such an approach “essentially leads to acknowledging one-person rule as beneficial.”

But Ryzhkov believes that “strong governance does not mean a strong leader (or not only a strong leader), but strong institutions – independent courts, independent media, a strong parliament, strong parties… Only a system of strong institutions can serve Russia as a guarantee against upheaval and disintegration, and that is something the tsars and general secretaries who ruled the country on their own were unable to achieve.”

As for the liberal movement, Ryzhkov emphasises that it should not be formed from above, but only from the grass roots, “relying on the non-government organizations and initiatives which are growing stronger day by day all around the country.”

And a separate point in Ryzhkov’s plan is this: demanding the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. On this point, he is in agreement with Leonid Nevzlin: “A country where such people are imprisoned is a country that has no future.”

Overall, regardless of what kind of role may be played in Khodorkovsky’s fate by the article he wrote (or only signed) – and there is a sense that its role will not be very beneficial – the points contained in it have provoked a fairly stormy public debate.

The abundance of opinions, sometimes diametrically opposed – from “it’s shameful to discuss this while the author is still in prison” to “he’s wasting his time,” and from “the people’s eyes are being opened” to “being imprisoned affects a person psychologically” – provides a rather vivid collective portrait of the “progressive” part of Russian society.

Kommersant-Vlast magazine quotes Boris Berezovsky, one of the most partial observers and a collector of all political incidents in Russia’s multi-faceted society: “Was it really necessary to go to prison in order to write something like that?”

An interesting question, of course – especially coming from a person who’s done all he possibly can to escape such a fate.

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