Unlikely Hero of Russian Dissidents: A Former Oil Kingpin

An incarcerated ex-oligarch laments his country's political state in court

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Will the Solzhenitsyn of this century be an oil magnate? If soaring courtroom rhetoric has anything to do with it, maybe.

Former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky is awaiting judgment on the second round of charges that have been brought against him. A political opponent of Vladimir Putin, he was arrested in 2003 and convicted of tax fraud involving his oil company, Yukos. His incarceration period would be running out soon, but now he has been accused of stealing Yukos's oil.

Last Tuesday, Khodorkovsky addressed the court, speaking out against not just his own incarceration but the entire political environment of today's Russia. His address received wide attention and has inspired responses from Western journalists. Though Khodorkovsky may be an unlikely protagonist, they say, he has found himself at the center of a real tale of injustice and thwarted hope for an open and lawful society.

  • 'Far Beyond the Scope of My Fate and Platon's' Mikhail Khodorkovsky pays almost no attention to the charges against him and his former business partner, though he says it "makes [him] proud to know that even after 7 years of persecutions, not a single one of the thousands of YUKOS employees has agreed to become a false witness, to sell their soul and conscience." He denounces the "siloviki bureaucracy," which he says "can do anything. ... A person who collides with 'the system' has no rights whatsoever." He calls a "country that "tolerates" the bureaucracy's imprisonment of "tens and even hundreds of thousands of talented entrepreneurs, managers, and ordinary people in jail" alongside "criminals" a "sick country," and "a state that destroys its best companies, which are ready to become global champions; a country that holds its own citizens in contempt" a "sick state." What is at stake, he says, is the survival of "hope--the main engine of big reforms and transformations." The hopes that attended the birth of the first non-Soviet government were "not realized all the way," and for that he says the blame lies "probably ... on our entire generation, myself included." He ends by addressing the judge:

Everybody understands that your verdict in this case--whatever it will be--is going to become part of the history of Russia. Furthermore, it is going to form it for the future generation. All the names those of the prosecutors, and of the judges will remain in history, just like they have remained in history after the infamous Soviet trials.

Your Honor, I can imagine perfectly well that this must not be very easy at all for you perhaps even frightening and I wish you courage!

  • 'I Have Never Been So Moved by the Words of a Businessman,' writes New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera. Here's his attempt to tell Khodorkovsky's story: though the man "almost surely" did "his share of unseemly deals in becoming an oligarch," this was not uncommon in the early 1990s in Russia. "By the late 1990s he had become determined to turn Yukos into a model company, one that would help lead the way toward a new entrepreneurial spirit." He worked with PricewaterhouseCoopers to bring Yukos up to "Western accounting standards, while satisfying the Russian tax authorities, no mean feat." His arrest, continues Nocera, was "widely assumed to be the result of his willingness to back political parties opposed to Mr. Putin," and "was a critical moment in modern Russian history. Before his arrest, it was thought that wealth brought protection from arrest and imprisonment." Afterward, "the other oligarchs either fled the country or began currying favor with the Kremlin, which often meant cutting officials in on deals." Nocera recounts Khodorkovsky's imprisonment for these first tax charges, and then the new charges of having embezzled "all of Yukos's oil between 1998 and 2003." PricewaterhouseCoopers first stuck by Khodorkovsky and its own audits but later backed down. Nocera thinks Khodorkovsky should be higher "on the list of human rights priorities for this administration," no matter "that he was once rich and once an oligarch":
There are tragedies within tragedies in the story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. There is the personal tragedy, of course, of a man tried and convicted of crimes he never committed. There is the tragedy of the Russian political system, once on the verge of real democracy, now little more than an enrichment scheme for Kremlin officials, a mind-set that accelerated once Mr. Khodorkovsky was disposed of.
  • Obama Should Be Doing Something  "Because he is an entrepreneur and not a poet, Khodorkovsky was regarded skeptically for many years by the sort of people who usually defend Russian dissidents," observes Jackson Diehl at The Washington Post. But that's no longer true; Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel has taken up the cause, as has Nobel novelist Mario Vargas Losa and the philosopher Andre Gulcksmann. Even the U.S. Senate has "passed a resolution saying Khodorkovsy and Lebedev 'are prisoners who have been denied basic due process rights under international law for political reasons.'" But Obama "has spent the past two years assiduously courting Putin and Medvedev," writes Diehl, and "has spoken publicly about Khodorkovsky just once, in response to an interviewer's question last year." He said it was "improper for outsiders to interfere in the legal processes of Russia."
  • Even as Khodorkovsky Spoke, the Russian Government Made Its Next Move  Ariel Cohen at The Heritage Foundation writes about Russian police SWAT teams' recent masked raid on the National Reserve Bank in Moscow, belonging to Alwexander Lebedev, "another billionaire political opponent of the Putin-Medvedev 'tandemocracy.'" Says Cohen: "the National Reserve Bank was possibly caused by a combination of its owner's political and media activities which crossed the paths of powerful clans in Russia. Wealthy businessmen ... are particularly dangerous for the regime, as they compete with the Kremlin for power and popularity." Cohen, too, would like to see the U.S. doing a little more here:
The Obama Administration and the U.S. business community should keep an eye on extra-legal activities of the Russian authorities, businesses, and organized crime, especially when considering Russia’s membership in the WTO. While the development of bilateral U.S.-Russia economic ties and Russia’s integration into the global economy are laudable, we should not ignore blatant violations of accepted business practices and democratic norms by corrupt elements of the Russian government and law enforcement.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.