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Mikhail Khodorkovsky was Russia’s richest man—a billionaire oligarch oil tycoon—until he fell afoul of President Vladamir Putin, was convicted of fraud and tax evasion and spent ten years in jail. Ahead of the Sochi Olympics, President Putin pardoned Khodorkovsky. He now lives in Switzerland where he has re-launched Open Russia, a platform he hopes will galvanize reform-minded Russians.
Real Money’s Patricia Sabga recently sat down with Khodorkovsky to get his thoughts on Putin and the next crisis point for Russia.
Q (SABGA): What do you see as more dangerous for Russia – Putin staying in power for ten or more years, or Putin falling from power and there’s no credible leader to take his place?
A (KHODORKOVSKY): I feel a situation when Putin leaves power—and he will at some point leave power – is going to be not without danger for Russia. And we’re seeing in the past year that Putin is making a large number of mistakes which makes a crisis in Russia unavoidable. What we can and must do in a situation like this is put together a team that would help make such a transition as smooth as possible.
Q (SABGA): One thing that you’ve said in several interviews is that Putin and Russia could be facing or be more vulnerable to a 1917-like moment. Can you explain for our audience exactly what you mean by that?
A (KHODORKOVSKY): In 1917 Russia was at a stage where it was seeking victory from the World War. But at that point the power had lost authority with the people and as a result the people were intolerant of even the slightest mistakes that the power would make. They lacked trust in the authorities and the reason they lacked the trust was the authorities were totally corrupt. As a result of a small, temporary shortage of bread deliveries in St. Petersburg, this blew up into a revolution and ultimately even a civil war. We are unfortunately seeing many of the features that existed back then, not all of them but many of them. The big difference I would say would be that back then the looming victory in the war was in 1914 but the revolution took place in 1917.
Putin’s aggression outside of Russia creates a situation in Russia where the national chauvinists are on the rise and that is bringing things closer to a crisis.
Q (SABGA): Do Western sanctions make that scenario more or less likely?
A (KHODORKOVSKY): Less likely, of course. In 1917 or actually more precisely, 1918 Russia and society united in the face of an external threat. Not entirely but to a significant degree it did unite. Today the West is doing much the same thing the way Russian people perceive it, the West is punishing Russia for daring to pursue an independent foreign policy.
Q (SABGA): So if not sanctions what can the West do to at least encourage some reform in Russia?
A (KHODORKOVSKY): For Soviet society, and I do mean Soviet, the West was always important as a model of moral behavior. The Soviet people wanted very much for our society to be built differently, more fairly, for the value of human life to be higher, for our leaders to be more moral. The more advanced segment of the Soviet population saw this example in the West. This was a significant part of the problem right up there with making sure the grocery store shelves were filled with goods.
Today, the shops are filled with goods both here and there. But the moral example over the past 20 years has become very blurred and I think it would be useful for the West not only for Russia’s sake but even for its own sake to move back a little bit to that previous situation. And of course to tell the Russian people about this.
I am not a dissident and I’m certainly not an oligarch anymore.
Founder, Open Russia
Q (SABGA): What should the West be more concerned about –a crisis outside of Russia – Russian aggression? Or inside of Russia?
A (KHODORKOVSKY): But you can see that these two are totally interconnected. Putin’s aggression outside of Russia creates a situation in Russia where the national chauvinists are on the rise and that is bringing things closer to a crisis.
Seeing his popularity falling in Russia and seeing the rise of the national chauvinists, Putin attempts to take over their agenda for himself by means of external aggression. So the situation is certainly interconnected and to my great regret I think we have stepped onto a path of no return. As a result of this path the regime in Russia will be destroyed. What sorts of losses this will bring to Russia and the whole world is something we all have yet to see.
Q (SABGA): Tell me about your efforts to meet or to engage the young people of Russia. Tell me what their state of mind is right now and how you hope to engage them through Open Russia.
A (KHODORKOVSKY): Just like anywhere else in the world, youth in Russia, some of them are more active in political and public business affairs and some are less active. I would say that that part of the young people of Russia who are not politically active today are not people who I can currently reach. The young people who are politically active are very well represented in the social networks and their views and interests are extremely similar to the views and interests of people of their age group in the United States. On the other hand, their views on politics are expressible in something that would probably be difficult to translate - they believe politics is stagnation. One of the challenges that I face is to convince these people that their lives do depend on politics and that they ought to participate in politics for this reason.
Q (SABGA): You are a dissident but you’re also an ex-oligarch which is a rather hated class in Russia. So how can you convince them? Do you think you can be a legitimate engager, if you will?
A (KHODORKOVSKY): I am not a dissident and I’m certainly not an oligarch anymore. Dissidents are people who serve an idea and who find the notion of compromise impossible. I believe that compromise is also an idea. A person who has spent ten years in jail is not an oligarch. So I do think I have some opportunities. They have their limits, of course.
Q (SABGA): You’ve been asked about your past role as an oligarch and you have said that mistakes have been made and your values have changed. But do you think that you need to publicly atone more for your past actions to gain that legitimacy with reform-minded people in Russia?
A (KHODORKOVSKY): I have told my fellow citizens numerous times that yes, one may have made mistakes but I feel it more important to move on rather than to dwell on the past. Repentance is a personal thing – it’s not a public thing. If somebody wants active public repentance, let them await it from Putin. Those who want to move ahead and do something and make change, I want to work with them.
Q (SABGA): You have lost a lot – and so much more than money. You lost your freedom. You’ve lost time with your family. They’ve lost time with you – 10 years in jail. How much more are you willing to lose and are you willing for your family to lose to pursue constitutional reform in Russia?
A (KHODORKOVSKY): That’s a tough question. And I need to answer this question for myself and to my wife on a regular basis. Maybe another life would be possible for another person. But my family would prefer to keep on living with the kind of person that I am.