poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

May 20, 2010

Why is Misha Khodorkovsky a Dissident?

Filed under: Politics: Russia — poemless @ 5:13 PM

The definition of greed: the man wants to be an oligarch AND a dissident! Did you ever?

The following is in response to Vadim Nikitin’s response to Susan Glasser and Peter “I live to drive poemless up the wall” Baker’s FP article, The Billionaire Dissident. I don’t normally engage in the Russia blog conversation du jour this way (though I did need to force myself from writing my own Top 10 Russia Blogs list). But those of you who have been reading my stuff for years know my love of Khodorkovskiania. What is the origin of this fascination? I’m a commie – shouldn’t I, like, hate the guy? Well, I’m a commie with with a fatal weakness for sexy, intelligent Russian men. It’s well documented – no point in denying it. Still, it doesn’t prevent me from being able to write sensibly. So here goes:

I’m American. I grew up under the belief that Soviet dissidents were noble creatures. These days it is popular to dismiss that as a Cold War manipulation. In part it was, as becoming a political pawn was the price of such fame. But it was more than the fact that they were “on our side.” And it was more than the fact that they were unfairly treated and spoke out about it. They were speaking out not just to make a point about injustice, but in spite of it, and on behalf of people who dare not take those risks. Even putting aside the sometimes ideologically questionable or self-serving reasons for their dissent, it has to be acknowledged that they were prepared to make substantial sacrifices and that they, as a result of circumstances largely beyond their own making, were fighting for something that transcended themselves. They had ideals. And courage. It was inspiring.

Sakharov did not speak out because he was unfairly persecuted. He was unfairly persecuted because he spoke out. He was an activist fighting for peace and human rights, something that all Soviet citizens could benefit from if achieved. And that’s what captured our hearts. Solzhenitsyn was not thrown in a gulag because he wielded unchecked influence which he was ready to use against any leader who did not fit squarely under his thumb. Sakharov was not prevented from travelling because he’d acquired disproportionate amounts of national assets which he was willing to sell to a foreign country.

Power struggles, resource grabs… these things happen all the time in countries all over the world. They don’t capture our hearts. This is why I cringe when people place Khodorkovsky and Sakharov in the same category. Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn were punished for their words and thoughts. Words and thoughts that doubtless many, many ordinary Russians had thought themselves and perhaps even spoken in private. Words and thoughts that could land you anywhere from out of print to in front of an executioner, regardless of your station. Certainly Khodorkovsky thinks thoughts and writes words that don’t flatter the administration. Now that he’s in prison with not much else to do. But more than words and thoughts it was actions that put him there. Actions motivated by profit, not altruism.

Clearly Khodorkovsky is a dissident, by virtue of the fact that he is speaking out against the regime. But is he fighting for changes to the system that will benefit all Russians? He was nimbly capable of turning a profit and gaining prestige regardless whether he was living in a Communist or Capitalist country. He was a member of the Komsomol. Now he’s a democrat. Is it the system he protests not, or his right to game it? And if it is the system, why was he not dissenting before it was his ass on the line, when he was comfortably profiting from a corrupt regime and a perversion of democracy? Not terribly selfless, brave and inspiring…

And what exactly is Khodorkovsky speaking out against?

~ The way the government is run? Get in line. Is anyone anywhere happy with the way their government is run? Is anyone who wants to be in power but is not not convinced it is due to a broken system and/or dirty elections? Does anyone really feel they live in a truly fair and democratic society? If anything, this form of dissent seems to actually confirm one’s existence in a relatively democratic society. Yes, he is in jail, but not for demanding democratic reforms. If that were the reason, Medvedev would have to check himself into the cell next door. And Latynina would be mining uranium. No, his demands were self-serving.

Some people have also dismissed him on the grounds that he’s just not very well liked in Russia. FWIW, I don’t personally take into account popularity when deciding the creds of dissidents. I mean, if they were not in the minority, they’d cease being polarizing figures, right…

~ The way his company was taken from him? That’s a rather understandable grief. Even if he used questionable means to acquire his wealth, you have to admit it was snatched back through questionable means as well. But such a unique and personal offense can’t really elevate someone to the level of iconic dissident, can it? Oil companies are not exactly good human rights campaign candidates; they have adequate agency and voice. Usually it’s their victims who need our help. Oligarchs are people too, but very few of us could ever imagine ourselves in their shoes … complaining. How does the seizure of Yukos inspire you to advocate on behalf of human rights? I know, right?

~ The lack of transparency, fairness and accountability that plagues the Russian justice system? The irony of being able to afford the best lawyers money can buy and still not getting off in a corrupt legal system must drive Misha mad. But of all his complaints, the absence of a fair trail may well be his most valid. It’s a problem that does not just echo the frighteningly indiscriminate yet equally targeted abuses of rights in Soviet Union, but is a direct descendant of them. Unlike obscene private wealth or disproportionate power, most sane people agree that all humans have the right to a fair trail. Really difficult to argue against that. Even if you believe Khodorkovsky should be imprisoned.

Which many people do. Making him a strange choice for poster child of Russian injustice. I mean, you would not expect a popular grassroots movement to form around Ken Lay, so why so peeved when Russians are not jumping on Misha’s bandwagon? Why not find someone who is really truly innocent, who has done no one no harm, languishing in a Siberian prison for that job? Well, there wouldn’t be much payoff in politically backing some filthy urchin, would there? Hell, since no one has made investments with the urchin, how would the WSJ even know where to find him, even know of his very existence?

If you ask me, the only reason Misha Khodorkovsky is a high profile dissident is because Vladimir Putin offered him the job, and he accepted. Sure, he could have kept the cash and lived out the rest of his days abroad in Manhattan board rooms and Greek Islands. Forever estranged from his homeland and always looking over his shoulder. Better yet, he could have bent full over and signed a deal to keep his company and remain in Russia in exchange for giving Putin a cut of the profits and full political support. An unbearably boring existence, if the perpetual look on Roman Abramovich’s face is any indication. No, where’s the challenge in that? Our protagonist and his nemesis, while both men with political savvy and a talent for self preservation, have minds for myth making and historical narrative. One can’t be a respectable Tsar without some famous intellectual sulking in prison writing manifestos against him. And one can’t be a respectable dissident living a cush life in exile. It’s just a much better story this way.

And that, dear readers, is why Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a famous Russian dissident. Not because he was the most noble candidate for the role or even plays it effectively. But because the powerful play goes on – and Misha took the part. It often happens that less deserving, but incredibly handsome actors are cast in important roles. We’re a shallow lot. Shallower even now that the Cold War is over and have gone from fetishizing poets and physicists to supermodels and international playboys.

Instead of mewing that Khodorkovsky is cast in the role of the dissident, perhaps we should be thankful we have fewer poets and physicists eligible for the part. Instead of asking where the Sakharovs and Solzhenitsyns have gone, perhaps we should be thankful we can’t find them in the prison camps of Siberia. In fact, maybe it wasn’t just his good looks and money that got Misha the job.

Perhaps he really is deserving of this fate.



  1. Wasn’t his head of security found guilty of, like, murder?

    Comment by Doom — May 20, 2010 @ 6:31 PM | Reply

  2. I knew you didn’t forget Misha.

    I heard Putin attacked him savagely, casting him not as a dissident but Russian “Al Capone” who ordered murders of rival bureacrats and politicians in Siberia. Like American gangster Russian Capone is languishing in jail on mere economic crimes like tax evasion. I don’t see reasons for his “conditional release” even if there is some noise in press, both Russian and Western, casting him as a dissident. I want clarity on murders accusations first.

    Comment by FarEasterner — May 21, 2010 @ 8:19 AM | Reply

    • Clearly, I’m ambivalent about whether or not he is a dissident. I’m not sure he is the equivalent of Al Capone. He was one of countless Capones, perhaps. Moreover, he did most of his business with the consent of the authorities until Putin showed up.

      Comment by poemless — May 24, 2010 @ 10:22 AM | Reply

      • the problem with countless Al Capones was that Putin did not show any desire to catch them. you know what happen to cat which made peace with mice, cat’s masters will be disappointed.

        Comment by FarEasterner — May 26, 2010 @ 1:03 PM | Reply

        • Bad metaphor: I usually root for the mice!

          Comment by poemless — May 26, 2010 @ 1:08 PM | Reply

          • for Capones? oh, yes, I forget you live in Chicago πŸ˜‰

            Comment by FarEasterner — May 26, 2010 @ 2:36 PM | Reply

            • No, I actually meant the real mice.

              Comment by poemless — June 1, 2010 @ 5:32 PM | Reply

  3. Between these comments on those here, I must say I am fundamentally confused by the insistence, assumption that a dissident must be a good person. Technically the only thing required to make a person a dissident is a vocal opposition to the current regime or status quo. And if doing that is your full time profession, all the better.

    Why the idea that Khodorkovsky can’t be a total crook and a dissident? It may make him an ineffective and unpopular dissident, but it doesn’t actually change the fact that he’s sitting in a jail cell writing manifestos against the state. I think people are conflating unfair persecution with dissidence. I’m certainly not arguing that he’s been unfairly persecuted or deserves our sympathy. In fact, I think it was pretty keen move on Putin’s part to pick this guy for martyrdom: he’s not inspiring many followers. … On the other hand, it does bother me a bit that the same people who are willing to speak out in support of Putin’s administration have absolutely nothing but disgust for Khodorkovsky (and the other way around.) Seems unjustifiably naive…

    Comment by poemless — May 21, 2010 @ 9:44 AM | Reply

    • I must say I am fundamentally confused by the insistence, assumption that a dissident must be a good person.

      No kidding. Just take Solzhenitsyn as an example. He was a nationalist and anti-Semite (not to mention a bad writer) and he’s considered a dissident par excellence.

      Comment by seansrussiablog — May 21, 2010 @ 3:55 PM | Reply

      • Not to mention he turned around and embraced Putin in his later years, totally destroying our freaking narrative!

        There is a myth, though, yes, that all Soviet dissenters were not acting with any selfish intent. From what I have read, being an ambitious opportunist doesn’t disqualify you from the job, it’s practically a requirement. Also the belief in the right to free enterprise. Khodokovsky seems an obvious choice.

        As for Misha having people offed, which given the circumstances, he may well have – it wuold be miraculous if he hadn’t, I can accept that making him a bad person. But I in no way accept that it should earn him the singular disgust I see in some corners of the blogosphere, which strikes me as about as hyperbolic as the singular hagiography that goes on in other corners of the media. Khodorkovsky is actually in jail for his excesses, while many are not. Where’s the moral indignation aimed at them?

        I just don’t get it.

        Comment by poemless — May 21, 2010 @ 5:23 PM | Reply

        • That’s perfectly understandable, IMO. Khodorkovsky is hated not so much for his excesses (which were actually pretty modest compared to some other oligarchs), but for directly betraying national interests and challenging the Russian state after Putin had made it clear this was out of bounds.

          Comment by Tolya — May 24, 2010 @ 3:35 AM | Reply

          • Fair enough.

            Comment by poemless — May 26, 2010 @ 1:14 PM | Reply

    • “Technically the only thing required to make a person a dissident is a vocal opposition to the current regime or status quo.”

      Indeed. The following people were dissidents: Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Gleb Pavlovsky, Boris Kagarlitsky, Eduard Limonov. What on earth did they have in common, other than vocal opposition to the current regime?

      Comment by Scowspi — May 23, 2010 @ 2:52 AM | Reply

      • While I don’t know all of them, I suspect “kissing up to America” is probably a common trait. Note change in tone when Limonov or Solzhenitsyn spoke out against our culture. They were suddenly either fallen heroes or eccentric (read: mentally questionable).

        The whole concept of dissident in this context is couched in the Cold War framework.

        Comment by poemless — May 24, 2010 @ 10:38 AM | Reply

  4. “Dissident” has connotations of moral worth. Technically, Tim McVeigh and the Unabomber were dissidents, but nobody calls them that.

    Comment by Doom — May 21, 2010 @ 11:12 AM | Reply

    • I don’t think equating him with terrorists is any more compelling than equating him with Sakharov! Timothy McVeigh bombed a day care center and Khodorkovsky founded an orphanage.

      Comment by poemless — May 21, 2010 @ 11:30 AM | Reply

  5. Khodorkovsky was much cooler in the 90s pre-PR makeover, when he looked like a cheap thug in the Beastie Boys “Sabotage” video.

    With enough money, any low-life kneecapper can get people to swoon over him. Armani suits and designer glasses help.

    Comment by Doom — May 21, 2010 @ 11:21 AM | Reply

  6. “Timothy McVeigh bombed a day care center and Khodorkovsky founded an orphanage.”

    Al-Qaeda does charity work.

    Comment by Doom — May 21, 2010 @ 12:43 PM | Reply

    • What the *&%! does Al Qaeda have to do Khodorkovsky?

      You don’t like him. You’ve made that clear. But now you are just being silly. I’m going to ignore you now.

      Also, please use the “reply” button.

      Comment by poemless — May 21, 2010 @ 12:51 PM | Reply

      • I was responding to the comment “Timothy McVeigh bombed a day care center and Khodorkovsky founded an orphanage.”

        If you were of the more slovenly gender, I would suspsct you were thinking with the wrong head.

        Sean, Solzhenitsyn was not an anti-Semite, and First Circle is pretty damn good. Gulag is kind of crap though.

        Comment by Doom — May 21, 2010 @ 5:02 PM | Reply

        • Us of the fairer sex are capable of thinking with both at the same time. πŸ™‚

          Comment by poemless — May 21, 2010 @ 5:24 PM | Reply

        • You beat me to it. The nuanced portrait of the Jewish Communist Lev Rubin (based on Solzh’s old friend Lev Kopelev) in “The First Circle” couldn’t have been done by an anti-Semitic writer. Though granted, that was a long time ago (1960s).

          Comment by Scowspi — May 22, 2010 @ 6:51 AM | Reply

          • The “anti-Semite” thing as far as I can tell is because of two things:

            1. Solzhenitsyn was a Russian nationalist. Therefore, he must have been an anti-Semite.

            2. The villain in Red Wheel is Jewish.

            Comment by Doom — May 22, 2010 @ 10:28 AM | Reply

            • Here’s an article outlining Solzhenitsyn – anti-Semitism controversy. http://tinyurl.com/2w2j8pg

              Comment by seansrussiablog — May 22, 2010 @ 9:30 PM | Reply

              • I know the controversy. I just think it’s a faux-controversy.

                I think he probably didn’t think very highly of Jewish culture (neither did some guy called Marx), but anti-Semitism that is not.

                Comment by Doom — May 22, 2010 @ 11:50 PM | Reply

                • Not that I particularly care. It wouldn’t affect the quality of his work either way.

                  Comment by Doom — May 23, 2010 @ 12:03 AM | Reply

  7. […] all this hubbub about Mr. Khodorkovsky, I found myself realizing how terribly boring it’s all become. The raging […]

    Pingback by Will the Real Russian Dissident Please Stand Up « A Good Treaty — May 21, 2010 @ 2:41 PM | Reply

  8. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Anatoly Karlin, Anatoly Karlin. Anatoly Karlin said: Russia blogger poemless considers why the hell a thief like Khodorkovsky is portrayed as a dissident like Sakharov http://bit.ly/chPmwS […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Why is Misha Khodorkovsky a Dissident? Β« poemless. a slap in the face of public taste. -- Topsy.com — May 21, 2010 @ 3:35 PM | Reply

  9. I thought Cancer Ward was a pretty good book. True, his work isn’t literature in the strictest sense but in terms of contemporary accounts they are invaluable.

    As for Khodorkovsky I won’t say much about him, so I’ll comment on Yukos instead. I worked with a few former Yukos guys in Sakhalin and they said Yukos was exceptionally good to work for: good pay, bonuses, good management practices (I think Yukos swiped them from one of the majors), safe, and good production rates. As soon as Rosneft took them over things fell to pieces and anyone who could fled. Regardless of what happened to Khodorkovsky, destroying Yukos was the height of stupidity.

    Comment by Tim Newman — May 23, 2010 @ 3:05 AM | Reply

    • While you won’t say much about him, you do touch on the elephant in the room: the debate is largely defined by those who are for or against seizure and nationalization of private companies. That’s why it is bigger than just one man and whether or not he is a criminal. It’s a touchstone for the debate over what the role and priorities of government should be.

      Comment by poemless — May 24, 2010 @ 10:29 AM | Reply

  10. Poemless, take a look at some Russian sources…


    There’s more about Khodorkovsky.

    Comment by Evgeny — May 24, 2010 @ 2:00 AM | Reply

  11. I think poemless, you and I both basically agree with Barbara when she sings “Si la photo est bon” Hope you understand French, it’s such a great song and perfect to express my sentiments here. Is she great!!! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRuRv2XlR7s&feature=related

    Comment by tess — May 26, 2010 @ 2:06 AM | Reply

    • Not sure what is more incredible: I love that song, or I’d never put the two together! I -much to my chagrin- love French chanson but know nothing about them. But this in on a compilation someone gave me. I listen to it while I clean, of all things. I recommend it. Listening to French chanson while doing mundane tasks.

      Anyway – here, let’s try this link:

      Of course you are correct! But even so, I do think his case is full of intriguing ethical grey areas, and also think he’s a rather interesting person, in a kind of Leopold and Loeb way.

      Comment by poemless — May 26, 2010 @ 11:31 AM | Reply

  12. “and also think he’s a rather interesting person”

    and cute

    Comment by Doom — May 28, 2010 @ 7:55 PM | Reply

    • Jealous.

      Comment by poemless — June 1, 2010 @ 5:31 PM | Reply

  13. I bet you that if BP had been totally privatized like Yukos before, nothing bad would have ever happened.


    Comment by Doom — May 28, 2010 @ 9:06 PM | Reply

  14. […] Poemless asks – Why is Misha Khodorkovsky a dissident? […]

    Pingback by Official Russia | Russia Blog Weekly Roundup — July 17, 2010 @ 2:03 PM | Reply

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