4 January 2023
by Arch Tait
Arch Tait reviews How Do You Slay a Dragon? by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, translated by Stephen Dalziel, Moscow–Chita–Krasnokamensk–London–Moscow, 2003–2023. Online only; available at dragonbook.khodorkovsky.com
Mikhail Khodorkovsky was at one time, as chairman of the YUKOS oil company, the richest man in Russia. He was imprisoned for 10 years by Putin but then released into exile. Here, ably translated by award-winning Stephen Dalziel, he offers a clear-sighted view of Russia’s past, present and, hopefully, future. Khodorkovsky professes himself convinced that ‘Russia is fully capable of living with its own mind and its own conscience, and without dragons. But in order to do this, the young knights of the revolution must bear in mind that it’s not enough simply to slay the old dragon, even though this in itself is no easy task; it is vital also not to grant power to a new dragon, and one that may prove to be even worse than its predecessor.’ The dragon is Russian autocracy, tsarist, bolshevik and neo-bolshevik. ‘It wasn’t a case,’ he avers, ‘of Putin breaking Russia, but traditional Russia crushing Putin under its own weight.’
How the old dragon is to be slain Khodorkovsky does not prescribe, but he has no doubt some element of revolutionary violence is likely to be necessary, even after the present regime of criminal thuggery has cheated its way to total stagnation. Restricting protest to simply applying psychological pressure can never bring down a regime that is prepared to go to any lengths to stay in power. The regime should always be aware that, if force is used, every crime will be punished. ‘Protest should, of course, always try to remain peaceful; and it will remain so if there is convincing evidence that you are prepared to answer violence with violence if ncecessary.’
Khodorkovsky is concerned that the colour revolutions, while protesting against the evils of the regimes against which they were directed, lacked a positive programme for taking and retaining power. ‘Such flare-ups quickly die down and the people can swiftly discard their new leaders. This is the weakness of the “Maidan-style” uprisings: the explosion happens easily enough, but the strength of the explosion is insufficient to carry matters through to their conclusion.’ As far as Russia is concerned, he believes that a new government will have a grace period of at most two years in which to establish its popularity before reactionary forces regroup and are in a position to bring it down.
He is dismissive of the likelihood of an army coup, on the grounds that this has not been the Russian tradition, but acknowledges that the army and security ministries need to be at least neutral to ensure even that two-year breathing space. ‘From the first moment, it becomes a task of the greatest urgency for the temporary government to encourage the senior and middle-ranking commanders in the power structures to join them.Within a matter of hours of taking power, the temporary government will have to gain a “vote of confidence” from the siloviki, demanding full acknowldgement of its legitimacy … Should there be any doubt expressed, or, worse still, any opposition, the temporary government has to act harshly, even physically neutralising those who refuse to acknowledge its authority (in the best case, this would be by carrying out arrests, but even this may prove to be difficult).’
Glasnost or Free Speech?
Khodorkovsky is uncompromising on the role of free speech. He is scathing about Gorbachev’s glasnost as a concept irretrievably compromised by its communist premises. Free speech is not merely a convenient stick to use against reactionary forces within the Communist Party in the 1980s, but something as fundamental to a successful economy as a free judiciary. ‘My personal position on this is that if there’s any doubt at all, then rather like the principle that the law is on the side of the accused, we should come down in favour of freedom of speech. … We have to learn to live in a world where we exist alongside things that we find unacceptable.’
While admiring the courage of journalists and activists who continued to speak out against a murderous regime and who were beaten and murdered for their bravery, Khodorkovsky acknowledges that within Russia the regime by now effectively controls even the channels for expression of opposition, deciding for itself how loudly these voices are to be heard.
‘We’ve witnessed how, in just a few years, the regime in Russia has gone from being shamefacedly authoritarian to being openly fascist; and then, as if this were not enough, it has blatantly embraced Nazism. I should add that my use of these terms is entirely nominal, because we’re talking here about something purely Russian, something that’s grown out of the country’s history … in this new situation the possibilities for legal political activity will be at the very least severely limited, or they may even disappear completely.’ Recent experience illustrates that ‘the only place that at least the coordinating hub of opposition acitivity can be based is outside the country. Any attempt to create it internally will be smashed by the regime.’
Being based abroad will not of itself guarantee a carefree existence. ‘They certainly won’t have an easy relationship with the governments and secret services of those countries where they try to establish their bases. History has shown that European governments are not exactly thrilled about having opponents of the Russian regime operating on their territories, because it’s a headache they could do without. It also creates extra problems in their relations with the Kremlin.’
On the war with Ukraine, Khodorkovsky notes that ‘militarism is the very essence of Putin’s regime. The only way in which it can stabilise itself is to conduct constant wars against enemies, both internal and external. War is the price to be paid for corruption. This gang of corrupt opportunists who seized and usurped power in Russia at the start of the century cannot hold onto their positions without war, and they’re now carrying out their final one to try to defend the narrow interests of their clans.’ He recognises that dealing with the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine is likely to make matters even more fraught for the new Russian government, because any settlement will come at a high cost. He suggests the government will need to understand clearly where the interests of Putin’s regime lie and where Russia’s national interests begin: de-Putinisation should not be at the expense of Russia’s national interests. This seems optimistic.
The Financial Settlement
Khodorkovsky’s background is in business and finance, and he has detailed proposals, ‘a detailed road-map’, to ensure that a new regime moves swiftly to gain and retain popularity by addressing long-standing grievances. At present the nation’s huge ‘resource rent’ from sales of gas, oil and other natural wealth is embezzled by the ‘mafia cabal that’s replaced the state’, but it could be used instead to heal the long-standing sore of inadequate funding of pensions. ‘I see the most sensible and efficient way of doing this as being the creation of life-long insurance savings’ accounts for the people, into which the windfall profits from raw materials should be paid in various amounts.’ Confiscation of the proceeds of the unjust privatisation of the Yeltsin years and its ploughing back into education and health care should precede a reprivatisation along lawful capitalist lines. ‘Under the new regime, all of the property currently held by this criminal gang that calls itself “the authorities” in Russia must be expropriated. I can see no alternative to this tough decision.’
Truth and Reconciliation
Retribution will be faced by the ‘first disciples’ of Putin and the most deeply implicated henchmen of the regime. There will be trials for war crimes, but Khodorkovsky is well aware that over-zealous persecution of the ci-devants will only call into life a new dragon. He notes that the ever-increasing repressiveness of the Putin regime is introducing traits of neo-Bolshevist recklessness into some members of the opposition. It will be impossible to purge all the bureaucrats of the old regime. ‘Russia’s problem (and, indeed, that of many other post-Soviet states) is that the political class and the cultural layer within it is not very big. … There simply isn’t anywhere we could find a large number of judges, procurators or police, let alone bankers, financial inspectors and so on.’ He suggests that the task should be not to change the people, but the system that defines their behaviour. ‘I can point to my own experience at YUKOS. When our team joined the company every level of management was eaten up by corruption. This was because it was planted at the very top. … Each employee was given a proposition that it was hard to refuse: either you stop stealing and earn a decent salary; or you’re out, and in the worst cases legal action may be taken. … It took us less than two years.’
Khodorkovsky notes the brain drain arising because intelligent and talented people simply prefer not to live in an ‘encampment of thugs’. Nevertheless, these tens of thousands of talented people ‘have gained invaluable experience in Western corporations, and in the right circumstances can return to their Motherland.’
Muscovy or Gardarika?
Khodorkovsky’s vision of the future Russia is a confederation of perhaps twenty great metropolises, almost city states, with checks and balances to ensure that neither federal institutions, the governor or mayor (both locally elected) nor the local councils can behave autocratically. Regular free and fair elections will be crucial, as will the development of an independent judiciary. What is needed is ‘a genuine federal parliamentary republic in Russia, with a developed system of self-government.’ Local self-government is, of course, the very force that in recent years the Putin regime has been trying above all else to crush, but a unified state in a country as diverse as Russia (from Moscow to Grozny, Kazan to Magadan, Kaliningrad to Khabarovsk, St Petersburg to Kemerovo) is possible ‘only under the cruellest of dictatorships, which crushes and levels out all local characteristics.’
The old model for ruling Russia is Muscovy, a country formed from a single city state, but there was another Rus before this, a country of self-governing and totally independent towns — Gardarika as the Vikings called it in their epics. ‘It’s Gardarika that we need today in place of Muscovy,’ as an alternative to the inflexibility of centralisation. ‘In my opinion, there should be no more than 20 such metropolises in Russia. We simply don’t have a large enough population for more than that. In fhe future these metropolises will become territorial centres, the capitals of a new structural organisation. We might call them “lands”.’ [‘zemli’]
Feared Empire or Prosperous Nation?
Khodorkovsky’s vision for the future of the Russian nation is ‘a state of all the peoples of Russia who declare that it is their desire and their will to become its co-founders. It will have nothing in common with a state that is based on privilege given by blood or belief. However, it cannot ignore the simple fact that the political space out of which it has grown was formed by the active participation of the Russian people and is based on their culture.’
‘The ability to speak the Russian language freely and a knowledge of the basic facts of Russian history and culture should be compulsory in order to receive Russian citizenship. Also, there has to be an awareness of basic economic, political and legal knowledge, as well as a readiness to accept the fundamental legal norms of Russian society.’