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"To my friends, everything; to my enemies, the law."
December 29, 2013 9:41 PM   Subscribe

When he was arrested in Siberia in 2003, billionaire oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky was "the Bad Bad Leroy Brown of Russia...In a nation of mobsters, he is king, a stone-cold ruthless genius."

By 2010, however, something strange had happened: Khodorkovsky, whose resume included the vast expropriation of Russian oil wealth, a late-career push to promote opposition journalism and civil society in Russia, and, according to Vladimir Putin, murder, was "not quite yet a Gramsci," but he had "nonetheless moved to the left, producing three consecutive epistles calling for a ‘left turn’ in Russian politics."

By 2012- after two problematic and occasional farcical trials and nine years in various Russian prisons, which included getting stabbed in the face, shitting where he ate, giving occasional interviews, and writing a number of stoic dispatches promoting civil society to the outside world- Khodorkovsky had become "Russia’s most trusted public figure and Putin’s biggest political liability."

Earlier this month, Khodorkovsky was released from prison, officially to attend to his elderly mother, and unofficially as part of a pre-Olympics public relations push. Also released in advance of the Sochi games were members of the protest band Pussy Riot. Singer Maria Alyokhina said of her pardon, "I don't need it. I'm not guilty, I'm not a criminal, I don't consider it mercy."
posted by Snarl Furillo (30 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
I thought Vladamir was the Leroy Brown of Russia.
posted by Goofyy at 10:12 PM on December 29, 2013


Well, he's doing better than Boris Berezovsky, another oligarch and noted Putin critic, who was found dead in his London apartment earlier in the year, an apparent — if suspicious — suicide.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:42 PM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


I just don't understand the New York Times. I'm trying not to lapse into 60's-era, Abbie Hoffman-style paranoia about government infiltration of the "free" press, but it's getting harder to avoid. The endless assassinations and imprisoning of political foes in Russia is so depressing that it makes late John le Carré seem positively cheerful by comparison.
posted by mecran01 at 10:50 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I appreciated the selection of links about Khodorkovsky. The contrast between the 2003 NY Press piece and the 2012 Vanity Fair piece is extreme, yet I suspect both are essentially correct. Or essentially incorrect. The fawning of the latter began to grate.

Per mecran01's comment, I think that most of the blame for Putin's authoritarianism lies with everyone responsible for the 90's orgy of mafia-oligarch capitalism. Putin was drawn fully formed from the chaos by the demands of historical necessity. In his own way, Yeltsin is this story's ultimate villain. Just not a satisfying one – drunk, dead fool that he is.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:10 AM on December 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


I could never figure out why a Russian oligarch is supposed to be a good guy, unless there is some sort of journalistic need to create a narrative where there is a good guy.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:11 AM on December 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


Just about anyone can be a good guy, when compared with Putin.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:27 AM on December 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


The fact that massive oligarchs are the lesser evil compared to Putin should illustrate how much of a hole Russia is in politically. You'd think Единая Россия polling 107% in Chechnya would be a clue but apparently women can be subjected to forced near-daily vaginal examinations and we still clamor for Sochi 2014.

We're a terrible fucking species.
posted by Talez at 1:43 AM on December 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


Putin's "amnesty" program is a transparent PR gesture, of course. It is shameful that the US, Canada and UK will participate in the games. Our countries' involvement gives gangsters legitimacy they do not deserve. I wish we had the courage to say no and to turn away.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:15 AM on December 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


It is shameful that the US, Canada and UK will participate in the games.

I hate to play this card, and I know the thread is about Russia and not the US, but really at this point in history the idea of the US boycotting anything over morality or human rights seems like it would be met with nothing but the hollowest of laughter.

Keep in mind why Snowden is in Putin's Russia: Not because Russia is a wonderful place. Not because Russia cares about political dissidents. Because Russia is militarily powerful. Almost any other country in the world would have been forced to hand him over at gunpoint by now, or at least economic-blackmail point. All the "moral high ground," all the "World police" stuff, it's always been about nothing but bullying the weak. Russia has done 100 things we've bombed other countries for. We will never bomb Russia. Not because they are morally good, not because we have a good relationship with Putin. We will never attack Russia because *we would lose.* In the end our foreign policy is based on nothing but "Who is weak enough that we can we intimidate or destroy them easily?"
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:09 AM on December 30, 2013 [20 favorites]


Just about anyone can be a good guy, when compared with Putin.

I'm just curious... considering just how terrible the Yeltsin era was, an absolute human catastrophe, it seems to me that the only way the Putin era could have been worse is if cannibalism had become rampant in the streets. Putin seems like a rather run-of-the-mill corrupt authoritarian figure. I mean, he even bothered to obey the letter of the law about successive terms... he certainly didn't have to.

I could never figure out why a Russian oligarch is supposed to be a good guy, unless there is some sort of journalistic need to create a narrative where there is a good guy.

We cheered them on when they were looting Russia, why shouldn't we cheer them now? Their counterparts pay the salaries of the journalists after all. Those oligarchs are looting the US in much the same way: shell companies hiding stolen assets, dismantling of health and education, mass transfer of public monies into private hands, etc. just on a slightly slower scale and from a much healthier (wealthier) victim. What happened in Russia was like an explosion of carrion flies on a just ripe corpse. You will see the same thing here when all of the fat is stripped.
posted by ennui.bz at 5:29 AM on December 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


Why does the media feel completely comfortable referring to the very-rich in Russia as oligarchs, while not applying the same term to their counterparts in Western nations?
posted by anemone of the state at 7:49 AM on December 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


"I'm just curious... considering just how terrible the Yeltsin era was, an absolute human catastrophe, it seems to me that the only way the Putin era could have been worse is if cannibalism had become rampant in the streets. Putin seems like a rather run-of-the-mill corrupt authoritarian figure."

Right.

I abhor Putin and if everything were equal, I'd be vituperative in discussing him. Really, that's how I actually feel about him. He's a bad person doing bad things to his country and its people.

But it's exactly as you say: you cannot look at Putin's Russia outside the context of Yeltsin's Russia. The ways in which we think it is worse are all about our concerns, they reflect our relative level of comfort and stability. When you have a collapse of civil society and starvation and lawlessness like the Russia of the 90s, concerns about a free press and such are ... rarefied.

What we're presented here about Russia, views like that in the Vanity Fair piece, are very unrepresentative of actual public opinion in Russia. There is tremendous disgust for the oligarchs and the mafia and an intense sense that the 90s saw an infection, a rot, that still exists and which Putin is just barely keeping in control. There's a huge amount of truth in that view, but it's also partly the typical distortions of history and the present that happens in extremely stressed societies that have been going through intense changes for decades.

The point is that majority opinion doesn't see this as a choice of a thuggish authoritarian state versus a European or North American liberal democracy, it sees it as a choice between a thuggish authoritarian state versus, say, Somalia.

But despite all the propaganda about the USSR, we tend to think that what used to be the world's other superpower surely could be a European liberal democracy, especially with all those natural resources and human development, if only they would make these choices instead of those choices. Maybe if it weren't for Putin.

And I don't really know about the historical contingency of that. I'm inclined to think that, given what we've seen happen throughout the former USSR and the Iron Curtain states, that this is very, very difficult to do and the liberalization dreams of the 90s were always destined to fail calamitously no matter what.

Regardless, the point isn't whether or not what we expected was really possible, the point is that our horror of Putin and his version of Russia has everything to do with it being contrasted against that view of what we think Russia could or should be, rather than against what it actually is and was in the recent past. And so it really says more about us than it does Russia and Putin, as well as playing into a very naive and uninformed view of Russia.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:03 AM on December 30, 2013 [10 favorites]


The NY Press piece is not exactly well sourced.

The only solution is not to watch the Olympics
posted by Ironmouth at 9:16 AM on December 30, 2013


Blazecock Pileon: "Just about anyone can be a good guy, when compared with Putin."

I'd argue that Mikhail Khodorkovsky is not just about anyone. They're both execrable vermin; one has slightly more (and more visible) power.

At the risk of Godwinning... when your choices are Stalin or the Germans, neither side may be the "good one".
posted by IAmBroom at 9:31 AM on December 30, 2013


I admit to not knowing a huge amount about Russian politics besides what can be gleaned from the English-language media and Wikipedia, and having a few friends from there, but I do think that there is a disconnect between the concerns of Western observers — particularly Anglo-American ones — and the concerns of everyday people in Russia, which explains the tolerance for Putin.

There's sort of Maslow's Hierarchy at the body-politic level, wherein concerns about a free press or traditionally-oppressed minority groups take a backseat to crime, terrorism, police corruption, basic infrastructure upkeep, etc. Putin seems to be offering a trade: let go of some things at the top of the pyramid and he'll fix, by hook or by crook, some of the more pressing low-level ones. And it's unsurprising that people are willing to take that trade.

On more local levels, people make trades like that in the US all the time. Corrupt-but-effective or the "rough justice" approach is pretty successful model. I'm not necessarily sure that if you put Mayor Daley (either one) or Buddy Cianci in charge of a superpower state with a broad public mandate, that the results would be much different. And it's not like they had a lot of trouble getting reelected, and all of them have their strident defenders as a result of their effectiveness, allegations of corruption or authoritarianism aside.

It's also difficult, given the US' complete-freakout-followed-by-globe-spanning-war reaction to 9/11, to pass much judgement on Russian handling of Chechnya. And — again, viewed as an external observer — I don't think you can consider Putin without looking at Chechnya; if his handling of the Second Chechen War had been different, it doesn't seem likely that he would have been able to cement his position. There is no doubt in my mind that if a situation like Chechnya existed in the United States, hard as it is to really imagine, that the response wouldn't make the Siege of Grozny look measured and contemplative.

Rather than viewing Putin as a sort of problem to be solved, either internally by the Russian people (with whom he seems fairly popular, overall) or with the nudging of the West, I think it's more useful to look at the factors that made someone like him nearly inevitable, as a cautionary tale to other states that may be on the brink of decline if nothing else.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:45 AM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Surprised there is no mention in this thread yet of the (so far) two terror bombings in the last 24 hours in Russia.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:54 AM on December 30, 2013




two terror bombings in the last 24 hours in Russia

The attacks are all the more disturbing when viewed against the backdrop of the alleged meeting between Putin and Bandar bin Sultan, head of the Saudi intelligence agency.

One of the offers reportedly made by the Saudis — which, if true, is difficult to read as anything other than a threat — was to guarantee the security of the Olympic Games from Chechen terror attacks in return for dropping Russia's support of the Assad regime in Syria. Bandar is quoted as saying "the Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us". The Russians, unsurprisingly, rejected the offer.

Taking Bandar's quoted statement at face value, it's hard to not see the recent bombings as related, and if not actually on the orders of the Saudis than at least carried out with their noninterference. And given that some sources (e.g. the Telegraph article linked above) quote Bandar as claiming to "speak with the full backing of the US", at least on other issues such as Russian gas supplies to Europe, the whole thing really looks ugly.

Putin may be a monster but he's far from the only one in the room.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:21 PM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


War nerd on Saudis and Syria.
posted by bukvich at 3:41 PM on December 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


It's a Saudi world, we just live in it.
posted by telstar at 4:40 PM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


I really liked that pando.com piece† about the Saudis. It seems fundamentally correct to me and the truth of it just pisses me off.

† A phrase I'm surprised to write.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:48 PM on December 30, 2013


The attacks are all the more disturbing when viewed against the backdrop of the alleged meeting

That Telegraph article is nearly six months old. A lot has happened since then.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:36 PM on December 30, 2013


A lot has happened since then.

I can't think of much that has happened since that changes the fundamental calculus: the Saudis offered to reign in Chechen terrorism during the Games if the Russians gave up Assad; the Russians refused, predictably; now there are terror attacks as the Games get closer. If those points are taken on premise (and they seem pretty reliable), I think you have to squint pretty hard to not see some level of Saudi culpability there. If they had the ability to stop the attacks and chose not to do so, it's much the same as pulling the trigger.

Again, Putin's authoritarianism is reprehensible, but it's not hard to see why Russians might take Anglo-American hand-wringing over their internal civil rights issues less than seriously when a major US ally is running around using the threat of terror attacks as a negotiating tactic.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:28 AM on December 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


every time they write about him in the guardian or the independent (uk papers), it's like he's some mandela, and all the comments are like 'he's the worst of the oligarchs! Putin is better than him, and i hate putin!'. Why are they so keen on selling us this man? Remember, lots of pensioners woke up one day to find their pensions and life savings had been stolen forever. That's it, granny, starve in the street - evil people.
posted by maiamaia at 11:20 AM on January 1


nb thanks for the post. i often get most passionate about and comment most off topic the posts i am the most grateful for.....
posted by maiamaia at 11:21 AM on January 1


i'm now about halfway through. That is an awesome post
posted by maiamaia at 12:19 PM on January 1


while pussy riot etc get lots of attention, the oil workers in prison for going on strike in kazakhstan, poorer and more remote, never get the news - petition
http://www.labourstartcampaigns.net/show_campaign.cgi?c=2092
if you are a leftie and want to support jailed unionists etc, i can recommend the labourstart email as they don't spam you constantly, just send a few important ones (i would say one a week but my memory's rubbish)
posted by maiamaia at 12:24 PM on January 1 [1 favorite]


1. Does anyone know who wrote the "None - Do not Delete" article? 2. Where did you get that great phrase "To my friends, everything; to my enemies, the law."? I couldn't find it! Thanks.
posted by maiamaia at 3:54 PM on January 1


and Susan Richards' book about Russia is ACE
http://www.opendemocracy.net/author/susan-richards
her profile on Open Democracy, i thought it was called Lost and Found the one i read, but it seems there are two... She's actually quite pro falling-apart period, but the feel she gives of it - she really gets to know lots of people and follows them for about a decade, it's not one of those "i swanned about a bit and then i wrote a book" books.
posted by maiamaia at 3:58 PM on January 1


1. Does anyone know who wrote the "None - Do not Delete" article?

maiamaia, I actually found that article from a comment on Mefi in 2003, where it is credited to Matt Taibbi.

2. Where did you get that great phrase "To my friends, everything; to my enemies, the law."?


It is something Khodorkovsky says in his interview with the Financial Times about Putin. Khodorkovsky says that is a reference to fascist Spain; it's attributed to various Central and South American dictators in different places on the Internet. I don't know its exact origins.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 5:58 PM on January 1


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