20 years under Putin: a timeline

It is customary before the New Year to take stock of the year that has gone by. Days before the end of 2013, several political prisoners have been released from Russian jails. One of those who regained their freedom was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s most prominent prisoner of conscience, who has spent more than a decade behind bars. IMR Senior Policy Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza contends that, given the events of the last few days and their political context, Russia greets the end of 2013 with a glass half-full.


Mikhail Khodorkovsky's press conference in Berlin. December 2013.


Sometimes, the most important event of the year (whether positive or negative) occurs in its final days. This happened in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union; in 1999 with the transfer of power to Vladimir Putin; in 2011 with Russia’s largest pro-democracy demonstrations in two decades.

Russia’s most important event of 2013, without doubt, came on December 20. The release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, as he himself suggested during his first press conference in more than a decade, is not proof of radical changes in Russia. The political system remains authoritarian; the judiciary remains controlled; television remains censored; while Parliament remains, in the words of its former speaker, “not a place for discussion,” and continues to rubberstamp one repressive bill after another (the latest example is a law authorizing prosecutors to shut down any website without a court order). Most importantly, many political prisoners remain behind bars—and it is they who, as Khodorkovsky indicated, will be the main focus of his attention.

And yet the release of the country’s most prominent and most emblematic political prisoner—unbroken, without an admission of “guilt”— changes the public atmosphere. It changes not just the perception of the system, but, to some extent, its nature as well. The system turned out to be less omnipotent, less monolithic, and less invincible than it pretended to be. It turned out that this system, too, is compelled to take account of external factors, be it pressure from its own society or obligations before the international community of which Russia is a part.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s continued imprisonment was considered as much a factor of the system’s internal stability, and as important for the regime’s image of invincibility as Vladimir Putin’s continued presence in the Kremlin. One of these factors is no longer there. It is clear that the decision to release Khodorkovsky—again, without an admission of “guilt”—was not completely voluntary, if by voluntary one means taking decisions based on personal interests and without regard to outside circumstances. This in itself is significant food for thought.

The system turned out to be less omnipotent, less monolithic, and less invincible than it pretended to be. It turned out that this system, too, is compelled to take account of external factors.

The comparisons between the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in December 2013 and the return of Andrei Sakharov from internal exile in December 1986 are not too convincing: the political context is clearly different, and no one now expects a significant “liberalization” in Russia. A much more appropriate analogy would be with December 1976, when Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky was also transferred from his prison cell directly to the West (he was accompanied by KGB officers until Zurich; Khodorkovsky’s prison guards left only as the door of his Berlin-bound plane was locked behind him.) Then, just as now, the release of a prominent political prisoner showed that “the efforts of civil society can lead to the liberation even of those people whose liberation was not expected by anyone.”

As further confirmation of this thought, Russian political prisoners Vladimir Akimenkov, Leonid Kovyazin, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina will also spend their Christmas holidays in very different circumstances than they had thought, after having been granted an amnesty. It was an incomplete and insufficient amnesty that did not free nearly enough political prisoners and did not alter the fact of the politically motivated “justice”—but it did show that one must fight for every prisoner and for every case.

The year 2013 has brought Russia a multitude of bad news: from the opening of the show trial in the “Bolotnaya Square case” and the revival of Soviet-style punitive psychiatry (in the case of Mikhail Kosenko) to a large-scale harassment campaign against NGOs and the sentencing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The rare good news came in the September regional elections that surprised both the Kremlin and a large part of the opposition—the unprecedented 30 percent of the vote for Navalny in Moscow; the election of Kremlin foe Boris Nemtsov in Yaroslavl; the victory of non-Kremlin mayoral candidates in Yekaterinburg and Petrozavodsk. All of these successes showed that the regime’s electoral firewall is no longer completely impenetrable.

Yet, without the past month, the overall results of 2013 would have been negative—just as the results of every other year under Putin. The release of five political prisoners, the amnesty for dozens of other politically motivated cases (including those of the Greenpeace “Arctic 30”,) and, most importantly, the context discussed above, have tipped the scale. For Russia, the year 2013 ended positively. “The most important thing is that we have won, and that Mikhail Borisovich [Khodorkovsky] is free,” wrote Vladimir Bukovsky. Needless to say, this is not an appeal to cease the struggle. On the contrary, it is crucial to continue to fight for every person who remains in prisons and labor camps—and to remember that the release of Russian political prisoners is not the result of magnanimity but of necessity.