On April 13, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the founder of Open Russia, visited Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. In his lecture entitled “Russia: Back to the Future,” he shared his views on Russia’s current economic and political developments and presented his vision of a new Russia.

 

 

Khodorkovsky spoke in front of a large audience packed with students, professors, and technology entrepreneurs. He started his speech by sharing a few lesser-known facts from his biography. Yukos, once the largest and most successful oil company in Russia, wasn’t Khodorkovsky’s first business. In fact, his first project, back in 1987, would be called a “start-up” today and was similar to what Michael Dell, founder of Dell, Inc., was doing in his early days. Over time, Khodorkovsky and his partners created four businesses “that surpassed the billion [dollar] mark.” In 1999, they began funding nonprofit education projects “to engage in overcoming the digital divide,” which led to the creation of Open Russia and the Federation of Internet Education. The latter, Khodorkovsky explained, “provided Internet connectivity to schools and taught schoolteachers how to use the Internet.”

Time travel was one of the key themes of Khodorkovsky’s speech. He compared his release from jail in 2013 to an episode from the cult trilogy Back to the Future (was an analogy reflected in the title of the lecture), in which the hero finds himself in an alternative version of his hometown, now governed by an authoritarian ruler surrounded by kleptocrats. Khodorkovsky said that after he came out of jail, he felt that Russia had turned away from the trajectory that it had started moving along in the 1990s and had become a completely different place. In his opinion, the 1990s was a very promising, though challenging, time for Russia: “It was precisely in this period that [the country’s] economy was rebuilt and started growing at a headlong pace.” At the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, Khodorkovsky pointed out, per capita GDP was increasing by an average of 7 percent per year, while the middle class grew to include as much as 30 percent of the population.

The founder of Open Russia dismissed a popular myth that Russia’s economic boom of the 2000s was driven by high oil prices: “The role of the oil and gas sector is big,” he argued, “but it’s not enough to call Russia a petro-state.” According to Khodorkovsky, this economic growth “would have been impossible without the reforms of the ’90s, without a new class of entrepreneurs who were creating entire new industries from scratch: retail, banks, automobile manufacturing, telecommunications, and media.” If Russia hadn’t turned away from that trajectory, he said, it “could easily have continued moving in the direction of an open society, political competition, and a real fight against corruption.”

Another issue that Khodorkovsky addressed in his speech was the role of President Vladimir Putin in sustaining the atmosphere of prosperity and stability in Russia. In Khodorkovsky’s words, Putin used the trust created by the previous generation of politicians to turn the country’s development “in an entirely different direction.” He taught the public “to detest business that is independent of the state.” Although export income in the 2000s has been growing at a rapid pace, it recently became clear that economic growth in Russia has started to decline. Khodorkovsky explained this paradox by pointing to a few “reforms” of Putin’s own making: “The destruction of freedom and the liquidation of normal democratic institutions,” as well as the absence of political competition and an independent judiciary. As a result, business and talent have started fleeing Russia. “Putin has realized that the state capitalism that he has created is no longer capable of ensuring growth,” Khodorkovsky said. “States of such a type have always been created only for war. And this war had to be started in order to justify the existence of the current system.”

 

 

To counter the current challenges facing Russia, Khodorkovsky outlined a program for a new Russia: “The Russia we dream of seeing is completely different,” he said. It is a country with “successful, smiling, self-confident people, who have jobs they love, who don’t have to struggle for existence day in and day out.” It is a country where “every citizen who obeys the law can feel himself far more confident than a president who violates the law.” It is a country that will have an “independent judiciary and an influential parliament, where the citizens themselves determine the future in honest elections,” a country “where the state has no choice but to respect people’s rights and international obligations.” Finally, it is a country “from which capital isn’t fleeing, talented people aren’t fleeing.” A new Russia would be able to compete even with the United States to attract talented entrepreneurs, Khodorkovsky said. He envisions Russia as a country “where the only criterion in business is how good you are at what you do, and not how close you are to the president.” He also emphasized that “political competition is the only chance to turn the state around to face the people,” and that he hopes that both political and economic competition in Russia will be restored.

Khodorkovsky argued that he is not alone in holding this vision—at least 16 percent of Russian citizens have similar views. And the potential for this group of likeminded individuals is even greater, with 30 percent of Russian society “in favor of a modern, democratic path of development for the country, for separation of powers, for regular replacement of those in power”; these people “are against self-isolation, and they are for an open Russia.” Thus, it is important to spread the word and let Russian citizens know that these people do exist and that they are prepared to make this dream come alive and bring the country “back to the future.”

In conclusion, Khodorkovsky said that ultimately “the regime will fall as the result of internal problems and civil disobedience.” When that happens, it will be crucially important to bring Russia out of isolation—a task that can be achieved with the help of educated people, capital, and new technologies. Khodorkovsky called upon those talented and successful entrepreneurs who left Russia for life in Silicon Valley to “at some moment return to help [their home] country deal with the legacy left by this regime.” He concluded: “I see all of you as our friends and colleagues with whom we’d like to build the future of all of humanity together.”

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