20 years under Putin: a timeline

Pavel Khodorkovsky, the oldest son of Russia's No. 1 political prisoner, spoke with Caterina Innocente about his views on the prospects for the social movement and political change in the country.



Caterina Innocente: Pavel, in your opinion, is Vladimir Putin going to return to the presidency? Or will he come up with yet another “clever” scheme?

Pavel Khodorkovsky: At the end of December of last year, at the time my father was getting a new prison sentence after his second trial, I was still not at all sure that Putin was going to return to the presidency. But after the unusually harsh sentence, I understood that Medvedev most likely does not intend to position himself as the country’s next president. Even taking into account all of the absurdity of how political campaigns are run in Russia, it is still impossible to roll out a full-fledged election campaign within just four-to-five months before the elections. Over the past eight months, Medvedev hasn’t done a thing to get the voters excited, while at the same time Putin has opened a people’s front and begun to occupy a disproportionately greater place in the media space in relation to Medvedev. People have begun to see more of Putin. I’d say there’s no doubt about it, he is definitely positioning himself for the March 2012 elections.

C.I.: How, in your opinion, does the future of Russia depend on the choice between Putin and Medvedev?

P.Kh.: In 2008, “Power, Inc.” set itself two concrete tasks: to retain control and to protect its property, while outwardly observing the Constitution. Both of these tasks, in general and on the whole, have been carried out successfully. It is the same with the agenda for 2012, and here it is not important who is going to occupy what office. And in this lies the paradox of the situation that has developed in Russia. To answer your question as to whether or not Putin will return to the presidency: yes, without a doubt he will. At the same time, when you ask me whether the future of Russia depends on who is going to be sitting in the president’s office, I am going to answer just as confidently: no, it does not depend on that at all — Putin will still be the man at the wheel, no matter who is sitting in this office. That’s as far as questions of power alone are concerned. But for me personally, the processes that are taking place within society are far more interesting. Now, at the end of the day, a social explosion is certainly going to take place within Russian society, precisely because of the growing non-realization of desires and potential. And this social explosion is going to be a completely uncontrollable process.

C.I.: Just what “growing non-realization of desires and potential” do you mean?

P.Kh.: Having risen to the upper- or middle-management level, many people see the startup of their own business as the next logical step in their careers. But right now they have a glass ceiling of sorts: routine corruption is standing in the way of their starting up their own business: you need to pay too many bribes. On a country-wide scale, this is turning out to be a huge hindrance that’s slowing down the entire economy; after all, small and medium-sized businesses are the most important components of the economy. Sometimes they comprise up to 50% of GDP. In today’s Russia they comprise a mere 15%. Hence the unrealized potential.

C.I.: And how soon can we expect the social explosion you mentioned? Right after the elections?

P.Kh.: I should qualify that by saying I am not a professional predictor of the future, and besides, it’s been eight years since I lived in Russia. From my analysis of the information that I’m getting from friends and family and through the Internet, it seems to me that this is going to take place in some five years or thereabouts. Perhaps by the next elections.

C.I.: A revolution?

P.Kh.: No, I don’t think so. A revolution is a huge risk, and with the rise in the standard of living people have now got something to lose, so they’re not willing to risk everything any more. Today Russian society at large is not interested in the development and implementation of a well-thought-out plan of development. 

C.I.: That is, you consider Russians to be apolitical? You recently told a Washington Post correspondent that “the older generation — they have contaminated the younger generation with a mindset of passivity,” explaining that in Russia it all boils down to this: “We don’t care unless there is no food on the table or [the authorities] are banging on the door.” You also told her that the Russian mentality is one of “I don’t give a damn.”

P.Kh.: Relying solely on my own personal experiences interacting with people and on the things I read in the news summaries, yes, there’s no other conclusion I can possibly come to other than that the majority of the active population in Russia is not in the least bit interested in the political processes that are going on all around them in plain view. They’re not interested in what these processes mean for the country’s future. So in my view, the Russian majority really is apolitical. But I should point out that there definitely are some people who do have an active civic position. Only they, unfortunately, make up a very small percentage of the population at large.

C.I.: Then why do you think that a social explosion, even if it takes place only in several years’ time, is inevitable?

P.Kh.: Let us overlay Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs onto Russian society as a whole. No matter how much we try to paint reality in pretty colors, the fact is that at the beginning of the 2000s we still found ourselves on the first step of the pyramid, busily providing for our basic needs. In the context of a large number of people, this signifies a comfortable level of income, access to a desired quantity and quality of goods, rest and recreation, and entertainment. Toward the end of the first decade of the millennium, we saw that we had passed beyond this step. The next two steps are safety and belongingness. The problem comes down to the fact that the national leader has skipped over these two steps: one because of a conflict of interest, the other because of a lack of interest. Providing for safety and security within the framework of all of society clearly conflicts with the usual corruption. In translation into the language of society, belongingness is a friendly foreign policy, but this does not seem to be an objective the authorities have any interest in achieving. Much more interesting for them is the next step — esteem — and the authorities are striving to achieve this esteem at any cost, including bypassing the preceding steps. As a result, you have dissonance: as a society, we are demanding esteem and respect toward ourselves from the outside, but at the same time we don’t feel ourselves to be safe and protected in our own country. And instead of positive international relations — even with partner countries — we have their anxious and worried glances: are we going to shut off their gas supply again this winter?

But look, here’s the deal: society, even without a leader, is capable of overcoming obstacles on the road toward achieving recognized, perceptible objectives. Russians have a need for safety today — the need for different layers of society and for each person individually to feel they are protected. This is not being afraid when you see a “policeman” and suddenly remember that you forgot to take your passport with you when you left home today. This is a sense of predictability in everyday life — the confidence that 40% of the food products in the stores will not disappear from the shelves overnight if hydrocarbon prices fall today  (40% of food products are imported to Russia, see here and here. -- C.I.). This is the confidence that you will be able to obtain a business license for your café without having to pay a bribe — that nobody is going to tear your house down to clear a space for the Olympics — or that a court is not going to shut down your plant that has just been purchased by a competitor. This is what society is consciously striving for. The next step. And a move up onto this step is not going to be a revolution, but a logical stage of development.

C.I.: How do you see the future of Russia after the March elections?

P.Kh.: We should first ask ourselves what are elections in Russia in the first place? Today this is a kind of ritual, which everybody continues to observe because the country still had some kind of a democratic past not that long ago. But this ritual has no impact whatsoever on the balance of forces in the Duma, and even less on who will be president. From where did such a situation develop? On the one hand, the choice of parties and candidates is restricted right from the start, the opposition is not able to cross the electoral threshold, and the “none-of-the-above” ballot option has been abolished. On the other hand, many voters, understanding the factual absence of alternatives, don’t bother to vote at all. And those who do come to vote just choose the lesser evil. If there aren’t enough votes, they simply “stuff” more ballots into the box. Given such starting positions, there is no way this “ritualistic” process can objectively reflect reality and affect the future of the country.

There was recently a discussion about "What will happen with Russia after the elections" on Snob magazine’s website, where what I considered to be many valid views were expressed. But it boiled down to there being just no point in making any concrete predictions:

- Alexashenko: “In and of itself the result of the elections do not speak about anything”;
- Guriyev: “Surprises could await us”;
- Nosik: “There isn’t the slightest rational reason to predict anything whatsoever”;
- Lyubimov: “The future of Russia does not, as a practical matter, depend on the impending elections — more precisely, on the procedure that has been called an unbefitting word.”

Apart from this, I agree with Dymov’s assertion that “irrespective of the future president, the middle class in the country is going to get stronger, and small and medium-sized businesses are going to grow.” To repeat what I said earlier, I believe that society is going to strive to provide for its security and the development of small business. In what ways — I don’t know.

C.I.: How did your personal civic position get formed? What influenced you in this sense?

P.Kh.: My civic position, and in general my whole way of thinking in this direction, have changed drastically over the past eight years. My coming to the U.S. in 2003 was in no way connected with the attack on YUKOS and on my father — I simply came to Boston in order to go to college there. As of that moment the sense of youthful patriotism was so strong in me that I simply couldn’t imagine myself ever living in the U.S. On the contrary, I was trying to finish college in three years instead of four so as to be able to return home as quickly as possible. There were certain obvious things I just wasn’t aware were happening back then — I didn’t understand how serious everything going on with my father was, and how much of an indicator it was of what awaited Russia in the subsequent eight years. Of course now, looking back, I realize that all this was right there for anybody to see, even back then. But at that moment I did not understand this. And only in the course of the next year and a half did I gradually become aware of just how much the direction of the country’s development had changed.

Living for eight years in the U.S., in a normal democratic society, has changed me. First, I’ve lost the youthful sense of rabid patriotism in relation to Russia. What has remained is a sense of attachment and devotion to my country and to the people who brought me up and nurtured me, but this is something a bit different, after all, isn’t it? Second, here in the U.S., I got to see how a real democratic society functions, from some very simple examples. How it begins with the simplest things: the way policemen on the street can’t stop you for no reason at all, just to check your documents; how people picket freely in front of the Capitol, while Congressmen discuss the problems of their states with their constituents. I have understood just how much simpler and safer it is to live and function in such a society. And today I believe that it is possible to change Russians’ mentality, habits and attitudes toward corruption only if the majority understands how a real democratic society functions. And through some serious changes in the educational system. For this, two years ago Pavel Ivlev and I founded an independent non-profit non-governmental organization, the Institute of Modern Russia. But this is a separate topic, and I will soon be talking a lot more about it in a separate blog right here in Snob. We would like to get the intellectual elite of the country involved in participating in the Institute’s projects.

C.I.: You've mentioned “the usual corruption” several times today when talking about Russians’ attitudes toward corruption in principle. In the film "Khodorkovsky," Alexey Kondaurov, former head of the analytical-informational department at YUKOS, recalls that he once had a “vicious argument” with your father on the question of corruption:


You have just said that having plunged headlong into the life of a democratic society here in the U.S., you are now living in it and living it. How do you personally assess this argument between your father and Kondaurov today? Whose position, whose view of corruption do you consider the right one? Your father’s or Kondaurov’s?

P.Kh.: I’ve got to say that this moment in the film … how do I put this delicately … really knocked the wind out of me.

C.I.: In what way, specifically?

P.Kh.: When I realized what starting point my father was coming from before his subsequent transformation into one of the leaders of corporate transparency.

I don’t know exactly when they had this argument; Kondaurov doesn’t mention that in the film. But most likely it was before 2000, because in 2000 YUKOS began to publish its financial statements in compliance with GAAP standards, having become the most transparent company in Russia.

I can understand my father’s logic at the moment of the discussion with Kondaurov: most likely, he felt that there existed a whole network of people who had remained working in the halls of power after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that to replace all these people all at once would be impossible. So, as long as these people continued to run the country (I am not talking here about some kind of upper echelons of power, I’m talking about governors, mayors, and so on), they were going to be a brake on any normal democratic processes. Simply because these processes would get in the way of their ability to live and earn a living. And from this point of view, it probably seemed perfectly logical at the moment when this talk took place that the only way to speed up the process would be to “corrupt the corrupted authorities,” if you’ll excuse the tautology. But, as time has shown, this was not the right approach. Kondaurov says “metastases began.” I would put it another way: the disease infected the next generation. And my father talks a lot about this now too. All this has led to a situation where young people today, making one of the most important decisions about their adult life — where to go to work — factor into their calculations that official positions bring a substantial supplementary income, specifically on account of the fact that such a strong element of corruption exists in the country. This is what I meant when I said that the disease had infected the next generation. I think my father didn’t foresee such consequences at the time. But by 2001-2002 he was already clearly aware of the consequences of his error. Only by then it was already too late.

C.I.: In your opinion, can modern Russian society be cured of corruption? In the near, foreseeable future.

P.Kh.: I have a rational approach to this. I don’t know how quickly people will be able to abandon the usual model, when problems are solved with money and not through legal means. So, on the one hand, a turnover of the bureaucratic cadres needs to take place, and on the other, a balanced education needs to appear, one that will give people an explanation of the advantages of life and actions within the law. Ten years ago, my father clearly realized that it was important to give people an education that includes not only a core curriculum in the sciences and so on, but also a clear understanding of how different societies function: democratic ones, monarchies, autocracies, and so on. Teaching the fundamentals of political science must become a part of education. In this way, having understood how other systems function in other countries, people will be able to make the right choice for themselves. And there will be no need to impose this choice upon them by force from above: it will become self-evident to any educated person.

You know, my father was so afraid of letting this moment slip away — the time when you can still influence the formation of the next generation’s way of thinking — and I think that to some extent one generation did indeed slip away. This is that generation whose representatives are now working as bureaucrats, so to speak. I often have discussions with friends on this topic and I often hear: “But come on, isn’t it great when, say, you’ve broken the speed limit or are driving in a slightly inebriated condition and get stopped, and you can just give the cop a bribe then and there on the spot and go off on your way? And you don’t even need to pay the fine.” And I try to explain to them that this seems like a way out of the situation only as long as you’re on the positive end of the solution to the problem. But the moment you find yourself on the other side, you understand just how unjust a corrupt system is.

C.I.: How often do you write your father?

I’ve recently had some major changes in this regard that have made me incredibly happy, because since the moment my father was transferred to the Karelian colony, he’s been able to telephone me directly.

C.I.: Congratulations!

P.Kh.: Thank you. This has indeed changed a lot of things, because over the past two months I’ve already spoken with him three times by phone. In the past, we used to write letters to each other, but you understand yourself that the correspondence took place in a very compressed form: you’re not going to write about any burning family issues in a letter like that; they’re all read and re-read many times over; they are monitored; and even when I ask my family to pass on a message, it usually ends up getting distorted, like a bad phone connection. And none of this can ever replace live conversation. So the fact that my father can now phone me, even for just three or four minutes — this is a whole new world.

C.I.: Yes, I can see that — your face is all lit up.

Of course. After all, I can finally actually talk with my father, for the first time in eight years! This has changed so much in our relationship. He was pleasantly surprised to discover how much I’ve matured when we spoke by phone for the first time in eight years. [Laughs.]

C.I.: Leon Aron, the Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute has just returned from Russia. He believes that important changes are taking place there: “not ‘resistance’ (i.e. direct political counteraction), but a dogged, non-violent creation of a new moral – and, this means, also civic – climate in the country.” What do you think in this regard? In what direction is the opposition moving?

P.Kh.: You need to remember that that we’re talking about two different camps there: those who think that you must not cooperate with the authorities at all under any circumstances, and those who think that you can and need to try to do something within the framework of the existing system. It seems to me that the people Leon Aron was talking about above fall into the second category — these are people who are trying to do something from within the existing system. Naturally, in so doing, it goes without saying that this model doesn’t envision any serious changes to the system itself. That is, you can protest, you can insist that the authorities adhere to their own laws … that’s acceptable, but after all, such a demand is only natural, it’s one of the fundamental building blocks of any normal society. But if the law and the Constitution have already been mutated to such a state that they simply don’t allow certain elements of freedom of speech and civil society to be used for real, then going forward you’ve got to act only within the framework of the non-system opposition. So the thing that Leon Aron is describing, this is a very positive trend in society, but it seems to me that it is unfortunately not enough to completely solve the problem of “sovereign democracy.”

C.I.: What would you like for the opposition to achieve in 2012? Not in some ideal situation, but specifically in the next year. Something truly achievable that the opposition could consider its “2012 Objective.”

P.Kh.: I will give you a simple and perhaps a somewhat naïve answer. The current power in Russia is based on might and on respect for might. The opposite side of this coin, naturally, is fear. Fear works in both ways: the authorities, on their side, are afraid of cataclysms. This could be seen very well when 6,000 people came out onto Manège Square in December of last year. Yes, these were soccer fans, and they were there for a completely different reason: simply demanding justice for those who had murdered their friend. But this showed just how much the authorities fear such mass gatherings of the people. They weren’t beaten, they weren’t stuffed into police buses and taken away by the OMON. Yes, there were a few scuffles, but this whole incident was not suppressed the way the “Dissenters’ Marches” and the “Strategy-31” pickets are suppressed. So, just such a realistic objective for the opposition in 2012 is to bring ten thousand people out onto the streets in Moscow. And if that many people actually come out onto the streets in Moscow, I think that will seriously shake up the balance of forces. It seems to me that this is quite possible to achieve.