Monday, December 13, 2010

Tycoon, Gangster, or Liberal?

What is it about Khodorkovsky that makes him so damned intriguing? Surely the fact that he was once Russia's richest man--whose personal wealth topped four billion dollars--but now languishes in a prison cell has something to do with the enduring appeal of his story. Is Khodorkovsky Russia's Al Capone or is he a modern day Herzen, crying out for the rebirth of liberal dissent against a monstrous autocracy? Perhaps he is both. In Keith Gessen's London Review of Books review of Richard Sakwa's book, The Quality of Freedom: Khodorkovsky, Putin, and the Yukos Affair, the erstwhile oligarch emerges as a complex man who has come to represent an ever more complex age, the age of Putin.

For Khodorkovsky is a former komsomol officer who exploited the wild instability of the Yeltsin years with an equal dash of brilliance and knavery to build a spectacularly successful bank and essentially (if not illegally) rob the citizenry of its state-owned oil company. Khodorkovsky's triumph is the story of capitalist Russia. Violence, one of the fundamental themes of early capitalist Russia, seemed to reinforce Yukos' ascendancy, although the correlation between oligarchy and low-level criminal battles seems hard if not impossible to prove.

Over time, Khodorkovsky's business empire became, like the business empires of many other oligarchs, a state within a state. Handsome and always outwardly polite and mild-mannered, Khodorkovsky gained enough stature to resist Putin's attempt to reassert the authority of the state. Eventually, Putin offered oligarchs a deal: stay out of politics, and the state will avoid asking difficult questions related to mega-businesses. Most oligarchs took the deal. A few fled Russia never to return. Khodorkovsky couldn't grasp the limits of his power. Soon, he was imprisoned and stripped of his vast wealth.

Today Khodorkovsky has become an emblem of resistance to Putin and his brand of government. He's a lucid, limpid champion of liberal dissent. Without the fear of losing either wealth or liberty, he seems free to voice his dissatisfaction ever more stridently, naively, and urgently.

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