[Marxism] Putin and Mikhail Khodorkovsy

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Dec 21 06:40:59 MST 2013

Mikhail Khodorkovsky 'exhausted but happy to be free' after Putin's pardon

Former oligarch's release and flight to Berlin proceeds like military 
operation amid rumours and misinformation




Like most people on the left, I regarded the fight between Mikhail 
Khodorkovsy, the president of Yukos Oil and the richest man in Russia, 
and Vladimir Putin as a pissing contest between two skunks.

Although the documentary titled “Khodorkovsky” that opened on Friday at 
the Film Forum is not intended to persuade anybody that the oligarch had 
any redeeming social value, it does make a pretty convincing case that 
he was victimized mostly because he stood up to Putin. When Putin told 
him to stay out of politics, Khodorkovsky did not back down. For his 
efforts, he was sent to prison for six years for widely regarded as 
trumped up charges on tax evasion and just recently had another six 
years tacked on.

Khodorkovsky’s father was Jewish, his mother was not. He was a member of 
the Communist Party youth group when the USSR was still intact and 
learned how to make money hustling in its ranks by acting as a kind of 
social director. Using his Komsomol connections, Khodorkovsky set up the 
bank Menatep when Gorbachev was still in charge.

The money he made running Menatep allowed him to bid successfully for 
the state-owned oil company that would become Yukos. Unlike other 
oligarchs, he shunned the lavish lifestyle and had no use for gangster 
entourages that became endemic in the early years of the post-Soviet Union.

The documentary was directed by Cyril Tuschi, a German who adopts a 
somewhat detached and bemused attitude throughout the film suitable for 
his ambivalence toward Khodorkovsky. It is not clear to me that Tuschi 
had much interest in the broader questions of post-Communist society, 
the contradictions of capitalism, or anything else that matters to my 
usual readers. He seems to be motivated to tell an interesting story 
about a rather dubious figure and does a reasonably good job.

Mentioned only fleetingly in the film was Khodorkovsky’s attempts in 
2003 to form partnerships with Western oil companies, something that 
Putin regarded as inimical to Russian interests. At the time, some 
leftists gave critical support to Putin as a kind of “anti-imperialist”. 
While not using this term, Vladimir Popov did make the case in the 
March-April 2007 New Left Review for Putin as a kind of imperfect 
defender of Russian interests in acting against the oligarchs.

I appreciated Tony Wood’s response to Popov’s article that appeared in a 
subsequent issue:

	The reassertion of state control over strategic companies and sectors 
has been seen as a sign of stealth nationalization—the state using its 
administrative powers to crush Khodorkovsky’s Yukos and, more recently, 
even muscle aside multinational companies such as Shell. Western 
establishment analysts have diagnosed these developments as a case of 
‘resource nationalism’, likening Putin’s actions to those of Chávez or 
Morales, while the latest leitmotif of Russian political discourse has 
been the idea of ‘sovereign democracy’—essentially referring to Russia’s 
ability and determination to pursue an independent course, no longer 
reliant on loans or approbation from the West.

	Neither of these concepts is an adequate measure of the orientation and 
outlook of Russia’s contemporary elite. As noted above, the Putin 
administration has not actively redistributed oil wealth to those 
dispossessed by the ‘reforms’ of the 1990s; indeed, its tax regime seeks 
precisely to benefit the wealthy still further, while the monetization 
of benefits and increased charges for utilities penalize the poor. 
Though the poverty rate is declining and wages rising, any significant 
drop in oil prices will likely reverse these trends, which will once 
again have the most severe impact on the lowest income strata. The 
decision to spend the oil windfall on euros and dollars, meanwhile, is 
ostensibly motivated by a desire to keep inflation in check; but in a 
context of continued infrastructural dysfunction, such prudence is a 
form of deferred suicide, starving the nation of the public goods that 
would secure its survival in the longer term.

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