Days before his inauguration, Foreign Policy magazine has put together a slide show of Vladimir Putin’s political career in pictures, including images of Russia’s President-Elect feeding a fawn with milk from a baby’s bottle, shaking the flipper of a dolphin, playing piano and posing topless with a hunting rifle.
Another pre-inauguration stunt (not quite the right word but you know what I mean) is this essay by Pavel Khordorkovsky, son of Mikhail, the former Yukos boss and now an inmate in the Segezha FBU IR-7 penal colony in the Karelia Region, in Russia’s north. You’ll need an FT subscription to read the essay.
“His hands numb after queueing in the bitter cold outside, my father squeezes into a phone booth and dials my number” writes Pavel. “Thousands of miles away in the US, I hear his dear voice, still husky from the frosty Karelian air. His tone has its usual calm; his mood is upbeat.”
Inmates at the Segezha FBU IR-7 penal colony are assigned to work daily seven-hour shifts in the plastics shop, wood shop, metal workshop or the prison farm. The Russian news channel RIA-Novosti reported that Khodorkovsky’s initial assignment was to a maintenance team repairing toilets and windows.
As founder and CEO of Yukos, Russia’s largest oil producer, Khordorkovsky was the wealthiest Russian in the world. He turned his attention to politics, and became a critic of Putin and his style of “managed democracy”. In 2003 Khordorkovsky was arrested by armed commandos on the tarmac of a Siberian airport and charged with tax evasion. His subsequent trial and convictions attracted international criticism for their lack of due process. Amnesty International regard him as a prisoner of conscience.
Many political leaders have managed to turn prison terms into fruitful periods of preparation for power; semi-martyrs, they attract sympathy and notoriety, they have people’s attention and the time and quiet to develop their message. But it requires extraordinary tenacity and patience to play politics from behind the high walls of a gaol, and to resist despair. Only leaders with real promise will survive. Is Mikhail Khordorkovsky another Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi? As a far away observer, I don’t know enough about the man or Russian politics to say. As a former oligarch who acquired great wealth in the wild west period which followed the collapse of the USSR, his back story is mixed, though as a rich man he earned a reputation for philanthropy. He has certainly acquired the Russian gift for pain and suffering, and during 8.5 years of imprisonment and hard labour he appears to have kept his his resolve and develop his message of political freedom, internationalism and the rule of law.
Russia has few options at the moment, and if the country’s middle class is to ever build the modern, free country they aspire to, Khordorkovsky may be their best hope. But how to get from A to B? If Khordorkovsky is ever to make a difference first he needs to find a way out of gaol.