Sometime in the very early 2000s, I got a call from an acquaintance of mine, a liberal-minded literary critic, inviting me to participate in a round-table discussion with Mikhail Khodorkovsky sponsored by the Open Russia Foundation. Khodorkovsky wanted to talk to contemporary writers and so a few dozen of us were produced for him. I was very curious. The Open Russia logo was practically a replica of the Soros Foundation’s, which foundation the Putinists had already begun to squeeze out of Russia. The similarity between the logos was seen as a challenge by Khodorkovsky to the authorities.
Before Khodor came out to meet with us, the economist [Yevgeny] Yasin spent a long time preparing us with a thorough lecture on what modernization was and how lamentably it was being held up in Russia. Then, Professor Valentin Zorin explained how difficult relations between writers and the state had always been in our country. Everyone paid close attention, many even took notes, but of course we were all just waiting for the main attraction, Khodor himself.
Finally, he arrived. He talked to us about politics and his personal path to success. He told a touching tale of how, when oil prices plummeted [in 1998], and he found himself unable to pay his workers in Siberia because he was losing several dollars on each barrel he put in the pipeline, these workers, instead of trying to understand Khodor’s difficult economic situation, started quitting their jobs and raiding his company’s regional offices. But finally, thank God, the riot troops swooped in and put all those idiots face down in the snow, and then, when Khodor himself finally showed up, those mindless proles crawled in front of him on their knees, begging him to have mercy on them and let them keep their jobs instead of putting them in jail, etc.
K also recalled how, in 1996, he had taken the hopeless incumbent Yeltsin and turned him into a viable presidential candidate from nothing, from a total zero, by wisely investing some money, and had thereby saved the country from a communist revanche.1 All this suggested that the next president was also going to be someone chosen by K, that no one should fear a communism revanche, and that modernization was set to start running full steam. Of course cultural workers would be allocated a special and honorable role in this process. Khodor was clearly eager to radiate confidence, success, reliability, and creativity, and prove to us that his way of thinking was the pinnacle of social evolution.
In fact, it was obvious that the man in front of us was nothing but an unscrupulous Komsomol careerist with a dishonest smile, someone who’d never look you in the eye, and whose future was very hazy indeed. When he left, Professor Zorin drove home the point for those of us who hadn’t caught on yet: “Do you realize how many thousands of dollars a minute this man’s time costs? And he spent them with us, by the way.” I decided not to stay for the rest of the banquet and soon found myself in the wintry forest, walking back to the train station in the dark. Recalling the vile expression on the tycoon’s face, his disdainful and anxious laughter, I contemplated Professor Zorin’s parting words and (for once) felt very rich, having been granted all those expensive minutes.
A couple of years later, Khodorkovsky was arrested. The Communists tried to come to his rescue. An outraged Professor Zorin left the country for several years, stunned by such obvious savagery. From prison, K wrote rose-tinted letters about the inevitable “left turn” in Russian politics.
I’ve never sympathized with him. I’ve always enjoyed the fact that he was in prison, and I wasn’t, although it could have easily been the other way around.
In 1996, the leading oligarchs, including Khodorkovsky, as part of their obligations under the loans-for-shares boondoggle that had allowed them to buy the largest companies in Russia for dimes on the dollar the year before, financed and helped run Yeltsin’s re-election campaign, allowing him to mount a challenge to the Communist candidate Zyuganov. It later emerged that despite this advantage, Yeltsin’s administration still had to resort to fraudulent vote-counting to secure the victory. ↩