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Points of view: A Russian tycoon’s son defends his father

October 18, 2012
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Pavel Khodorkovsky delivers a lecture at the University of Michigan.

Pavel Khodorkovsky’s father was one of Russia’s wealthiest tycoons when he headed the oil company Yukos. But since 2003, he has been the country’s most famous prisoner. His conviction on fraud charges is widely viewed as political punishment for supporting liberal opposition to President Vladimir Putin.

Khodorkovsky discussed the case against his father, Mikhail, as well as Putin’s rule, corruption, recent unrest, reform prospects and several other issues in an Oct. 17 lecture at the University of Michigan.  Here are a few excerpts from the talk:

Boris Yeltsin’s rule:

Yeltsin made a number of doubtful choices, but I think the country as a whole was on the right path. It was following a democratic model. Although it experienced a lot of pain from transitioning from a Soviet planned economy to an open market economy, with all the underlying problems the society attributed to its leaders, in general I believe it was on the right trajectory.

The rise of Putin:

His entire rule from the beginning was focused on the premise of loyalty. Yeltsin chose this man as a man who could provide a degree of personal protection for his family because he recognized the value he (Putin) placed on loyalty. Putin’s choices over the next 12 years have basically been made on the same premise.

Putin’s social contract:

Putin provides stability in exchange for non participation, non involvement of the society in political affairs and the political life of the country. The social contract has resonated really well with the Russian society at the time. There was always this notion of a paternalistic leader that is able to carry the country, provide security and stability. So this promise of restoring Russia’s image, providing growth, has resonated well with the society.

Why Putin reigned in the oligarchs:

One of the things Putin needed to achieve as part of his transition to an authoritarian model was to reign in the group (of oligarchs). At the time, in the year 2000, Putin as a leader was still fairly weak. So he needed to establish a precedent, and unfortunately my father and his company, the Yukos oil company, ended up being that precedent.

Putin’s ‘sovereign democracy’:

Putin had to come up with a way to describe the system so that he could present a reasonable explanation of what has been happening domestically and at the same time keep some semblance of face in the West. So the notion he came up with is ‘sovereign democracy,’ which is in my mind a very contradictory term because democracy means the rule of the people. Frankly the ‘sovereign’ part makes for a very ambiguous term.

Putin and Medvedev job swap:

The announcement of Putin and Medvedev publicly speaking about their decision to switch places in 2007, long before the presidential election, really catalyzed the unrest in the society. It’s one thing if you tell people the various limitations on freedoms, and some instances of human rights violations, are really benefiting the society and providing stability and a sense of growth. And at the same time, you are providing a semblance of an election process, although the results are predetermined. You are giving people an opportunity to participate in something that if they are willing to deceive themselves, they can feel like they are part of a democratic system. However, openly calling it a sovereign democracy and following up with an announcement the switch has taken place catalyzed this shift in public opinion.

Stability and prosperity bring an appetite for self respect. It is one of the steps on the path to growth, personal growth and societal growth. Once your basic needs are addressed, once you have a sense of security in terms of financial opportunities, you start to aspire to something more. And the system standing in the way becomes a glass ceiling in the path to personal growth. I believe that up until this announcement, Russian society had been deceiving itself and believing the country will progress and there will be plenty of opportunities.


The idea that you have to perceive corruption as Russia’s special way does not really resonate with people who have traveled abroad, who have studied abroad and realize there is potential for a functioning society, functioning government system that does not embrace corruption.

The lack of institutions in society and the pervasive corruption mean that Putin and his administration cannot rely on any functioning procedures. Every time there is a natural disaster and a quick response is required by local government, they cannot count on those bureaucracies functioning properly. Every time there is such an instance, society as a whole realizes the system is not working and that has engaged a much wider of spectrum of society.

The possibility of reform:

I believe the Yukos case and Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment back in 2003 set off a chain of events that has disintegrated the judicial system and crippled the rule of law in Russia. By setting him and his close friend and business partner free, their release may catalyze and reverse the trend and ultimately return the country to a functioning system that embraces the rule of law.

Pavel Khodorkovsky’s New York-based Institute of Modern Russia: www.imrussia.org/

The lecture was sponsored by the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies; Center for International and Comparative Studies; University Library; and the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies.

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