Magazine | January 24, 2011, Issue

Returns the Gulag

The Khodorkovsky trial exposes the ugly truth of Putin’s Russia

How extraordinary, and how ominous, that Russia is still the stage for show trials. This time, the victims are Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev. Once they were both well known, indeed when Khodorkovsky was chairman of the oil company Yukos he is said to have been the richest man in Russia. Then one day in 2003 armed men pulled him off his private plane and his ordeal began.

Khodorkovsky’s fortune had come about through the collapse of Communism. In a moment of high drama and hope, Boris Yeltsin succeeded in opening a new political course for the country. President of post-Soviet Russia in the 1990s, he had to manage the transition from the command economy to capitalism; and one indispensable measure was the sale of state assets. Khodorkovsky was one of the emerging oligarchs with the wits to take advantage of an arbitrary process of redistributing property. Yukos was a company with oil concessions, and he was able to buy it for a fraction of its value, and build it up to a nominal worth of $23 billion.

Well-meaning and willing to experiment, Yeltsin was nevertheless a man formed by the past and the Communist Party. He seems to have seen something of himself in Vladimir Putin, then a run-of-the-mill KGB officer who had attached himself to the power brokers known as “the Yeltsin family.” At any rate he groomed Putin to be his successor and in 1999 duly appointed him president, as though the office were in his personal gift. In the judgment of Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB colonel who defected to Britain and is now one of Putin’s most incisive critics, this was the “catastrophic mistake” that has returned Russia to its bad old ways.

Khodorkovsky and Putin were both on the make, two of a kind on their way to the top, potentially associates rather than rivals. Putin had nothing against oligarchs as such, provided they did what they were told. As president, he had a proposition: They could keep their money, however they had come by it, so long as they stayed out of politics. The majority of oligarchs have accepted the bargain and do as Putin bids. Whether out of arrogance or public spirit, Khodorkovsky instead began to fund opposition parties and candidates. That initiative was to end in his arrest on his plane.

In Stalin’s day, the victims of the notorious show trials were accused of treason. The charge of tax evasion is now the means to the same end of false incrimination. In an initial show trial in 2005, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were found guilty of fraud and tax evasion, and sentenced to nine years in prison (later reduced to eight), back-dated to 2003. At auctions directed by the Kremlin, the assets of Yukos were sold to the Russian state’s oil company, in effect renationalizing what had briefly been private property. Like generations of Russians before them, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were sent to prison camps, the former to Krasnokamensk in Siberia near the Chinese border, the latter to Yamalo-Nenets beyond the Arctic Circle. Family members on a visit to this latter-day Gulag must endure a journey of 19 hours.

#page#Out of sight, the two prisoners were not out of mind. Putin has been preparing his future status. The Russian constitution specifies that the president may serve only two consecutive terms of four years each, and Putin was duly in office from 2000 to 2008. The constitution did not anticipate that a former president might enjoy two more terms so long as somebody else has held the office in the interim. Putin has let it be known that he intends to become president again from 2012 to 2020 by means of this clever dodge. All he has had to do is make his temporary gift of the presidency to Dmitri Medvedev, previously his deputy prime minister and a man not yet seen to have taken an independent line on anything. In today’s Russia, these two have swapped offices as easily as children playing musical chairs. The presidential election is due next year, by which time Khodorkovsky ought to be at liberty. Safer to have another show trial and keep the fellow in Siberia rather than run the risk that he might want revenge and mobilize opposition.

So the two accused have been obliged to appear once again in a Moscow courtroom, constrained in bullet-proof cages around which were grouped a dozen policemen and special forces in black combat fatigues and armed with automatic weapons. With shaven heads, grey faces, drab T-shirts, and no collar or tie, the two men even had the air of zeks, to borrow the term for Gulag prisoners immortalized by Solzhenitsyn. The prosecution had trumped up yet more charges of misappropriating inconceivable billions of dollars, and called for a six-year extension of their sentence — which would have the merit of keeping them far away while Putin consolidates his presidential triumph. The judge, a youngish apparatchik, faithfully followed instructions, and Putin gave him a helping hand by saying at a press conference shortly before the sentencing, “Thieves must be behind bars.” He has also been comparing the two in court to Bernard Madoff. No surprises, then: The judge’s verdict was indeed that another six years be added to the sentence. “May you and your offspring be cursed!” shouted a woman in the room, thought to be Khodorkovsky’s mother. Out in the street, riot police arrested a few protesters.

Novaya Gazeta is a rare media outlet that Putin has not yet brought under state control, and this latest show trial prompted one of its journalists to look for consolation: “Still, this isn’t 1937 anymore.” Judicial terrorism is not leading to judicial execution as in the past, it is true, but the trial has confirmed that Putin is the final arbiter of ownership and title to property, and that law is what he decides it to be.

Communism in practice was nothing but the exercise of brute power, for which Marxism-Leninism provided the requisite ideological support. A Stalinist nostalgia hangs about today’s parades and commemorations, sporting events, youth movements, rigged elections, and even this show trial, but that does not amount to an ersatz ideology or replacement version of Marxism-Leninism. The greater glory of Putin’s Russia rests on brute power alone, and it is a matter of indifference if outsiders see this as crime and a menace. Russia invaded Georgia and occupies some of its territory; terrorizes the Caucasus; does violence to former Soviet republics such as Ukraine and Estonia; and sends aircraft to test Western defenses in the old Cold War style. As many Russian spies are said to be operating in the United States and Britain as in Soviet days. Those exposed and sent back to Moscow as persona non grata are treated as heroes.

#page#Russians will say that it is the equivalent of a death warrant if the man in the Kremlin merely complains about some opponent or critic. In a notorious case, Alexander Litvinenko, an exile in London, was poisoned by radioactive material traceable to Russian agents. On his deathbed he openly accused Putin of murdering him. Recently Viktor and Marina Kalashnikov, exiles in Germany and critics of the Kremlin, have also claimed to be victims of poisoning. Anna Politkovskaya of Novaya Gazeta consistently exposed Russian war crimes in Chechnya, until she was gunned down in her apartment building in 2006. Attacks on journalists, lawyers, and troublemakers are so numerous that they often go unreported. Among prominent personalities murdered in 2009 were Sulim Yamadayev, a potential president of Chechnya who had fled to Dubai; the human-rights activists Natalia Estemirova and Stanislav Markelov; and the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. The last case is particularly sinister. He was 37, and healthy. When he reported evidence that a gang of officials had perpetrated a huge fraud on Western investors, he was himself arrested, taken to the Butyrka prison in Moscow, and in due course found dead in a dungeon there. The guilty are neither identified nor brought to justice. Brute power is final.

What happened to the journalist Oleg Kashin only a few weeks ago is typical. He had written an article about a protest to a planned road from Moscow to St. Petersburg that involved cutting down a forest. An oligarch crony of Putin’s is financing this project, and this summer Putin shut down discussion by declaring, “All decisions have been made.” Attackers caught Kashin in front of his apartment in central Moscow and broke his jaw and one of his legs, fractured his skull, and partially tore off his fingers so that one of them had to be amputated.

As a precaution, Khodorkovsky’s son Pavel lives in New York. In an interview with London’s Sunday Telegraph just after the judge’s verdict of six more years, he said, “My father runs a very high risk of being killed,” and added, “The Litvinenko case is certainly on my mind.” Uproar over this show trial is resounding around the world, but any hope of justice and the rule of law in Putin’s Russia, of pardon or even the mitigation of brute power, is wishful thinking.

David Pryce-Jones — David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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