Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Crisis of Russia's Liberalism

29.03.04

In an open letter published by the business daily Vedomosti Mikhail Khodorkovsky contemplates the fate of Russia's liberals, its businessmen, the authorities and its people.

Russian liberalism is facing a crisis: today, there is almost no doubt about that. If someone had told me a year ago that SPS (the Union of Right Forces) and Yabloko would not clear the 5-per cent voting threshold at the Duma elections, I would have seriously doubted the analytical and forecasting skills of the speaker. Today the defeat of SPS and Yabloko has become a reality.

Two candidates officially represented Russia's liberal forces at the presidential elections. One of them, the former communist-agrarian Ivan Rybkin, instead of conducting a clear-cut election campaign staged a cheap farce, which even the LDPR representative, Zhirinovsky's personal security expert Oleg Malyshkin, would have felt ashamed of.

The other candidate, Irina Khakamada, did her best to distance herself from her own liberal past, criticized Boris Yeltsin and campaigned for the building of a social state. And then, without a hint of embarrassment (and, perhaps, not without grounds) she called the 3.84 per cent of votes cast in her favor a big success.

Politicians and experts who shortly after the arrest of my friend and partner Platon Lebedev last summer spoke of the threat of authoritarianism, of the violation of laws and civic freedoms, now compete in their ability to spout honey-sweet compliments to Kremlin officials. Not a trace is left of their rebellious liberal ardor. Of course, there are exceptions, but they only confirm the rule.

Today we are witnessing the virtual capitulation of the liberals. And that capitulation, indeed, is not only the liberals' fault, but also their problem. It is their fear in the face of a thousand-year history, mixed with the strong liking for household comforts they developed in the 1990s.

It is their servility ingrained on the genetic level, their readiness to ignore the Constitution for the sake of another helping of sturgeon. Russian liberals have always been like that.

"Freedom of speech", "freedom of thought", "freedom of consciousness" — those word combinations are rapidly losing their meaning and turning into mere verbal fillers. Not only the common people but also most of the so-called elite wearily snub them, as if willing to say: everything is clear; it is just another conflict between the oligarchs and the president, plague on both your houses, where we have been so successfully turned into fodder for worms.

Nobody knows, and, in fact, nobody cares what is happening to the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko following their December defeat. The 2008-Committee, while claiming the role of the conscience of Russia's liberals, itself readily admits its impotence and says, nearly excusing itself, yes, there are only a few of us and the timing is wrong, so there is little hope of anything, but still…

Irina Khakamada's idea to form the Free Russia party from the remnants of Yabloko and SPS has not evoked any substantial public interest except for the excitement of several professional "party-builders" who once again smell easy money.

Meanwhile, the Russian political soil generously nurtures the bearers of the new discourse, the ideology of the so-called "party of national revenge", or PNR. PNR bears the traits of the featureless United Russia, of the self-complacent Motherland, reveling in its superiority over its less successful rivals, as well as of LDPR, whose leader has once again confirmed his exceptional political vitality.

All those people — sometimes sincerely, though in most cases falsely and to order, yet no less convincingly — hold forth on the demise of liberal ideas, asserting that our country, Russia, simply needs no freedom at all.

Freedom, in their opinion, is the fifth wheel in the wagon of national development. And those who talk of freedoms are either oligarchs or scum (which is, on the whole, the same).

Against such a background President Vladimir Putin is perceived as the most devout liberal, because from an ideological standpoint he is far better than Rogozin and Zhirinovsky.

 And let us think this through: indeed, Putin is probably neither a liberal nor a democrat, but he is still more liberal and democratic than 70 per cent of our country's population.

After all, none other than Putin has reined in our national demons and prevented Zhirinovsky and Rogozin (or rather not them, because in truth they are just talented political players, but to the numerous supporters of their public statements) to seize state power in Russia.

Chubais and Yavlinsky, for their part, were unable to resist "the national revenge" — all they could do was sit and wait till the apologists of nationalist values such as "Russia for the Russians" threw them out of the country (as, alas, has happened before in our history).

That's how it is. Nonetheless, liberalism in Russia must not die. For the craving for freedom has always been and will remain one of the main instincts of man, be he Russian, Chinese, or Laplander. Yes, that sweet word "freedom" has many meanings. But its spirit cannot be eradicated nor extirpated.

It is the spirit of the titan Prometeus who presented man with fire. It is the spirit of Jesus Christ who spoke as the one who was right and not like the scribes and Pharisees.

Hence, the reason for the crisis of Russian liberalism lies not in the ideals of freedom, albeit perceived differently by everyone. This is not about the system, but people, as the last Soviet prime-minister Valentin Pavlov used to say.

Those who were entrusted by fate and history to guard the liberal values in our country have failed in their task. Today we must sincerely admit that, because the times of slyness are over, and to me, here in a dungeon of remand centre No.4 this is, perhaps, a bit more obvious than to those in more comfortable conditions.

SPS and Yabloko did not lose the elections because the Kremlin discriminated against them. But rather because the presidential administration, for the first time, denied them support, putting them on a par with the other opposition forces. 

And Irina Khakamada, too, secured her notable 3.84 per cent not in spite of the state machine, which simply did not notice her, but in many ways, because of the Kremlin's frantic drive to secure a higher voter turnout.

Big business (often referred to as 'the oligarchs' in the vernacular) have left the arena, driven out not by the flourishing corruption but solely because of the malfunction of standard lobbying mechanisms, which were designed to work under a weak president and the former Kremlin administration. And that's it.

Socially active proponents of liberal views, to which I believe my sinful self also belongs, were responsible for preventing Russia from deviating from the path of freedom. And, paraphrasing Stalin's well-known statement made in June 1941, we have screwed up our cause. Now we will have to analyze our tragic mistakes and acknowledge our guilt, both moral and historic. And only thus we will be able to find a solution.

It's a Beautiful Lie

Russian liberalism was defeated because it had tried to ignore, firstly, some important aspects of Russia's national and historic development, and secondly, the vital interests of an overwhelming majority of Russian people. Moreover, it was terrified of telling the truth.

I don't want to say that Chubais, Gaidar, and their kindred spirits set before them the goal of deceiving Russia. Many liberals of the first crop, the Yeltsin crop, were people who sincerely believed that liberalism is historically right, that a tired country practically deprived of freedom's delights needed a "liberal revolution". But their approach to this revolution, once liberals suddenly came to power, was too superficial, if not frivolous. They concerned themselves with life and labor conditions for the ten percent of Russians who were ready for radical life changes once they rejected state paternalism. They wound up forgetting the other ninety percent. The politicians covered up their tragic failures with lies, as a rule.

They lied to 90% of the people when they generously promised that a privatization voucher would buy two cars. Sure, an enterprising player on the financial market with access to private information and with the ability to analyze this information could turn a privatization voucher into as many as ten cars. But the promise was that everyone would be able to do it.

They kept their eyes shut to Russia's social conditions, while conducting privatization and ignoring its negative social consequences, coyly calling it painless, honest, and fair. It's well known what people think of that "great" privatization now.

They didn't force themselves to think of the catastrophic consequences of the devaluation of Sberbank [Russia's largest, state-owned savings bank] deposits. Then, it would have been possible to come up with a very simple solution — by securing deposits through government bonds that could be paid back by taxes on capital gains (or for example stocks in Russia's best companies transferred to private ownership). But the powerful liberals didn't want to waste their precious time; they didn't want to exercise their grey matter.

In the 90s, no one took up education, healthcare, and housing reforms, or targeted support of the poor and the indigent, all issues upon which an enormous majority of our compatriots depended and still depends on now.

Social stability, social peace — the only possible foundation for any long-term reformation that involves the very basics of a country's existence — were ignored by Russian liberals. They set themselves apart from the people with a chasm. Into this chasm, through media and bureaucratic channels, they pumped pretty liberal ideas about reality, manipulating information. By the way, it was in the 90s when the concept of the all-powerful Political Technologist first arose — a person who is supposed to be able to make up for the absence of real politics in one or another area with clever "virtual" throwaway products.

The election campaign of 1995-1996 showed that the Russian people had already rejected liberal government. As one of the 1996 presidential campaign's major sponsors, I, of all people, should remember quite well what a monstrous effort it took to make the Russian people "choose with their hearts".

What were the country's liberal top managers thinking when they said that there was no alternative to the default of 1998? There was an alternative — the devaluation of the ruble. All the way back in February and even June 1998 it could have been avoided by a devaluation of 5 to 10, 12 rubles per USD. I and many of my colleagues had defended this option for deflecting the looming financial crisis. But, although we had considerable political leverage at that time, we weren't able to defend our point of view and thus must share the moral responsibility for the default with the authorities, which had been irresponsible and incompetent.

Liberal leaders called themselves victims and their governments —"kamikaze cabinets". It seems to have been the case at first. But by the mid-90s, they had garnered too many Mercedes-Benzes, country houses, villas, nightclubs, gold credit cards. The image of a stoical liberalist fighter prepared to die for the triumph of the idea was replaced by relaxed bohemians who didn't even attempt to mask their indifference toward the Russian people, the voiceless "population". This bohemian image, spiced up with demonstrative cynicism, to a large degree, served to discredit liberalism in Russia.

Liberals weren't telling the truth when they said that Russian people are living better and better, because they themselves didn't know and didn't understand — and, I should note, often didn't want to understand — how the majority of people really lives. And now they have to listen to it and learn about it — I hope they're ashamed of themselves.

Even as far as declared liberalist values went, liberals were often far from honest and logical. For instance, liberals talked of freedom of speech, while at the same time doing everything possible to create financial and administrative control over the media in order to use this magical resource to their own advantage. Most commonly such actions were justified by the existence of the "communist threat," for the neutralization of which everything was permitted. And the fact that the "red-brown plague" is strong only in as far as the liberal government has forgotten its people and their problems was never mentioned.

The media was choked with praise for the "diversified economy of the future". In reality, however, Russia got strongly addicted to oil. Naturally, the profound crisis of the technological complex was a direct consequence of the falling apart of the USSR and an abrupt shrinkage of investments because of high inflation. Liberals were obliged to solve this problem — by inviting powerful, knowledgeable left-wingers into the government. But they preferred to ignore this problem. Is it any surprise, then, that millions of people in the scientific and technical intelligentsia, which was the main impulse behind the Soviet liberation movement of the late 80s, now vote for "Motherland" and the Communist Party?

They had always said — disregarding objections — that they could do anything they liked with the Russian people, that "in this country" the elite decides everything, and the regular folks don't deserve as much as a thought. Any nonsense, any insolence, any lie is going to be accepted by the people like manna from heaven, if it came from the boss. As a result, such theses such as "social politics are necessary", "everyone must share", etc, were tossed out, denied, denounced with a grin.

Well, it's time for retribution. At the 2003 election, the Russian people said to liberal officials their resolute and dry-eyed "goodbye". Even Russia's young people, whom everyone believed to be definitely impressed with the ideas of the Union of Right Forces and wholly supportive of Chubais, voted for the Liberal Democratic Party and Motherland.

That was people spitting into the chasm between the liberals in power and the country.

Where was big business at this time? Right next to the liberal government. We helped them make mistakes and lie.

Of course we never admired the authorities. But we never contradicted them, so as to not risk our daily bread. It's funny when zealous propaganda-mongers call us "oligarchs". An oligarchy is a group of people who actually hold power, whereas we always depended on the powerful bureaucrat in his ultra-liberal thousand-dollar suit. Our collective pilgrimages to Yeltsin were but a theatrical prop — we were publicly made out to be the chief culprits of the country's woes, while we didn't even realize at first what was going on. We were simply being conned.

We had the resources to challenge a game with such rules. That is, a game without any rules. But, compliant and obedient as we were, with our obsequious ability to give when we were asked to give and even when we weren't, we created both the bureaucratic arbitrariness and orchestrated justice.

We did revive industry, squashed in the final years of Soviet rule; we created over two million highly paid vacancies. But we couldn't convince the country of this. Why not? Because the country hadn't forgiven business its alliance with "the party of irresponsibility", "the party of lies".

Business at Large

Equating the liberal part of society with business circles is a traditional misconception.

The philosophy behind business is making money. But a liberal environment is not necessary for big money at all. Large American corporations which invested billions of dollars into the USSR loved the Soviet government, since it guaranteed complete stability and the freedom of business from social control. Only recently, in the late 90s, did transnational corporations begin to reject partnerships with the most abominable of African dictatorships. And at that, not all of them and not always.

Civil society more frequently gets in the way of business than aiding it — it stands up for the rights of hired laborers, protects the environment from careless intrusion, and limits corruption. All of this cuts down on profits. I speak as a former head of one of Russia's largest oil companies when I say that it's much easier for entrepreneurs to work things out with a handful of acceptably greedy officials than to coordinate their actions with a branched and competent network of social institutions.

Business does not seek liberal reforms in the political sphere, it isn't obsessed with freedom — it always coexists with the current government regime. More than anything, it wants the regime to protect it from civil society and hired laborers. As a result, business, especially big business, is doomed to fight the real, not sham, civil society.

Moreover, business is always cosmopolitan — money has no fatherland. It winds up wherever it's profitable, it hires whoever is profitable, it invests its resources only where the profit is optimal. For many (although, doubtlessly, not for all) of our businessmen who amassed their wealth in the 90s, Russia is not a place where they belong but just a free hunting ground. Their main interests and life strategies are tied to the West.

For me, Russia is my Motherland. I want to live, work, and die here. I want my descendants to be proud of Russia, and of myself, as a part of this country, this unique civilization. Perhaps, I realized this too late — I only got involved in charities and investing in the infrastructure of civil society in 2000. But better late than never.

For this reason, I have quit business. I'm not speaking for the business community, but for myself, and for the liberal part of society, the group of people I see as teammates, sharing a common idea. Naturally, there are businessmen among us, since no one is refused entry into the world of true freedom and real democracy.

Choosing the Way

What can and must we do today? I'll name seven of our top priorities.

The first: establish a new strategy of cooperation with the government. The government and the bureaucracy are not synonyms. It's time to ask yourself: "What have I done for Russia?" It's already clear what Russia has done for us after 1991.

Learn to look for truth in Russia, and not in the West. Russia's image in the United States and Europe is all very well, but it will never match the importance of respect from one's fellow citizens. We have to show, to ourselves first of all, that we are not favorites, but permanent citizens on our Russian land. We must stop disregarding — especially in such a pointed manner — the interests of our nation and people. These interests are our interests.

We must give up the useless attempts to call the president's legitimacy into question. Regardless of whether we like Vladimir Putin or not, it's time to realize that the head of state is not just a private person. The president is an institution guaranteeing a nation's stability and integrity. And God forbid that we live to see a day when this institution collapses — Russia will not survive another February 1917. The nation's history tells us that a bad government is better than no government at all. Moreover, it's time to realize that in order for a civil society to develop, it needs an impulse from the government. The infrastructure of a civil society forms over centuries, not in a week with the help of a magic wand.

It's time to stop lying — to oneself and to society. To grasp that we are adults that are strong enough to tell the truth. I respect and value Irina Khakamada, but unlike my partner, Leonid Nevzlin, I decided not to finance her presidential campaign, because I saw something false in it. For example, we cannot accuse Putin of the Nord-Ost tragedy, because it is unfair.

Leave behind our cosmopolitan perception of the world; to grasp that we live on earth, and not in the air; to accept that a liberal project in Russia can only be successful when the nation's interests are taken into account. That liberalism will take root in Russia only when it gains a strong, firm footing on the earth beneath its feet.

Legitimize privatization. We need to accept that 90 percent of the people in Russia do not consider privatization fair, and feel that those who got rich from it accumulated their wealth illegally. And while this is the case, there will always be forces — political, bureaucratic, or even terrorist — that will encroach upon private property. In order to justify privatization before a nation where the notions of Roman property law have never been strong, we must force big business to share with the people — possibly by accepting reforms in mineral tax and other sectors that will not be very advantageous to the companies.

It's better if we start these processes ourselves, to influence them and direct them, than to stubbornly resist the inevitable. What is meant to be cannot be avoided. Legitimizing privatization is not something the government needs, for it will always prefer to have a means of pressuring us. It is something necessary for us and for our children, who will live in Russia and who would like to walk the streets of Russian cities without bodyguards.

Invest in the minds of citizens and in the creation of fundamentally new social institutions not brainwashed by the lies of the past. To create real structures of civil society, instead of treating them like entertainment centers. To open doors for new generations. To attract conscientious and talented people that can form the basis of Russia's new elite. The worst thing for Russia is the continuing brain drain, because talent and intellect is the basis of Russia's most competitive asset, not the ever-diminishing fossil fuels. And talent will only accumulate in a thriving environment — that same civil society.

In order to change this country, we must ourselves change. In order to convince Russia of the need and the inevitability of liberal development, we must overcome fears from the previous decade, and from the dreary history of Russian liberalism.

For freedom to return to Russia, we must start believing in it ourselves.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a private person and a citizen of the Russian Federation.

(The author is a former CEO and major shareholder of the Yukos oil company. Currently he is under investigation, and in custody.)

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