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Fearsome Symmetries: Khodorkovsky and Snowden

mikhail-khodorkovsky_2-tWe recently watched this intriguing documentary on Mikhail Khodorkovsky–the Russian oligarch-turned exemplar for the saying, “Lo! how the mighty have fallen.”

I had first read a bit about him in the context of a paper I was researching for my governance class at law school: I covered the ways in which what nominal governance they had proffered failed during the privatization process in Russia, as well as looking at the entrenched cultural paradigms that gave rise to this failure of governance and the shift into autocracy that followed. Khodorkovsky was a major player in that narrative–a man of drive, ambition, focus and ruthlessness. He was smart enough to leverage the resources (both legitimate and not-so-legitimate) available to him in the system. He was able to make them work for him spectacularly well, by taking wild but calculated risks at key moments, starting during glastnost and throughout the political changes of phase that followed. Inherent talents, some deep hunger for power and achievement, and the perfect window of opportunity created an ideal convergence for his rise.

His efforts paid off handsomely. He became one of–if not the wealthiest man in Russia, head of Yukos oil company and one of the elite corps of Russian oligarchs.

Of course, I’ve already told you the ending. But “pride goeth…”: in the late 90’s he underwent a sea change. He transformed his look, following in the footsteps of Peter the Great, by ditching the facial hair and re-inventing himself in a more westernized guise. But the change went deeper than that. Khodorkovsky suddenly appears to have “found law” and with it, an understanding of the value and importance of a strong regime of governance and enforcement. In so doing, he planted seeds of his downfall.

The man who had abused minority shareholders’ rights and taken advantage of the malleable nature of governance during the Wild Wild East that was privatization, seemed to have awakened to the value of actual governance, strong regulations, enforcement. and the protection of minority shareholders’ rights.

The documentary does a marvellous job of honing in on the core enigma of this transformation. There’s no doubt that there was some element of opportunism behind the change: having reached the pinnacle in Russia, his ambition was undoubtedly in search of further heights to scale. And there was the prosperous West–the free market that he and his friends had imitated as best they could in the early days of his rise, fashioning early banking institutions in a country that had no entrenched knowledge of how to accomplish such a thing.

He seems to have seen something that those still caught in the opportunism of corruption, status and the accumulation of wealth did not: in order to reach greater heights, he needed to court the west. And to do so, he needed governance. The majority of western investors required protection of their rights before they would risk their funds in the lucrative oil and natural gas markets of Russia.

What isn’t clear is whether–and to what extent–he believed what he was saying, ethically and morally. Were the denunciations–the speaking of truth to power–simply the result of calculated ambition or had he actually changed? Was there genuine outrage mixed in with the campaigning for reform?

Regardless, he was proud enough to think that he was powerful enough to be safe in supporting Putin’s opposition, and speaking out against corruption. Intriguingly, he had been warned, during a time abroad, that if he returned to Russia, he would be arrested. There is evidence that he believed the warnings and returned anyway. On principle–or out of hubris, believing he was powerful enough to defend himself against a corrupt system, and that if he were incarcerated, it wouldn’t be for long.

He has been in jail now for ten years. The rest of his executives have fled abroad to avoid similar fates and Yukos has long been sold in a process that was dubious at best. His denunciations now of course have a deeper ring of conviction and truth–the system he was speaking against turned on him spectacularly. There have been several kangaroo courts since the first–subsequent trials, parole hearings, and the like.

The fearsome symmetry of the title of course stems from the fact that this is the place in which Snowden–another who risked perhaps more than he fully realised in order to speak truth to power–is now stranded. The tragedy of Snowden is not merely that he relinquished everything, right down to the complex, nuanced thing that was his identity (that nuance has now been subsumed under the simplicity of a monolith with “whistleblower” inscribed on one side and “traitor” on the other) and the general range of choices that we all have the luxury of making in our daily lives. This is of course tragic enough: friends, family, the various trappings of possessions and clothing that make up the ways in which we define ourselves and signal that sense of self to others, are all things he gave up, in following his conscience instead of the law.

The larger tragedy to me however, is that in doing so and becoming a fugitive, he will undoubtedly also be forced to compromise the conscience that led him to speak out in the first place (and possibly has already). Snowden in Russia, the country in which Khodorkovsy was imprisoned and stripped of everything in a showdown that Putin won via means more foul than fair. He is now a game piece, the king on the chessboard that is his life, and he’s going to be in check, or one move away from check, for the forseeable future.

In a sense, he too is a prisoner of conscience, forced into a severely limited and confined set of circumstances. Having played his main gambit, he is now powerless and cornered. Likely, knowing what he did, he chose to go public with his identity because he hoped he would be safer that way. Presumably he knows the system well enough to make a good guess at his chances of sustaining anonymity–as well as knowing how much more vulnerable he would have been if no-one knew his name and his location except the NSA, via all their monitoring infrastructures.

His ability to choose his next steps is limited at best. He will be perpetually stuck between Scylla and Charybdis. The felony in the US will always lurking to one side, while the kinds of countries that are offering asylum are not places that are about supporting truth speakers because of the rightness of speaking that truth. They–like the US and many other countries, but turned up to eleven–are about supporting speakers of truth if they are thorns in the side of sovereign entities they resent. Snowden will become their trophy, and it seems likely that as a trophy, he’s not going to have a lot of say over what he ends up representing to the wider world.

And yet, for all that the prospect feels bleak, the alternative is likely worse: checkmate.


2 comments on “Fearsome Symmetries: Khodorkovsky and Snowden

  1. Luis
    July 13, 2013

    Thanks for this thoughtful commentary on the parallels between Khodorkovsky and Snowden – I especially agree with your final paragraph, in that I deeply support whistleblowers and I am grateful for his bravery in exposing these matters … however that doesn’t mean that human rights violations in Russia and Venezuela have disappeared overnight just because they smell an opportunity for moral relativism.

    • Susan
      July 13, 2013

      Indeed, Luis–and thanks for commenting!

      I feel such deep ambivalence about this situation: the fact that Snowden is now at the mercy of those powers that feel enough of a sense of grievance to risk the displeasure of the U.S. It is grimly amusing to hear the U.S. condemning Russia for providing Snowden with a “platform for his propaganda”–because that, apparently, is what exposing the extent of the monitoring and the violations of privacy and rights is now. But that amusement covers a deep sadness, that the U.S.’s self-fashioning as the “defender of the free world” has once more proven to be such a thin veneer, but as well, that the source of this “clemency” in letting the man who spoke such a dangerous truth stay rather than handing him over, is Putin’s Russia.

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This entry was posted on July 13, 2013 by in Constitutional Rights, Governance, Human Rights, Law and Order, Policy, Politics, Rights and tagged , , .
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