I am the kind of the person that likes the feeling when you get the measure of something. Like driving a car – I remember when after a few months behind the wheel the day came when I thought “yes, I’ve get this now”. I suspect it’s the same with sex but I think I made better progress with driving, so we’ll leave that there.
Equally I have always wanted to get the measure of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. I wanted to know if he was a simple bandit, a good guy locked up by Putin for his political opposition or just a piece of Western propaganda. So I was glad to get a chance last night to see the documentary ‘Khodorkovsky’ made by Cyril Tuschi. So have I got the measure of MK?
Not really, but that’s not the film’s fault. MK is an absurdly complex individual who surrounded himself by very opaque and also complex individuals. The film is fantastically disjointed and very ‘handheld’ but the anarchic feel of the cinematography certainly suited the early of days of MK’s career and indeed the whole Yeltsin episode. The series of interviews with ex-spooks, henchmen, civil rights activists and in one case a mad as a box of frogs lawyer also give a real taste of the Wild East of 90s Russia.
So on the debit side, MK by his own admission invented the process by which the oligarchs were able to buy state-owned businesses in questionable auctions from Boris Yeltsin’s government at well below market prices. Boris knew that no Russian could afford to buy state assets such as Yukos and the other oil companies at their real values and did not want to risk their going to foreigners so sold them cheaply to ‘well-placed’ individuals. And MK was VERY well -placed indeed. Another debit is that MK made Yukos the most transparent company in Russia with western-style corporate governance policies, not because he really believed it but because it was a way to make friends with ‘the west’ and possibly one day sell Yukos to a US company. This possible sale was one of his mistakes.
On the credit side, MK does seem to have democratic beliefs but I have to say some of his business partners do seem pretty dodgy and indeed Interpol is pursuing some of them, but he overall carries the open and civil society flag pretty well in Russia. He would likely have got away with this had he not – and this a big credit – publicly faced up to Vladimir Putin about corruption OK, kettle, pot, black, etc., but MK said he did what he did in the old days and that these were new days. VP does not like being challenged and even though MK has said he has no interest in politics, standing up to VP was the end for him. His biggest credit in my view was that before he was arrested he was given time to get out of Russia and into exile but he stayed home and took what was coming. Did he deserve it? Maybe not. Did he want to go to prison and suffer? Possibly not. Will he take advantage of it for political purposes? You bet he will! He is no Nelson Mandela but when he is released from jail he is going to rocket to the political forefront. Prison helps people in that way.
Politicians are rarely nice guys and MK is good at the bad stuff I’m sure, but he would in parallel drag Russian society into the 21 century – taking no prisoners on the way – but it is about time someone did that. The people who actually came out worst in this fascinating film are the Western politicians who jumped on the MK bandwagon – Gerhard Schroeder in particular looked pretty slimy I thought.
So is MK the prodigal son that the Russians need – probably, I think so, well at least he might be. One person in the film, a backpacker who wandered into shot and was interviewed ad hoc put it well. He said MK is ‘the best of the worst’. So there you have it.