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BOOK REVIEW

The rise and fall of


Mikhail Khodorkovsky
A good read with all the qualities of a well-written political thriller.
By Dixie Eriksson

F ebruary 19, 2003. A resounding


and ominous clash took place
in the Kremlin, between two of
Russia’s most powerful men – Vladimir
Putin, the Russian president, and Mikhail
turn every stone to throw light upon this
ongoing and enigmatic duel between two
gifted men. Both of whom, in the final
analysis, may be losers.
Sixsmith also retells the story of the
Back to February 19, 2003. As
Putin declared war on corruption, the
businessmen around the table praised the
president in rotund and empty phrases for
his initiative. Small wonder really. All the
Khodorkovsky, the richest man in Russia. birth of the oligarchs in the turbulent oligarchs present had taken advantage of
The setting was innocent enough. Putin days of Yeltsin’s Russia, when the frail corrupt practices like greenmailing, and
had invited leading Russian businessmen young democracy and the economy corrupt civil servants and politicians,
to discuss the subject of corruption with headed towards bankruptcy more than when they started hoarding their large
him and his senior officials. once. Bewildering times of rampant fortunes in the dying days of the Soviet
It was the first of a series of public corruption. empire.
meetings set up to give people the The daring, the ruthless, and the Nothing of substance was expected
impression that both the host and his business-minded were there to get their and nothing was delivered at the
prominent guests were concerned about pick when the stagnant communist Kremlin meeting. But when it was Mikail
corruption and bad business ethics. Of command economy was to be dismounted Khodorkovsky’s turn to speak it was
course it was shown on national television and transformed almost overnight into obvious that he would not play according
and reported in the national press. a liberal market economy. An operation to the rules. He was loaded with slides
Standard procedure to publicise political impossible led by the stumbling president, presenting actual statistics on corruption
stunts without committing oneself to Boris Yeltsin, egged on by economists and challenging the official version of the
anything concrete. A charade parading experts from abroad. story, unwanted and far too revealing.
platitudes seemingly off-the-cuff. Those It was a transition without precedence His fervour for liberalism, for honesty
taking part as well as those watching in scale and complexity, difficult in and transparency in business was
knew that. the best of days, and with the best of obvious. Even though he as usual was shy
British journalist, writer, and intentions. It is now obvious that the hasty and ill at ease in formal public situations.
broadcaster Martin Sixsmith sets this privatisation was a deeply flawed process The president’s scrutinising cold eyes and
key scene, and spells out the detailed beyond control and leaving a bitter expressionless poker face did not help
background and the significance of the after-taste and sullying the oligarchs’ much either. Still a KGB-man to his very
clash in a Russian context in his brilliant reputation. The majority of them being fingertips.
new book Putin’s oil: The Yukos affair and Jewish activated anti-Semitic prejudices, Khodorkovsky had spent the preceding
the struggle for Russia. never in short supply in Russia. three years working like a madman to
It is a good read with all the qualities In those days, Khodorskovsy was a turn Yukos into an open western-style
of a well-written political thriller. That ruthless operator, always on the look- operation to attract western investors.
is a bonus, however, for the real treat out for a quick profit. Through political He had also acquired the oil company
Sixsmith’s book offers is the way he wheeling and dealing with Yeltsin, he Sibneft, owned by fellow oligarch Roman
untangles the Yukos affair involving very managed to lay his hand on a strategic Abramovich. At the same time, he was
complex and covert moves, Russian and asset like Yukos oil, and set to become the plotting to open an oil-pipeline to China.
international politics, hosts of crucial richest man in Russia. He was number one in oil in Russia,
players, victims, subsidiaries, holding Putin’s oil is an intensely contemporary but his ambition was to become number
companies, and alleged murders. and vivid book. King Oil is a cash cow one in the world.
Sixsmith is well-versed in with political clout, and in the news all According to Sixsmith, Khodorkovsky
contemporary Russian history, politics, the time. Mikhail Khodorkovsky has, had undergone a conversion removing
and culture from first-hand experience according to French newspaper Le Figaro, himself from his earlier ruthless robber
as a student, a journalist, and a regular recently begun a new hunger strike in baron days and ways. The first oligarch
visitor for three decades. He is the ideal gaol and tries to play Medvedev, the to engage in philanthropy in grand style,
guide with a lot of contacts, informal and current president, against Putin – to no through his Open Russia Foundation.
formal. He really goes out of his way to avail so far. President Putin did not like anything of

26 ISSUE 5 Independent World report


that. Khodorkovsky and Yukos sat on large Yukos, but also for some of his employees. criminal group.
Russian oil reserves stolen from mother He is still in gaol. The surrounding world In the second trial, the accusations
Russia, according to Putin. Transparency could only watch Russian justice at its reached the Kafkaesque quality of trials
and western control of Russian oil are not worst playing a cat-and-mouse game in any totalitarian state. Khodorkovsky
his cup of tea. Furthermore, he did not like with the defendant and Yukos. An act of and his gang were accused of stealing
what he heard from his informers, that hubris, or did he believe that his money all oil produced and all proceeds earned
Khodordovsky had tried to buy political and his western contacts in high places by Yukos. The Russia of the Silovikis is a
muscle in the parliament, the Duma, made him less vulnerable? Or, did he strange sort of democracy which is slowly
through bribery and party financing. believe in Russian justice? withering, as important institutions like
The odious oligarch had also hinted at Khodorskovsky has been accused of a free press become more and more state-
going into politics. Despite the fact that and sentenced harshly for tax evasion, controlled.
Putin had made it very clear, when taking fraud and other crimes. But it is painfully The Yukos affair is, according to
office in 2000, that the oligarchs would obvious that the trials are political, in Sixsmith, a very Russian conflict. On one
be left in peace as long as they did not that Khodorkovsky has been singled out level, a fight between liberals with western
meddle with politics and did not challenge among the oligarchs as a scapegoat. It is ideals and the patriotic-conservative-
or criticise the president. It is important also very clear that the judicial system autocratic forces who want to restore
to remember that Putin had promised to is a sham. Even Khodorkovsky’s lawyers Russia’s greatness. Going further back
destroy the oligarchs as a class, echoing have been brutally harassed. in Russian history one can find the same
Stalin’s promise to destroy the rich In fact, the modern Russian justice antagonism dressed in slightly different
peasants, the kulaks, as a class. Sinister system have so much in common costumes between those who want
words with high public resonance. with the communist show trials of Russia to link up with Europe and those
However, Khodordovsky went on the thirties. Trials seem to be looked who claim that mother Russia’s true and
bravely and did not stop until he had upon as hermeneutic circles where sacred destiny is to be found elsewhere in
accused the president of Russia of the guilt is already established beyond spiritual and moral terms. Westernisers vs.
personal involvement in corruption, in doubt. The court proceedings are for Slavophiles, as Sixsmith puts it.
connection with a business deal involving public consumption, a warning, and an Khodorkovsky has undergone yet
the state oil company Rosneft. Then opportunity for the autocrats in power another conversion in his prison cell.
and there, Khodorkovsky’s and Yukos’ to humiliate the accused, who are always Sixsmith describes him as an archetypal
fate was probably sealed. At least that is supposed to plead guilty and beg for Russian figure of the intelligentsia, the
Sixsmith’s opinion, “It was a brave or a mercy. wronged prophet echoing themes from
very foolish move, and it was to have far- The tax liabilities of Yukos were Tolstoy and other Russian classics in
reaching consequences.” clearly blown out of proportion and the his writing. Deprived of his worldly
The reader immediately learns alleged crimes belonged to the distant possessions and status he has found
what happened because Sixsmith starts past, well past the statue of limitations. As religion in the Russian Orthodox
his tale with Khodorkovsky’s arrest in in most show trials. Khodorkovsky and his Christianity. His arch-enemy Putin is
October 2003. Then moves back in time colleague Lebedev and the management of ironically also a member of the same
to describe, in minute detail, how the the company were defined as an organised church.
authorities clamped down on Yukos and Khodorkovsky is a psychological
its management almost immediately after enigma. Sixsmith delves into his self-
the showdown in February. destructive behaviour. It is very difficult
Probably the so called Siloviki clique to fully understand how this cool-
– the cronies from KGB and its successor headed man with a sharp and analytical
organisation the FSB, whom Putin had intellect could take on and challenge
recruited into Kremlin – tried to scare Putin in such a naive way. The cost has
Khodorkovsky to go into exile, leaving been excruciatingly high for him and his
Yukos up for grabs for the state. These family, not to mention those working
hard-liners come out in Sixsmith’s for him, some of whom are virtually
portraiture as patriotic and by all signs destroyed. What happens next with him
a greedy lot who want to humiliate and is impossible to predict. Putin is still in
get rid of all the liberals from positions power with a tarnished reputation as a
of power in Russia. They also feel that democrat but more powerful than ever
Russian oil should be re-nationalised. thanks to Yukos Oil. �
They believe that the black gold would
give Russia political clout, and this has
come true.
Putin’s oil
But Khodorkovsky decided to stay The Yukos affair and the struggle for Russia
on and fight for justice with disastrous Dixie Eriksson is Editorial Adviser,
By Martin Sixsmith
results not only for him, his family and Continuum, 2010 Independent World Report.

Independent World report ISSUE 5 27