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Not long ago, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s views would have seemed premature, if not utopian, in the eyes of the Moscow establishment. Today, the winds are changing: experience now seems to indicate that the greater risk might be on the side of Putin and his sad record. First there is the economic fiasco: the enormous oil revenues generated before the financial crisis struck enriched only powerful insiders, while Russian industry and agriculture wasted the opportunity to modernize. A declining society suffers under the global crisis, while China, by contrast, flourishes despite its lack of fossil fuels. The comparison is so damning that Russian president Dmitri Medvedev complains of being at the head of a gigantic and paralytic “oil emirate.” Whose fault is this?
Consider next the strategic fiasco: the ferocious war that Putin renewed against the North Caucasus in 2000 is not over. Despite 200,000 deaths and the installation of a merciless puppet dictatorship (complete with the persecution of opponents, torture, executions, corruption, and Islamization), instability has spread to the neighboring republics. Russia has suffered a number of unforeseen diplomatic setbacks. Her tanks penetrated little Georgia’s defenses, but the subsequent annexation of 20 percent of Georgia’s territory has received no legitimation from global opinion or the Kremlin’s subjugated neighbors. Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian president and bête noir for the Russians, is neither dead nor deposed. The snubs keep coming, as Belarus, which would hardly be considered democratic, tilts toward the West. The petro-Czars are left only with their power to do harm and to blackmail other nations with the threat of cutting off the flow of energy.
There is no need to detail the demographic decline; prevailing alcoholism; the ravages of tuberculosis and AIDS; unemployment; prostitution; drugs; and the widespread despair that one finds as soon as one leaves the capital cities. The Russian wildfires of last summer that burned so long without being controlled illustrate the chaos of a country where incompetence in the higher ranks is matched by apathy below. Whatever the naive may repeat or the hired hands may trumpet, Putin has not brought back Russia’s prestige. He has rediscovered the stagnation and “juridical nihilism” (Medvedev’s own words) of the Brezhnev decades. The current president is Putin’s longtime underling, the former boss of Gazprom, an accomplice to embezzlement and extortion, a subordinate without power, who limits himself to distilling pious wishes, laced with just enough smiling criticism to take in the audience—a tried and true good cop/bad cop routine. By replacing the wheeler-dealer Yuri Luzhkov as mayor of Moscow with an obedient Putin disciple, Medvedev shows how everything changes so that nothing moves.
Russia is stagnant to its core, but it remains the country whose high culture, despite the Czars, enlightened all of Europe until 1914. This “other” Russia—the Russia of Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, of Anna and of Natasha—is not dead, as Khodorkovsky’s indomitable resistance proves. He could have fled, but he chose to stay and confront the corruption. And so he is guilty. “As a free man,” a Muscovite political scientist told me, “Khodorkovsky would embody a mixture of the Count of Monte Cristo and Nelson Mandela.” Or perhaps “Robin Hood,” the term journalist Anna Politkovskayau used to describe him—just before she was cut down.
André Glucksmann is a French philosopher. His article was translated by Alexis Cornel.