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Martyr or Loser? Cyril Tuschi’s Khodorkovsky

Martyr or Loser? Cyril Tuschi’s Khodorkovsky

Maybe it’s romantic projection, but I saw through Khodorkovsky that people can change
Cyril Tuschi, quoted in Bloomberg, Feb 17, 2011.

Binoy Kampmark
August 11, 2011

An editorial in the Guardian (Dec 28, 2010) noted a gold nugget of wisdom from Russia’s Vladimir Putin: a thief must be in jail. This, he would qualify later, was in reference to the first conviction of the Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, rather than the second conviction (upheld in May). ‘As everyone who lives there knows,’ quipped the paper, ‘thieves in Russia don’t exclusively belong in a jail. They belong in government.’ The state, the entire Kremlin, is one feast of loot and booty.

The system produces its own demons, its own fears, its own self-justifying rationale to exist. Its currency lies in natural resources, the subject of Putin’s own plagiarised thesis, supported by a cabal of well positioned officials who know the rules of the game.

How then, to portray this beast in operation? German director Cyril Tuschi has made a good go of it, and Khodorkovksy was the result. At the Berlin film festival this year, it was given a boost when the director lost his film to theft. But critics who noted that boost were being unfair – Tuschi himself had done something remarkable on a budget of 400,000 Euros, interviewing the oligarch’s now very much dispersed inner circle, and the man himself.

Tuschi’s documentary begins with a stunning panorama – the snow settled on the ground of a remote Russian landscape; the sun, brilliantly reflective off the white surface; drills operating, and then, orthodox churches. The picture is striking: on the one hand modern in symbolism (Russia’s muscling over natural resources), and its unchanging traditions. This, it seems, is the land of various eternal assumptions: God, energy, the firm hand.

What Tuschi does do, at least in part, is show how much Khodorkovksy was part of the very system that is persecuting him. One adapted to its schizophrenic ways, its psychic disturbances. The press release of the documentary described the oligarch as something of a highly versatile and evolved creature – ‘from a perfect socialist to a perfect capitalist and finally, in a Siberian prison, becoming a perfect martyr’ (Bloomberg, Feb 17). Such perfection can be an enemy of the good.

With the fall of the communist system, Khodorkovsky and others profited from junked socialised enterprises that were sold for a song to Russians. Had this not happened, Russia’s energy interests could well have been in the hands of foreign corporations with the means of paying at the market rate. But with this parochial logic, the wheels were set in motion. Yukos was acquired and transformed into a global enterprise, audited by US accounting practises.

As the money was being accumulated, as his position as Russia’s richest man became clearer, Khodorkovsky started to cross boundaries. He began meddling. He violated the covenant with the Putin government by turning political: make money, be it for yourself, for Russia, but in heaven’s name do not dare tamper with the orb and sceptre. Remember: we put you there in the first place. At a meeting between Putin and business leaders in 2003, Khodorkovsky brought up the thorny issue of corruption in the system. A mammoth $3.4 billion tax bill was duly slapped on Yukos. The shots were fired but the plucky oligarch decided to stay. Charges of fraud, tax evasion, and conviction would follow.

As the businessman Christian Michel observes to Tuschi, jail was hardly unattractive for a man who had begun to nurse political ambitions, thus sacrificing ‘his queen in order to win the end game’. A decent revolutionary needs a baptism of incarceration.

There are an assortment of colourful characters. Dmitry Gololbov, former head of the legal department at Yukos oozes admiration and incandescent anger. His former boss receives a good pasting. During his observations, which at times verge on ranting, he puts his finger on the vital premise: ‘[Khodorkovsky] was one of the oligarchs who created the whole judicial system he is in right now.’

The British journalist Ben Aris, no friend of the jailed figure, concurs and junks any notions of victomology. Oligarchs make poor material for martyrs – Khodorkovsky began his ‘corporate life as the very worst corporate governance abuser’. Public relations airbrushed this past out of existence. The question was not whether Khodorkovsky was innocent, being implicated in the same state of plunder as every other figure of similar rank, but why he, over others, was convicted.

The problem with such a system is that a figure like Khodorkovsky becomes a magnet by simply being in prison. The longer he is allowed to decompose in a closed setting, the more dangerous he will become to the incumbents. He is becoming society’s ideological coat rack – and on that, people will hang their grievances upon. The enemy, it would seem, never leaves the citadel. That is the end game.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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