Tyrants can murder or imprison their subjects, but that’s not the point. The point is unlimited power, and this may be manifested not only through arbitrary cruelty but also through equally arbitrary benevolence.
Looking back at the 1930s, for example, Russians often express retrospective surprise why so and so wasn’t molested in spite of clearly detesting Stalin.
Surely Stalin knew that Bulgakov’s affection for bolshevism was no warmer than Mandelstam’s, but he spared the former and killed the latter. Yet it was precisely the sheer unpredictability of it all that kept the subjects on their toes.
It all went further than the aesthetic enjoyment of being the godlike master of life or death. Stalin’s stature was based not just on his own unlimited power over his subjects but also on the subjects’ awareness that Stalin’s power, however he chose to exercise it, was indeed unlimited.
True, Stalin murdered millions and imprisoned tens of millions, whereas Putin has merely scored dozens in the first category and hundreds in the second. But that means not that Putin’s power is limited but that he simply doesn’t need greater numbers to make a point.
I wasn’t sad when Khodorkovsky was imprisoned and neither am I happy that he has now been released. A chap like him puts the likes of Bernie Madoff to shame, and in any civilised country Khodorkovsky’s wealth-creating practices would put him in prison for life, not just for what’s contemptuously dismissed in a Russia as a ‘tenner’, a ‘child’s term’.
Russian children indeed used to be sentenced to tenners for picking up some ears of wheat in fields belonging to collective farms. The state had decreed they should starve, so who were they to resist? Today they were stealing some corn, tomorrow they’d murder Comrade Stalin. That sort of delinquency had to be nipped in the bud.
All modern governments, democratic or otherwise, are tyrannical, differing from one another only in the extent of their despotism. Thus you’ll notice that even in the West crimes against the state are punished more surely and severely than crimes against the individual.
A tax dodger evading a few thousand pounds in tax will land in jail on first offence, whereas a burglar stealing a similar amount’s worth in TV sets and computers will only serve time, on average, after 15 convictions (and three times as many burglaries).
Khodorkovsky wouldn’t have been charged with tax evasion had he toed the political line. By failing to do so he violated the unwritten compact between himself and Putin.
When communism ‘collapsed’, which is to say when power in Russia passed from the party to the KGB, the country’s wealth was ‘privatised’. This meant that the KGB state agreed to relinquish the de jure ownership of some of its capital, while retaining the de facto control of all of it.
The ownership passed on to the appointed oligarchs, who were allowed to live the life of Middle Eastern potentates off the interest, and even to impersonate Western entrepreneurs if they so chose. In exchange they undertook to loosen their purse strings whenever the leader demanded it and also to refrain from any political activity that could undermine the leader.
Most of the oligarchs first caught the august eye when doing service in Komsomol, the communist youth organisation technically subservient to the party but in fact acting as the KGB breeding ground.
Khordorkovsky commanded pride of place among the oligarchs because he had been First Secretary of the Komsomol committee in one of Moscow’s boroughs – a position that conferred more actual power in the Soviet Union than most ministries did.
He was nomenklatura, which is to say not just an accomplice in Soviet crimes but an active perpetrator of them. This eased his passage into the highest echelons of the organised crime going by the misnomer of Russian business.
Just like the small-scale Italian equivalent, the Russian mafia ably led by KGB Col. Putin demands adherence to its secret code, its own omertà.
In violation of it the former nomenklatura member began to get ideas above his station. Unlike someone like Prokhorov, Russia’s third richest man, who only does opposition politics to help Putin avoid the bad PR of a 100-percent vote, Khodorkovsky, then Russia’s richest man, thought he could try opposition politics for real.
That decision could have easily earned him a bullet in a dark alley or a staged suicide, complete with a repentant note. Instead it merely earned him a tenner – he should count himself lucky.
Had Putin not decided to outdo Hitler’s Olympics in Berlin by staging his own in Sochi, Khodorkovsky might well have spent the rest of his days in prison. But just as Hitler took it easy murdering Jews in the run-up to his Games, Putin has decided to embellish his record on human rights before his sporting triumph.
The colonel has spent over $50 billion on his PR campaign, more than has ever been spent on any sports event in history. In reality this meant squeezing some ill-gotten gains from the ‘appointed oligarchs’ and pumping them into the coffers of Putin’s closer cronies, but be that as it may he wasn’t going to let this investment go to waste.
So the KGB tsar declared an amnesty and freed Khordorkovsky. By the looks of it the ex-oligarch had to promise to leave Russia within hours of his release and keep his mouth shut even when he’s in the West.
I don’t know how the deal was worded, but the KGB has a way of making itself understood. “Don’t think you can do as you please on the out, Misha,” Khodorkovsky must have been told. “You can run to Berlin, but you can’t hide there. Remember Litvinenko?”
I’m sure this time Khodorkovsky will remember which side his bread is buttered and just enjoy what’s left of his billions.
Meanwhile forgive me if I don’t join our papers in rejoicing over Khodorkovsky’s release (The Times: “His country needs him”). Decent people shouldn’t take part in pornographic displays.