In classic fashion Vladimir Putin casually dropped a bombshell while speaking to journalists after his annual telethon, question and answer session, or whatever you’d like to call the strange spectacle of one of the world’s most powerful people answering questions live on stage for four hours.* After discussing fascinating topics such as the historical similarity of Oliver Cromwell and Joseph Stalin, Putin mentioned in an offhand and seemingly disinterested manner that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s most famous prisoner, would be pardoned. And it wasn’t maskirovka or some sort of crude Kremlin ruse: Khodorkovsky really has left prison and is, as of now, a free man.
Khodorkovsky, of course, was at the very epicenter of Russian human rights activism for a decade. An awful lot of powerful and well-connected people in the West have been loudly demanding his release ever since he was first imprisoned on trumped-up charges of fraud and tax-evasion. His conviction is often (inaccurately, I would argue!) presented as a turning point in Russian history, a moment that divides the “good” Putin who cut taxes and reformed the economy from the “bad” Putin who created the vertical of power and consolidated authoritarianism. In the standard narrative, Khodorkovsky was a heroic entrepreneur who, by importing Western technology and management best practices, transformed a derelict Soviet oil dinosaur into one of the world’s best-run companies. He came to represent modernization, progress, and friendly relations with the West and his imprisonment came to represent regression, backwardness, and malevolence.
It seems worth noting that Khodorkovsky was an industry as much as he was a person. As Ben Judah of the European Council on Foreign Relations astutely pointed out, Khodorkovsky money directly funded an entire archipelago of think tanks, websites, PR firms, and various other sorts of Russia-focused programs. The fate of all of these groups, which have played an outsize role in the Russian-studies community for a decade now, is now somewhat uncertain given that they have accomplished their mission of securing Khodorkovsky’s freedom.
Moving right along, while Khodorkovsky’s prosecution came to represent everything that was bad about Putin’s Russia, and while stocks on the Moscow exchange temporarily surged on the news that he would be released, the decision to pardon him doesn’t really fix any of the country’s many problems. Yes Khodorkovsky’s release is good for him and his family, and it’s nice that he will not have to spend any more time in penal system that is truly horrific and ghastly. But Russia’s problems are not skin deep and absolutely cannot be fixed by solutions as simple as presidential pardons.
The structural nature of Russia’s problems is why I frankly thought it was such a mistake to spend so much time focusing on the persona of Mikhail Khodorkovsky: his imprisonment was a minor symptom of the disease, not the disease itself. It will make me sound like a buzz kill, but on December 20th 2013 Russia’s courts, criminal justice system, and other state institutions are exactly as ineffective and unresponsive as they were on December 19th. Putin is still in the Kremlin, and he still has a very wide array of levers at his disposal, state corporations are still a very large part of the economy, and United Russia is still at the top of the heap. Everything that made Khodorkovsky’s prosecution possible, in other words, is still sitting there, waiting to be used should the Kremlin deem it necessary.
The only thing that’s changed is that Russia’s bloated prison system is just the slightest bit less bloated. For 99.99999999% of Russians life will go on in exactly the same manner as before. None of this makes Khodorkovsky’s pardon bad, it just makes it largely irrelevant. So if you’re expecting Khodorkovsky’s pardon to be some sort of game changer you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Now I’m a beliver that positive change can and will come to Russia. But this change will come because of the country’s (tenative!) openness to the world economy and because of its (relatively!) free market, not because Putin signed a piece of paper.
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* I personally prefer “Putathon” but people can make up their own minds