Friday, 19 February 2010

The gentleman thief.

Received wisdom in Britain and America holds that Mikhail Khodorkovksy is a ’political prisoner‘. During one instalment of the television series ’Jonathan Dimbleby’s Russia’ the presenter drove past a gaol in which the oligarch has been imprisoned and spoke in hushed tones about the dissident opinions which apparently resulted in Khodorkovsky’s incarceration.

Whereas other Russian businessmen who made their fortunes after the Soviet Union’s collapse were often brash, flashy and obnoxious, Khodorkovsky struck an unostentatious figure. With his modest roll neck sweaters and impeccable manners he is the antithesis of the cliché of the ‘New Russian‘.

However the former owner of Yukos built up his wealth by the same methods as Berezovsky, Abramovich and the rest. He participated in the same smash and grab which witnessed state enterprises ending up the hands of a tiny group of opportunists for a fraction of their market value. And he built up a private security service which has been implicated in crimes ‘up to and including murder’.

The London Review of Books contains an essay by Keith Gessen on the subject, which is well worth reading. It is a review of Richard Sakwa’s book ‘The Quality of Freedom’. Sakwa of course wrote ‘Putin: Russia’s Choice’, a comprehensive examination of the Russian prime minister’s political credo.

Although Khodorkovsky was gaoled for economic violations, and political expediency has a role to play, Gessen argues that the oligarch's fate is not so very different from that of the disgraced tycoon Bernard Madoff. He offers this neat summation.

Khodorkovsky was the only one of the oligarchs who forgot that he was an oligarch, that is, a crook. He decided that because he’d stopped stealing from the company that he was a great businessman, a builder of value! The other oligarchs, when they saw the fuzz, knew they should run. But Khodorkovsky forgot.


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