Coal miners and their families clashing with riot police in Mezhdurechensk. (Moscow Times)
Mikhail Khodorkovsky — Russia’s “most famous political prisoner,” the “billionaire dissident,” and the target of a “political fatwah from the top of the Russian state” — has been making quite a few headlines in the last week. This comes as no surprise, given that the man employs fourteen full-time lawyers (plus an unknown number of consultants) and an army of PR firms. His son, Pavel, lives in “self-imposed exile” in New York City, has parties at French châteaus, and vacations in the Greek isles. Khodorkovsky was stripped of his wealth, the narrative goes, but the Kremlin clearly didn’t get all of it. “The family is not in trouble,” Pavel Mikhailovich told Foreign Policy.
The most recent excuse to talk about Mikhail Khodorkovsky was his 24-hour stomach bug symbolic hunger strike carried out to accent Russian legal nihilism. In sync with the West as he’s always been, Khodorkovsky decided to circumvent Vladimir Putin and appeal directly to President Medvedev in the terms of his protest. What he wanted, he explained in an open letter, was simply to be assured that Dmitri Medvedev was “informed about the problem” of pretrial detention abuses in Russia. There are two ways to understand this tactic: either (a) Khodorkovsky is trying, like the Obama administration, to marginalize Putin by framing Medvedev as the sole arbiter of Kremlin power, or (b) he is trying to disabuse the West of the idea that Medvedev is a Gorbachevian reformer, by demonstrating that the president, too, is complicit in the trial against YUKOS.
In all this hubbub about Mr. Khodorkovsky, I found myself realizing how terribly boring it’s all become. The raging questions are “is he a dissident?” and, if so, “what does it mean to be a billionaire dissident?” There are some raised eyebrows about his past, but Mikhail Borisovich is basically celebrated now as a man-turned-hero, a victim of Vladimir Putin’s personal vendetta. Whether or not he deserves this title, Mr. Khodorkovsky has certainly spent enough cash to have it. The only thing more unfair that being imprisoned for political behavior would be getting imprisoned for that and then spending millions of stashed-away money for nothing. So Khodorkovsky keeps the channels buttered, and a few months never go by without a news story, a documentary, or an op-ed highlighting his plight.
When I heard about his hunger strike, I got to thinking about the state of public demonstrations in Russia. A hunger strike is something different from a mass rally: it’s personal and it’s quiet, and for those reasons it can serve as an extremely targeted symbolic act. But as suddenly as it was announced, Khodorkovsky called off the shtick, all before I’d even begun to outline any thoughts on what it is to ‘publicly not eat.’ Continue reading ‘Will the Real Russian Dissident Please Stand Up’ »