Bear with me here. Free associating in the course of an interesting discussion with Brian Whitmore and Kirill Kobrin on the latest Power Vertical podcast, on Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s case as he turns 50 in Segezha Prison Colony 7 in Karelia, I described him as the “patron saint” of the opposition. Of course, he is not a patron saint in the technical sense, an intercessor to God. But it is worth dwelling for a moment on the role he plays within the Russian political–and especially opposition political–cosmology.
1. He is (or at least seems to be) the sinner redeemed. This is a powerful theme within many saints’ lives. While by no means the dirtiest of the 1990s oligarchs, he certainly did not make his fortune through wholly legal or moral means. He played by the real rules of the time, and they were murky and carnivorous ones. But then, as Brian convincingly argues in the podcast, in the 2000s he genuinely seems to have tried to clean up his own act and that of Yukos; indeed, that was one of the things which made him so dangerous to the elite. Now, he continues to articulate views that place him within the liberal wing of Russian politics, even though that probably extends his time in prison.
2. He is suffering for his views. Martyrdom is central to sanctification, and Khodorkovsky’s tale is not just a rags-to-riches-to-handcuffs tale, but his continued refusal to recant (he would, in my opinion, have been pardoned long ago had he been willing publicly to say what the Kremlin would like to hear) demonstrates the kind of moral fiber a good saint needs.
3. He stands for values, not a particular party. On one level, this means he has no direct caucus of followers, but it also means that he is a symbolic figure who could potentially (re)unite a disparate opposition. Although I hesitate to draw comparisons, figures such as Havel, Sakharov and even Mandela were powerful precisely because of their moral stature rather than organizational powerbase. Khodorkovsky is not in the same pantheon, or at least not yet, but if the current regime continues to delegitimize itself, and if none of the active opposition leaders manages to capitalize on this, then a figure such as him might become the focus for moral outrage against the system.
According to the latest Levada polls, 33% of Russians favor his early release (and given the propaganda state in which they live, that’s quite a strikingly high figure). And yet the Kremlin is probably gearing itself up for a new court case, on an even more serious charge, of being behind the murder of Nefteyugansk mayor Vladimir Petukhov in 1998. Rather than let him be released when his current prison term ends in 2014, Putin would rather see him face a third charge. Three trials in the wilderness; it certainly sounds like a saint’s hagiography…