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The Crisis of Liberalism in Russia

The biggest news coming out of Russia in the last couple of days has to be jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s open letter – The Crisis of Liberalism in Russia. It’s long, but well worth reading in full. The general consensus from the media seems to be that Khodorkovsky is trying to reconcile with Putin or, at the very least, to gain a more lenient sentence. And it’s hard to disagree with that assessment when you read quotes like these…

We must give up the useless attempts to call the president’s legitimacy into question. Regardless of whether we like Vladimir Putin or not, it’s time to realize that the head of state is not just a private person. The president is an institution guaranteeing a nation’s stability and integrity.


After all, none other than Putin has reined in our national demons and prevented Zhirinovsky and Rogozin (or rather not them, because in truth they are just talented political players, but to the numerous supporters of their public statements) to seize state power in Russia.

The main bulk of his letter, though, is a sharp critique of liberalism in Russia. He identifies himself as a liberal, but argues that the liberals’ infighting and failure to provide a credible alternative are what really gives Putin his strength…

Paraphrasing Stalin’s well-known statement made in June 1941, we have screwed up our cause.

He really isn’t happy with the liberals at the moment…

Today we are witnessing the virtual capitulation of the liberals. And that capitulation, indeed, is not only the liberals’ fault, but also their problem. It is their fear in the face of a thousand-year history, mixed with the strong liking for household comforts they developed in the 1990s.

It is their servility ingrained on the genetic level, their readiness to ignore the Constitution for the sake of another helping of sturgeon. Russian liberals have always been like that.

I can’t quite decide what to make of his critique at the moment. It is obviously an attempt to destroy the last vestiges of liberalism in Russia (although, lets face it, that wouldn’t take much at this stage). But is he going to follow this up, throw himself fully behind Putin, and argue that stability is the only way to go? Or is he trying to lay the groundwork so that he can be the undisputed leader of a phoenix-like liberal resurgence in Russia? He does, after all, lay out pretty bluntly that he sees a political future for himself…

For me, Russia is my Motherland. I want to live, work, and die here. I want my descendants to be proud of Russia, and of myself, as a part of this country, this unique civilization. Perhaps, I realized this too late — I only got involved in charities and investing in the infrastructure of civil society in 2000. But better late than never.

For this reason, I have quit business. I’m not speaking for the business community, but for myself, and for the liberal part of society, the group of people I see as teammates, sharing a common idea.

My money is on this letter being carefully written to work on a number of levels. Priority number one is, of course, to get Khodorkovsky out of jail. Saying relatively nice things about Putin can’t hurt there. And priority number two is to get some form of political power. Khodorkovsky seems to be trying to position himself quite carefully at the moment. By appearing to move closer towards Putin, he looks to be positioning himself as a potential sucessor to Putin (although I would think that is an outside bet). Long term, I think his critique of liberalism is designed to show him as the only credible leader for the Russian Liberal movement, probably at the head of a new party. Initially I would imagine he plans for this party to cosy up to Putin, in much the same way as the Communist and Liberal Democrat parties do today. But longer term he will be hoping to position himself for a presidential run. Either as Putin’s nominated successor (and lets remember that there is no obvious candidate around at the moment), or as a leading candidate if the 2008 Presidential election looks wide open.

1 comment

  • They have just banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Having been raised as one as a child, I have no fondness for that “semi-cult.” But, they shouldnt be banned. It’s like the old saying “First they came for the Jews …”

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