CRF Blog

Moving Letters from a Jailed Russian Oligarch

by Bill Hayes

In Moving Letters from a Jailed Russian Oligarch, the New Republic publishes correspondence between Adam Michnik, a leader of the anti-Communist opposition in Poland in the 1970s and 1980s, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian oligarch who “has been in prison in Russia since 2005 on charges widely regarded as politically motivated.” Khodorkovsky was pardoned and released last December.

DEAR ADAM,

… How many centuries has it been already that my country has been grappling with revolutions and authoritarian governments? For how many centuries have we been unable to create a functional constitution and defend human rights on the basis of functioning law? I have encountered people who are convinced that the Russian nation is not fit for normal democratic rule, that Russians must have a tsar over them, that they are incapable of democratic self-organization. What is most amusing — or saddest — is that such pronouncements come not only from professional Russophobes who equate Russians with half-savages, but also from distinguished representatives of our own government.

Years of world wars, civil wars, and Stalinist repression deprived my country not only of many talented, honest, and dignified patriots, but also of self-organizing communities, which could educate us in the spirit of citizenship. The intelligentsia has been either decimated or thinned out in cities such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, and Samara. And yet it proved impossible to break the nation’s moral spine. In the most difficult of times, extraordinary people suddenly appeared — Dmitri Likhachov, Nikolai Vavilov, Sakharov, and many others — who for us were examples of moral victory, of the readiness and the ability to oppose dictatorship.

I believe that our nation has a right to a decent life. Unfortunately, by itself the right will not suffice — it has to be secured. It is necessary to “come out of the trenches.” Events in the winter and summer of 2011 and 2012 proved that in today’s Russia there are people who want this.

There is also another problem: limping Western democracy. There has been an accumulation of many mistakes that must be analyzed. Reflection is underway, and it will no doubt bring some results. Today many people doubt the universality of the democratic model, and underscore the achievements of authoritarian regimes that have liberalized their economies — China and Singapore, for example, but not only these.

We thus need honest, thoughtful answers to questions about the genesis of Russia’s authoritarian spiral, the advantages and disadvantages of the authoritarian model relative to the democratic one, and the limits of the principle of national self-determination — limits that make it possible to achieve and maintain not only economic but also social competitiveness. [more]