As Mikhail Khodorkovsky gets involved in the Ukraine crisis, is he jeopardising the possibility of reconciling democracy and patriotism in Russia?
On his release from prison in December 2013, Mikhail Khodorkovsky stated that he reserved the right to engage in public affairs, although perhaps not directly in party politics. As the crisis unfolded in Ukraine, on 3 March 2014 he issued the following ringing statement:
As a result of the incompetent actions of politicians, we find ourselves on the brink of being involved in a civil war in Ukraine. That means many tragedies, including for millions of Russian-Ukrainian families, and extremely grave consequences for our nation’s domestic situation and international standing. No one will remain unaffected.
He noted that he had family and friends in Ukraine and ‘Just as it is for others, for me this is a family affair’. He then went on to announce:
I declare that I am ready to travel to any location in Ukraine at any time at the invitation of any responsible actor in order to help prevent bloodshed. I believe that the presence of independent and internationally known individuals in Ukraine at this time could help prevent the escalation of conflict.
The statement was notable for its even-handed tone, and his willingness to act as an honest broker in what was becoming an extremely dangerous confrontation. The ‘civil war’ within Ukraine had reached a dangerous point with President Viktor Yanukovich’s flight on 21 February and with it the collapse of the European Union brokered peace deal, envisaging a presidential election by the end of the year and the demobilisation of confrontation.
The deal was rejected by the demonstrators gathered on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in the centre of Kiev, which they had occupied since Yanukovich on 21 November had refused to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union at the Vilnius summit of 28-29 November. The deal in any case was rendered null by Yanukovich’s flight. The crisis then became internationalised with the seizure by Russian-backed forces of Crimea’s parliament in Simferopol, and the deployment of unmarked Russian forces across the peninsula. What had been a domestic crisis, although with enormous geopolitical resonances, became an international crisis of the first order.
On 9 March he spoke in Ukraine, joining the assembled crowds on the Maidan to celebrate the anniversary of Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko. This time he was more partisan, joining in to the patriotic fervour. He spoke in slow and measured tones, weighing each word. It was clear, though, that he is no public orator; but that may be all to the good, avoiding the demagogic excesses of more passionate speakers.
Khodorkovsky began by declaring ‘Glory to the people of a new and democratic Ukraine!’. He noted that he had been with his friends on the Maidan the previous evening, and that there were no ‘fascists or Nazis’ there, the accusation made the official Russian media: ‘Russian propaganda lies, as always’. Or at least, he went on to say, no more ‘than in the streets of Moscow or St Petersburg’. The crowd he stressed was mixed, with Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, Afghan war veterans and many more ‘who have successfully defended their freedom’. His voice was shaking with emotion as he described how the protesters stood with plywood planks against bullets.
As for the violence, ‘They did it with the consent of the Russian authorities’, with over a hundred dead and possibly thousands injured. ‘It was horrifying. It is not my government’. He then insisted: ‘I want you to know that there is a very different Russia. There are people there who, during those days, took to the streets to participate in anti-war rallies in Moscow’, despite enduring arrests and the threat of severe prison sentences. ‘There are people there who value the friendship between the people of Ukraine and the people of Russia over their personal freedom’. And he ended with the statement that ‘I believe that Russia and Ukraine have a common, shared European path of development’.
The 50-year old former Yukos chief executive thus denied the basis for Russian intervention in Ukraine’s affairs, that Russians and Russian-speakers were being threatened by Ukrainian nationalist extremists. He was visiting Kiev to deliver a lecture on 10 March in Kiev. His earlier offer to mediate had not been taken up, and it was not clear how it could have been. Now his speech in the Maidan meant that he was identified with what the Russian administration considered to be radical ‘insurgents’, overthrowing a legitimately elected president and then reneging on the EU peace deal. President Vladimir Putin had never liked Yanukovich, but he had always feared orange-style direct political activism. While some of the Russian opposition argued that ‘a Russian Maidan is inevitable’, Putin would do all in his power to make sure that this would not be the case.
With his highly political intervention in the Ukrainian crisis, including oblique but critical comments on Putin himself, Khodorkovsky placed himself firmly in the ‘European’ camp. Such an unmediated choice, however, does not exist, despite the genuine and heartfelt aspirations of the Maidan protesters. Those who looked to Khodorkovsky to provide a path to transcend the conflict, based on a demonstrably inclusive vision of Ukrainian statehood developing in partnership with Russia and the Western allies, were disappointed. Instead, Khodorkovsky allied himself with the ‘dissident’ tradition within Russia, the hard-line opposition who are the counterpart of the hard-liners within the regime. Khodorkovsky knows all of this, but the longer he spends abroad, the more his judgement will be shaped by irreconcilables, and thus the Khodorkovsky option of reconciling democracy and patriotism will be jeopardised. ■
Richard Sakwa’s new book is Putin and the Oligarch: The Khodorkovsky-Yukos Affair, which raises fundamental questions about the quality of freedom in Putin’s Russia. He is Professor of Russian and European Politics and Head of the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent and an Associate Fellow of the Russian and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House.
Image shows protests in Kiev’s Maidan in December 2013, courtesy of Sasha Maksymenko.
 ‘We find ourselves on the brink of being involved in a civil war in Ukraine’, Statement by Mikhail Khodorkovsky on the Situation in Ukraine, Institute of Modern Russia, 3 March 2014; http://www.imrussia.org/en/imr-news/678-we-find-ourselves-on-the-brink-of-being-involved-in-a-civil-war-in-ukraine .
 Mikhail Khodorkovsky, ‘I want you to know that there is a very different Russia’, 9 March 2014, Institute of Modern Russia; http://www.imrussia.org/en/imr-news/686-I-want-you-to-know-that-there-is-a-very-different-Russia.
 Boris Nemtsov, ‘Uroki Maidana’, 24 February 2014; http://www.echo.msk.ru/blog/nemtsov_boris/1264336-echo/.