The verdict in the “criminal” trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and of his “accomplice” Platon Lebedev, scheduled for December 15, was delayed for unannounced reasons until December 27. The verdict was guilty, but the Russian people are not dupes: 40 percent know that it was concocted in behind-the-scenes power politics.

The accused is the former boss of the giant oil company Yukos, surrealistically charged with having “stolen,” right under everyone’s noses, 20 percent of Russian oil production between 1998 and 2003 (enough to fill tankers end to end twice around the equator). The prosecutor reduced the alleged amount of the larceny, without explanation, from 349 million tons of stolen oil to 218 million tons. He seems to find this revised number more plausible.

Meanwhile, Mikhail Kassianov (the Russian prime minister during the period in question), Viktor Khristenko (deputy prime minister at the same time), and German Gref (the development minister), called as witnesses, have stated that a diversion of oil on such a scale is a pure invention; they simply could not have missed it. The prosecutor juggles his imaginary barrels no less miraculously than the loaves multiplied in the Gospels. “Thanks to the prosecutor for proving my innocence,” should be the defendant’s ironic response. “No normal person could believe something so absurd.” The Yukos business has been dismantled, its assets joyfully distributed to Kremlin insiders. The fleeced ex-oligarch has already been unjustly punished by seven years in a Siberian cell on charges of fraud. Why has he not been set free, or simply exiled? Why not reassure foreign investors, who are disinclined to risk personnel and capital in a country rotten with general corruption and with the arbitrary greed of kleptocrats?

Here’s the explanation: Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s true guilt is very grave. He is right, and Vladimir Putin is wrong. Compared with other nations’ emergent economies, Russia’s is not looking good. Over the last three years, it received three times less in foreign investments than Brazil. Moreover, in a 2010 ranking of “international transparency,” Russia has fallen to the rank of 154th among “least corrupt countries”—right beside Tajikistan, Papua, and Yemen, just ahead of Somalia, and far behind Zimbabwe. Let’s entrust them with our dollars and euros! Khodorkovsky—well-known for having launched a plan ten years ago that would bring together modernization and democratization along with freedom from Russia’s political-economic mafias—insists that the nation’s extreme corruption, including embezzlements and assassinations, represents “a threat greater than that of a nuclear catastrophe.” He is paying dearly for too openly disdaining local customs in government and business. As Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in 2008: “To guarantee that no one will again show such insanity in acting freely and participating in political life, we have before us the mad example of Khodorkovsky freezing at -40°, sleeping on bare planks with nothing to do but ponder the hellish reality of a Russia that, whether capitalist or communist, so resembles Dostoyevski’s nightmares.”

Not long ago, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s views would have seemed premature, if not utopian, in the eyes of the Moscow establishment. Today, the winds are changing: experience now seems to indicate that the greater risk might be on the side of Putin and his sad record. First there is the economic fiasco: the enormous oil revenues generated before the financial crisis struck enriched only powerful insiders, while Russian industry and agriculture wasted the opportunity to modernize. A declining society suffers under the global crisis, while China, by contrast, flourishes despite its lack of fossil fuels. The comparison is so damning that Russian president Dmitri Medvedev complains of being at the head of a gigantic and paralytic “oil emirate.” Whose fault is this?

Consider next the strategic fiasco: the ferocious war that Putin renewed against the North Caucasus in 2000 is not over. Despite 200,000 deaths and the installation of a merciless puppet dictatorship (complete with the persecution of opponents, torture, executions, corruption, and Islamization), instability has spread to the neighboring republics. Russia has suffered a number of unforeseen diplomatic setbacks. Her tanks penetrated little Georgia’s defenses, but the subsequent annexation of 20 percent of Georgia’s territory has received no legitimation from global opinion or the Kremlin’s subjugated neighbors. Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian president and bête noir for the Russians, is neither dead nor deposed. The snubs keep coming, as Belarus, which would hardly be considered democratic, tilts toward the West. The petro-Czars are left only with their power to do harm and to blackmail other nations with the threat of cutting off the flow of energy.

There is no need to detail the demographic decline; prevailing alcoholism; the ravages of tuberculosis and AIDS; unemployment; prostitution; drugs; and the widespread despair that one finds as soon as one leaves the capital cities. The Russian wildfires of last summer that burned so long without being controlled illustrate the chaos of a country where incompetence in the higher ranks is matched by apathy below. Whatever the naive may repeat or the hired hands may trumpet, Putin has not brought back Russia’s prestige. He has rediscovered the stagnation and “juridical nihilism” (Medvedev’s own words) of the Brezhnev decades. The current president is Putin’s longtime underling, the former boss of Gazprom, an accomplice to embezzlement and extortion, a subordinate without power, who limits himself to distilling pious wishes, laced with just enough smiling criticism to take in the audience—a tried and true good cop/bad cop routine. By replacing the wheeler-dealer Yuri Luzhkov as mayor of Moscow with an obedient Putin disciple, Medvedev shows how everything changes so that nothing moves.

Russia is stagnant to its core, but it remains the country whose high culture, despite the Czars, enlightened all of Europe until 1914. This “other” Russia—the Russia of Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, of Anna and of Natasha—is not dead, as Khodorkovsky’s indomitable resistance proves. He could have fled, but he chose to stay and confront the corruption. And so he is guilty. “As a free man,” a Muscovite political scientist told me, “Khodorkovsky would embody a mixture of the Count of Monte Cristo and Nelson Mandela.” Or perhaps “Robin Hood,” the term journalist Anna Politkovskayau used to describe him—just before she was cut down.


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