Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Quality of Freedom: Khodorkovsky, Putin and the Yukos Affair by Richard Sakwa

As a student of Soviet history, and being from the former Soviet Union myself, I have a varied interest in modern Russian history. I am one of those who views history (that is events that occurred at least half a century ago) as easier to understand and fit into a context than the study of current events. The Yukos affair and Khodorkovsky are something one hears a great deal about in both the western and Russian media. While western media seems to garner the majority of sympathy for Khodorkovsky, the Russian media seems to be more antagonistic against a man once called an 'oligarch.'

While Sakwa tackles Khdorkovsky, Putin, the Yukos affair, the varied meanings of 'freedom', and a variety of other topics in this text, I cannot help but think that while this is a very good, and academic, treatment of the subject(s) it is not a definitive account. This is not to say that Sakwa's narrative or analysis is weak but simply that he is writing from a hindsight that has yet to fully set in. A large portion of his sources are also media related, both western and Russian, and while journalism once meant something, today's mass media is simply a running joke. Granted, this might apply more to the US than Russia, but there it seems that the journalists are polarized either for or against the government. While this does provide the reader with a broad spectrum of opinions and contextual analysis, in the end, in my opinion, it is still too biased for a scholarly analysis.

With that said, the author utilizes a wide variety of sources so that his foundation and basis for much of what he writes is ingrained in academic literature, be it from Russia or the west. While many will undoubtedly view Khodorkovsky as getting what he deserves, simply because he was an oligarch, in reading this work the reader will be given a more fully developed understanding of the atmosphere Khodorkovsky and others (Berezovsky, Gusinky, Smolensky, etc) were operating in. Much of what they did was illegal and the country was plundered to a great degree under the administration of the 1990s. But it was Yukos and Khodorkovsky that were arrested, imprisoned, and bankrupted by Putin and his administration, not all of the other oligarchs who acted similarly. Then again, Khodorkovsky had more than one chance to leave the country, as many others did, but he chose to stay, more so, to ingrain himself in the politics of the country.

That, in a nutshell, is what Putin rebelled against. It is one thing to become an oligarch and reign supreme in the world of business, it is a totally different matter to indulge in political intrigue and attempt to maneuver against the powers that be, no matter how much money you have on your side. Khodorkovsky learned his lesson and continues to learn it in prison. He speaks out, writers letters and lambastes the current administration for what it has done to him and Yukos. Perhaps he's right, Yukos should not have been taken apart, but Putin and the factions inside the Kremlin that helped him 'tame' Khodorkovsky and the others who helped run Yukos (many were put on trial aside from Khodorkovsky, and even tried in absentia) decided that an example needed to be made. Khodorkovsky proved to be the perfect target and he paid with his freedom while Yukos paid by hemorrhaging billions in 'unpaid taxes' which forced it to sell off its assets and go bankrupt. The winners of this 'affair' were undoubtedly the factions within the Kremlin, but what that 'win' entails is too early to tell. For those interested in an academic, highly detailed and analytical look at modern Russia, you'll do well to invest in this text.

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