Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Me and My Oil Company

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

WASHINGTON -- It was his last trip to America before being arrested, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky was being introduced to a ballroom of lunch diners at the Ritz-Carlton: "He believes that Russian business has a special responsibility before society, a special responsibility to build a civil society ... his unique blend of pragmatism and idealism. ... He is impatient with those who defer to the status quo."

The clank of cutlery echoed to the chandeliers; in the far back, journalists had been cordoned off in two rows of chairs. Then Khodorkovsky took the podium, and the sea of blue suits obediently dropped utensils and donned earphones for translation.

He began with the growth of Russian business: how a stock market created from nothing was now worth many billions; how honesty and professionalism now ruled the day, thanks, of course, to Yukos.

"The question of property is solved. No serious politicians question this," he said in the first half of October. "The main problem now: respect for individual rights. My partner, Platon Lebedev, has been in jail for three months, even though the charges put forward against him fell apart at the outset."

And that was it, his whole message, repeated over and over: Khodorkovsky (of all people) was bringing honesty to Russia's markets; no one was even thinking about taking away his company; a remaining problem was civil rights; the solitary example of said civil rights problem -- someone had arrested his partner. (Not once -- neither in the Ritz-Carlton nor in an evening speech at the Carnegie Endowment -- did Khodorkovsky mention Chechnya, or the creeping Sovietization of media, or any other concern of liberal Russia-watchers. It was "me and my oil company" indignation.)

Back to the Ritz, where, with his unique blend of pragmatism and idealism, Khodorkovsky summed up: Much will be decided from 2004-08, but not "the question of private property, that's settled." Then questions.

The first noted (tactfully) that Khodorkovsky was a Kremlin-appointed oil billionaire and asked whether, given the utter illegitimacy of his wealth, there was anything he could do to appease the hostility of most Russians.

"Unfortunately," Khodorkovsky replied, "Russia has many times, instead of moving forward down a path, stopped to discuss and rediscuss what happened in the past. When you look backwards, it's hard to go forward."

In other words: Suck it up.

And later, with some irritation: "The question of property in Russia is settled, it does not stand, and in the matter of Yukos is not being raised. So there can be no discussion about Yukos."

Soon none of the diners had any questions -- though the penned-off journalists had plenty. The emcee ignored our raised hands and pleaded, "Anyone? Does anyone have a question?"

Impatiently, a journalist shouted, "I have a question!"

"Maybe someone up front here?" the emcee said hopefully.

"Move up front!" journalists yelled to their impatient colleague, and to the emcee, "We've got questions!"

"Anders!" the emcee called out desperately, and Anders Aslund -- a Carnegie scholar and well-known defender of the oligarch-creating privatization schemes -- obediently offered a question. "Great," grumbled a Financial Times journalist sarcastically, "'Transparency,' that's just great."

But we got our turn. As Khodorkovsky left the hall, journalists surrounded him and he answered five questions for us.

Unfortunately, five different panicky financial-type journalists repeated the exact same question five times -- Q: Is it true you're selling Yukos to ExxonMobil? A: No comment.

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, writes The Daily Outrage at www.thenation.com.