Putinology

A Russian Dissident Tries to Build Bridges to Ukraine

A Russian Dissident Tries to Build Bridges to Ukraine

This past Monday, Ukrainians enjoyed a national holiday amid balmy spring weather. Yet many of them decided to spend some of their time indoors, crowding into a lecture hall at Kiev’s Polytechnic University to hear a presentation by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oligarch turned political prisoner. I asked some of the students standing in line for the event why they had decided to attend.

Some were genuinely curious to hear what the erstwhile richest man in Russia had to say now that he’s been released after 10 years in jail; others hoped to hear a "wise man" offer advice about the current political crisis in Ukraine. One woman told me that she appreciated the "sincere tears" she saw in Khodorkovsky’s eyes when he took to the stage in Kiev’s central Independence Square (the "Maidan") last weekend and spoke movingly about revolutionaries using plywood shields to protect themselves from bullets.

The young Ukrainians who had come to hear Khodorkovsky speak were, by and large, happy about his visit: Finally a Russian had arrived to discuss the Kremlin’s concerns about "fascists" filling the streets of Ukraine’s capital. The words Khodorkovsky spoke during his appearance on the Maidan immediately won Ukrainians’ hearts. The Ukrainian media showered the ex-prisoner with accolades.

Last December, when he was finally pardoned by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Khodorkovsky disappointed many of his fans around Russia by deciding not to assume a political role and opting to live abroad instead. But his appearance in Kiev in Monday suggests that the former oligarch isn’t prepared to abandon politics altogether. In his speech, Khodorkovsky made it clear that he was ready to play a role as a peacemaker and humanitarian ambassador between Ukraine and Russia "in order to demonstrate solidarity with Ukrainian people." He addressed his offer to Ukrainian civil society and youth. Khodorkovsky called his lecture "For Your Freedom and Ours."

Speaking with his authority as one of the leading critics of President Putin, Khodorkovsky pointed out that he represented the "interests and opinions of Russian society" in Kiev — or, more specifically, the segment of Russian society "not zombified by television propaganda." He pointed out that even the views of those Russians were likely to differ from the views of his audience: Even for liberal Russians, Khodorkovsky said, Crimea was "sacred" and "holy territory." He condemned the Russian invasion in Crimea as "a historical mistake," but ventured that the best option for Crimea’s future would be to maintain Ukrainian sovereignty over the territory even while granting it broad autonomy — similar, perhaps, to the status Scotland enjoys within Great Britain. Sitting with other reporters on the steps to the stage, I could see how some of the faces in his audience darkened at these words. The future of Crimea was one the most sensitive issues for the young audience.

In his speech, Khodorkovsky made a plea for continued friendship between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples. He warned Ukrainians against the "radicalism of some of the Maidan activists," which, he said, could fan "civil conflict" between pro-Russian and anti-Russian parts of the population. He also had a message for the outside world: "If the West fails in this confrontation of values, then other places will one day follow Georgia and Crimea."

Calm and precise, Khodorkovsky asked the West for a Marshall Plan for Ukraine, insisting that success in Kiev would prompt the creation of a new Russia — and claimed that "otherwise there will be a war in Europe." To prevent that, the former tycoon offered his own help in bringing leading Russian human rights defenders to solve "unavoidable conflicts with the Russian part of the population" in Ukraine.

The question-and-answer session that followed Khodorkovsky’s speech was especially revealing. One of the questions concerned his relationship with Putin. In about 70 percent of the cases, Khodorkovsky said, he and Putin have the same goals: They both want wealth and well-being for the Russian people. At the same time, he added, "We diverge profoundly when it comes to method." The audience applauded.

But not everyone was happy. One young woman, who introduced herself as Nastia, complained that "every Russian who comes to Ukraine has to speak as a Russian ‘older brother.’" She, too, received applause. Khodorkovsky did not change his calm tone and responded with a broad smile. Students wanted to know more about the parallels between Chechnya and Crimea; one asked if Khodorkovsky would fight to defend Crimea. "Chechnya is our [Russian] land, and we should defend it with weapons in hands," Khodorkovsky responded. "If we recognize that we have such a right, we should recognize that Ukraine also has that same right" in Crimea.

Afterwards I asked three of the students whether Khodorkovsky could actually play a role in preserving friendship between Russia and Ukraine. What the whole exchange showed was that, sadly, Russians and Ukrainians have become deeply divided, and not just on the level of governments. Even a Russian dissident, with his proven credentials as an opponent of Putin, could not win over this audience. The conversation was very emotional. For many young men of draft age, war with Russia has become a reality in the last few days. All three students agreed that the new, post-revolutionary Ukraine needs time to find balance. "Even in our university, we quarrel with our best friends, split into Russian and anti-Russian supporters," one of them told me. "It’s too early to embrace Khodorkovsky. First we need to establish a common point of view among ourselves."