Russian oligarch’s book offers a revolution the people can’t take part in

Putin’s regime is built on a passive society. Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s plan for revolution repeats the same mistake

Exiled Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the country’s wealthiest man, published a book last year titled How to Slay a Dragon: Building a New Russia After Putin.

The book argues that Russian opposition politicians and organisations should unite around the tasks of the inevitable revolution: the overthrow of the Putin regime and the establishment of a transitional government that creates the conditions needed for a sustainable liberal democracy of the Western type.

But like many other attempts to propose a “positive programme” (whether anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny or opposition politician Vladimir Milov), Khodorkovsky’s book has failed to spark much discussion in the year since it was published. Here’s why.

How can we fix Russia?

First of all, Khodorkosvky’s book should be given its due. It has more going for it than the usual opposition soundbites, and does outline specific proposals for reforming the Putin regime and socio-economic system of Russia.

Khodorkovsky believes the fall of the Putin regime is a matter of time and that the real task for the opposition is to prepare for rebuilding the country amid the regime’s ruins. But he attacks naive ideas from the Russian opposition about post-Putin Russia as a tabula rasa, where it will be possible to freely build a “normal liberal democracy” of the Western model.

How to Slay a Dragon argues the need for fair elections, an independent judiciary and the protection of private property will be met with complex management challenges and clashes between the interests of different social groups. This kind of work is a step forward in terms of the standards of the Russian opposition debate, which is often fixated on Putin’s personality and pays little attention to other problems facing the country.

Perhaps the most provocative thesis of the book is that on the country’s path to freedom and democracy, Russia must inevitably go through a revolution. It’s worth noting that in moderate Russian liberal circles, the word “revolution” is still associated with upheaval, violence and extrajudicial killings, which cannot lay the foundation of a liberal regime. Still, Khodorkovsky calls for a “profound restructuring” of the foundations of Russian society, though he remains agnostic on whether that revolution will be “accompanied by social explosions or whether it passes off without so much as a whimper.”

Yet here lies the book’s main flaw: who will be involved in this new Russian revolution, according to Khodorkovsky? There is no direct answer to this question in the book, so we are forced to rely on our own interpretation.

It’s all about the opposition

Khodorkovsky is frank with his views on who will make change in Russia, suggesting the vast majority of people in the country are ordinary people who accept living “comfortably alongside the dragon until their final day”. They cannot be the driving force of the revolution.

At the same time, when writing about revolution Khodorkovsky does not mean exclusively a “revolution from above,” that is, a rebellion within the Russian elites with the passive consent of the masses. The main actors of the new Russian revolution, he writes, should be certain opposition political forces capable of organising protests and uniting with each other into a large coalition: “a multi-party, multi-faced protest – a collection of discordant political groups.” These forces must conduct both underground political work to prepare an uprising within Russia, and public facing work via exiled Russian media and through doubters whom “the regime still allows to write and speak”.

Such a coalition must be influential and wise enough so it can be joined by the siloviki – the Russian security forces, which, according to Khodorkovsky, will themselves begin to retreat from the Putin regime as it disintegrates. Security forces who come over to the side of the revolution will be able to create a threat of violence that will prevent (or minimise) large-scale revolutionary violence and civil war, he argues.

Coalition without ‘neo-Bolshevism’

The rise of this coalition is hampered by “neo-Bolshevism”: this is how Khodorkovsky labels radical elements of the Russian protest movement, aimed at “creating literally an army of like-minded people who are ready to act in a coherent and organised manner on command from a single centre.” He argues that this single-minded campaign is a win to the Russian authorities, as it splits the protest movement and contributes to the onset of a violent revolutionary scenario. Most worryingly, he says, this mode of political campaign could degenerate into dictatorship in the event of its victory.

Despite the fact that in his book Khodorkovsky does not mention specific politicians or political organisations by name, it can be assumed that he classifies Alexey Navalny and his team as “neo-Bolsheviks”, and participants in Russian opposition forums as the political forces that should form a coalition in Europe and signatories of the Declaration of Russia’s Democratic Forces. Navalny and his team have refused to take part in numerous attempts to build opposition (anti-war) coalitions; they do not hide their scepticism of the majority of politicians that Khodorkovsky has sought to unite.

But while Navalny and others ignore the recommendation of a coalition, including with wavering members of the current Russian elite, perhaps it’s Khodorkovsky’s vision of the Russian people that has made this guide less useful to the opposition.

A revolution led by the elite

Khodorkovsky believes the revolution will involve various kinds of elites – media representatives, politicians, businessmen, officials and even security forces – but not the “population”, “ordinary people”, who, he believes, will be loyal to any regime. Politics, according to Khodorkovsky, is a matter for those with resources.

In his vision of the world, people outside the elites can only express themselves in politics in two cases: either through elections or protests. Therefore, a transitional Russian government will have to ensure, first, the legitimacy of its reforms through elections, and second, social support for the “population”, using windfall profits from Russia’s fossil fuels. He believes the “population” are busy with everyday problems and should be satisfied with a post-Putin government that effectively manages the Russian economy.

There is literally nothing in the book about the work of opposition politicians with the apolitical majority of Russian citizens.

Khodorkovsky stipulates the regime rests on the political passivity of the majority, but does not realise the need to invite them to become active, and move away from depoliticisation. Apparently, he considers the alleged passivity of the Russian people a permanent feature that the Russian opposition can use to build a liberal regime in the same way the Putin regime used it for its own purposes.

In this case, a purely practical problem arises for most readers of this book: what should they do? Few people have their own tools to influence public opinion. And Khodorkovsky has already written a programme for them. What is the role of the reader of the book then, what does it offer them? A reader can only agree with the stated political project and passively approve of it. In the best case, they could go to work in Khodorkovsky’s structures, but even there the number of places is always limited, and besides, such work is not suitable for everyone.

As with all such “positive programmes” of the Russian opposition, a paradox arises here: even a reader who ardently agrees with everything written cannot turn the conclusions drawn from reading into action. Who are the readers of this book supposed to convince on the basis of the ideas presented in it, if work with the apolitical majority is not intended? Only, it seems, other opposition activists.

There is a suspicion that while maintaining the core of Putinism – mass depoliticisation and high inequality – it is impossible to build anything other than “Putinism 2.0”. A representative of the opposition elite who wants to consolidate other leaders around him and cooperate with the part of the regime that is open to him, naturally does not arouse much interest among those who are assigned a static role in this structure.

In our deeply depoliticised society, democratic politics must inevitably be aimed at re-politicising the huge section of Russian people who have found themselves alienated from the political system. Khodorkovsky’s elitist political project rejects this task.