MOSCOW, June 3, 2005 – We are witnessing the new style of Kremlin execution.
Tsar/Kommissar Putin is no Stalin or Ivan the Terrible. He doesn’t murder his enemies. He destroys them by selective enforcement of the Russian law. Thus he maintains the veneer of a civil society while getting rid of trouble makers.
But there are two major flaws to this formula in the conviction and sentencing of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev to nine years’ imprisonment in a Russian prison colony for fraud and tax evasion:
First, the clumsy arrest, prosecution, and sentencing have in fact destroyed any naïve assumptions left that any justice or rule of law remains in Russia. It’s being treated around the world as a deplorable scandal.
And secondly, it hasn’t rid Putin of Khodorkovsky. Rather it has turned him into a martyr and inflated him into an instant and serious political threat. Putin would have been much better off leaving him alone to continue sniping at his intensifying dictatorship from the sidelines.
The trial was of course a spectacle. The sentencing took 13 days, the longest sentencing procedure in judicial history.
Even Andrei Illarionov, Putin’s maverick economic advisor, warned that the trial farce “is not the end; it’s just the beginning” of the unraveling of the Putin regime. He told a press conference that the “Yukos affair,” the destruction of the Yukos Oil Co. and its top management at the hands of the Putin Government, has already “wrought systemic change unseen in scale since the August 1991 coup and the breakup of the Soviet Union.”
It has reversed investment and oil trends. The rapid growth in oil production that made Russia the fastest-growing oil-producing nation in the world has been cut by nearly half over the last six months, he said.
The grudge arrest and trial of the richest man in Russia is also being blamed for a sharp drop in business confidence last month, a plunge of 6 points to a level of 26 out of 50. “The index showed that concerns over tax vulnerability and legal vulnerability skyrocketed,” the Moscow Times reported.
“The drop can be explained only by the situation surrounding Yukos,” declared Konstantin Babkin, economics editor at What the Papers Say. “
In a prepared statement, Khodorkovsky voiced the obvious: “My sentence has been decided in the Kremlin” rather than in the courts….”Judicial power in Russia has been turned into a dumb appendage, a blunt instrument of the executive branch of government – or not so much of the government, but of a few quasi-criminal economic groups.”
“Any remaining illusions that this trial had anything to do with the rule of law were swept away” by the conviction and sentencing, echoed a Moscow Times editorial, which revealed to the world that the Russian judiciary is nothing more than a “tool of the state.”
While the Kremlin and the prosecutors can scarcely conceal their glee over the demolition of the two oligarchs and the company they created, which was universally acknowledged as the best run, most profitable, and most open oil company in Russia, the ominous rumblings from the sidelines are gathering steam.
Khodorkovsky has long dreamed of being a political force in Russia. “His dream came true Tuesday in Meshchansky District Court,” declared Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the National Strategy Institute in an op-ed piece:
…He can happily ignore the royal commands filtering down from on high. He cannot be blackmailed with being banned from the television or with being kicked out of office when someone tampers with the useless ballots of some election.
Khodorkovsky is his own man and stands outside the system that Pres. Vladimir Putin understands and controls. He can make decisions without asking the presidential administration and without fear that something will be taken from him for his disobedience. Everything has already been taken from him except his life and his honor.
For this reason, he now has a chance to become the focal point for real – meaning outside the Kremliin system – opposition in Russia….It is clear that from now on every word he speaks from prison is destined to become something akin to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Gulag Archipelago.’ The man who lost billion while he sat in pretrial detention has shifted into the position of moral leader. In today’s Russia, this position has long been vacant…. Yet moral authority means more to Russian than gold monograms on business cards, Mercedes, and all the other formal attributes of power.
Khodorkovsky has become a tragic figure, and only tragic heroes can hope to rule Russia….”
The exceptions, he said, are Gorbachev, who was deposed, and Putin, who….
Khodorkovsky seems prepared for, even to have anticipated, this new role: In the post-sentencing statement read to the press by his lawyers, he noted that he had lost his savings and his standing in the “oligarchs’ club,” but “…I have gained a huge number of true and devoted friends. I have gotten back my feelings for my country. And now together with my people I will bear this, and the victory will be ours together.”
The conviction and sentence, he predicted, will prove much more harmful to Putin’s Kremlin than to him.
“They did not win. Freedom is an internal human condition.”
One of Khodorkovsky’s former partners, Leonid Nevzlin, in self-exile in Israel, predicted flatly that the Yukos affair signals the future demise of the Putin regime.
“The verdict is the beginning of the end for Putin,” he told a Tel Aviv news conference. “Anyone who destroys democracy, the free press, and justice is doomed.”
Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, the last holdover from the Yeltsin regime to be fired by Putin in February and a likely Putin opponent in 2008, also condemned the verdict.
“Today we all should admit that we already live in a different country. The unification of Democratic forces is no longer a question of political ambitions, it is a vital necessity for the country.”
Noted one of Khodorkovsky’s lead lawyers, Robert Amsterdam of Toronto: “There are very few men who serve time in prison for political reasons whose political ambitions aren’t strengthened.”
And that very fact accounts for the long sentence, contend Nevzlin and some political analysts. “There’s no way they could let him out before 2008,” declared Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think tank. “They’ve made a political figure out of him and now they fear him.”
My brilliant and thoughtful Saturday morning student, Valera, said he has two friends who have personally known Khodorkovsky, and they both had relatively negative opinions of him: He was a merciless businessman, he sometimes cheated people, and sometimes didn’t keep his word.
“But I would have preferred a just trial,” he said. “What has happened to law in Russia is very sad. From now on this is the pattern they will follow anytime they want to get rid of somebody.”
I told him about my recollections of the Junior Chamber of Commerce meetings I attended in Orlando as a young reporter, and the creed they would recite at the beginning of every luncheon. The only thing I remember was the phrase, “a government of laws and not of men.”
At the time, I could’t figure out what it meant. Now I know.
Zhorik returned yesterday morning. I had thought maybe he was coming back to get more money to pay off his “debts.” When he dashed off Sunday night – or rather 1:45 Monday morning – he took with him less than 0 – all that I had left at the time -- to pay off his 17 debts, or “dolgi.” He sold his mobile phone to pay some of the rest, but I was sure there would be more left to pay.
But he says he has paid all his dolgi, and made good grades in his exams. The only reason he came back, he said, was to see me and to buy new shoes and trousers to wear in one of his final tests in on Monday.
He rattled off an explanation of why he had to have new shoes and trousers to take the exam. “Understand?” he asked.
“No.” But we bought the shoes yesterday and will buy the trousers today.
We sat on the bench in our courtyard and drank “Street” and “Red Devil” cocktails for a couple of hours. That’s our site for getting intimate and swapping stories and secrets. I’d much rather be intimate in bed, but that’s still a no-no.
After a several-hour interlude, during which I slept and he humped some little girlfriend of Nastya’s, we resumed our posts last night. “Will we also sit in the bench when we go to Stavropol?” he asked anxiously. “Of course, honey.”
“I’m glad,” he said.
“Did you think when we first met last August that we would become so close?” he asked.
“No, honey, I just thought of you as Sergei and Andrei’s younger brother.” I was actually much more drawn to his pal Igor, who has turned out to be – while much cuter – not nearly so good and kind. I never dreamed that Zhorik and I would develop the unfortunately sexless love affair we now have going.
I also discovered one of the reasons I love him so much: It turns out he also as a child did a lot of Bible reading, and really tries to follow a lot of Jesus’ most significant utterances: “Love thy neighbor as thyself”; “do unto others as ye would have them do unto you,” etc. He believes very strongly in being kind and helpful to others. He has great compassion and empathy, which to me is the most important aspect of a person’s character.
It’s a rare commodity in Russia, whose vaunted “soul” is much exaggerated. My “ex” Yegor has it; Basil has it; Zhorik’s brothers don’t have it. Most of my friends and acquaintances don’t have it.
He thinks one of the reasons Sergei is so screwed up psychologically is that their older brother Sasha mercilessly beat him when he was about 10 years old. Even the thought of it wrenches my soul.
He said his favorite color is green. I saw some green malachite rings last week near School # 69. I think I may get him one as a graduation present. But I wanted to check his ring size.
I pointed to his Pravislaviy “salvation” ring which I bought him last fall. “Does that fit you okay?” I asked. I took it off and tried mine on his finger. It was a better fit. “Do you want to trade?”
“Oh, no. If you trade salvation rings, it means you take on all my sins and I take on all yours. You should never do that.”
That would indeed be a big load for him to carry.
But I did find that my ring is too small for his middle finger, which is where he likes to wear his rings.
Zhorik has two burning ambitions at the moment: One is to buy a house for his father. “You can buy one in Svetlograd for ,000.” The other is to build a family crypt, like one of the oligarchs has done, in the Svetlograd cemetery where his mother is buried.
And he wants to be sure that I am buried in it with the rest of his family. He cried when he asked me if I would be willing to be buried in it.
I told him maybe I could help him with his dreams. “I want to buy the house myself,” he said earnestly. “You can help with the crypt if you want to.”
Of course, I will. Even without sex with him, my life from now on is committed to helping fulfill his life in every way I can. He is the sweetest and most deserving kid I know.
And out of nowhere last night appeared the oasis in this summer’s sexual desert, when Denis will be in Moldova and I’ll be alone here with untouchable Zhorik.
Slava, my old buddy from “Liberty Fund” news days, dropped by – ostensibly to reinstall my Windows. But it would take a long time, and he didn’t want to stick around for it.
I discussed with him my bleak and depressing outlook for sex over the next couple of months.
He smiled. “I’m available.”
Oh migawd, that’s right. Slava, who has spent the last couple of years being straight, and I used to get it on rather frequently. In fact, he asked me one time if he could live with me. Of course, he’s got a tiny dick – about four inches and the circumference of a fat pencil – but he loves for me to suck it.
He said last night one of the reasons he broke up with his last girlfriend was that her pizda was too big, and he couldn’t fill it. “It would take me two or three hours to come.”
“Are you sure you’re straight?” I asked, smiling. “It didn’t take you that long to come with me.”
“That was different.”
If only Zhorik shared some of his bisexuality. I fondled his dick several times this morning, once when it was throbbing hard, but when he stirred enough to realize there were strange fingers on his piska, he turned over.
Of course, the fact that he pumped some little girlfriend of Nastya’s yesterday afternoon and wasn’t the least bit horny this morning might have been a factor.
We’ll have lots of time to continue to explore the possibilities over the next several months. I’m not hopeful, but at least now I’ve got someone waiting in the wings.
I was a bit bowled over yesterday when my old buddy Sam Love, former environmental activist, establishment tail tweaker, and sometime author himself, wrote in response to the “Evil Empire” column I sent him:
I’m really a little blown away. I don’t consider myself a William S. Burroughs. In fact, I was a little turned off by his description of how the little Arab boys in North Africa would squat and take a shit in anticipation of getting fucked by Burroughs.
It’s never been my intention to shock – just to be open, honest, forthright, and candid. But maybe that was Burroughs’ only intention too. He was a hell of a writer, and Sam is a good critic; so it gives me hope that I might actually find a market “out there” somewhere for my columns.
Speaking of which, Slava, Basil, and I have arrived at a site name: “Mindarts.ru.” We’re going to pool our bucksi and get the site nailed down early next week. Then comes the arduous (I think) task of getting what’s already written on line while continuing my teaching, translating, and churning out “shocking” columns.
And I don’t know what a blog is.
“Its the latest buzz word for an internet diary,” Sam explained in another e-mail this morning.
”You should title it ‘Red Queen.’”
A clever title. Basil is coming today and we’ll talk about this, among other things. But I’m frankly rather excited at the prospects. So far everyone who has read any of my “blogs” (I’m a quick learner) has said they really liked them. Anyway, the die is cast. My biggest problem will be trying to conceal identities – including my own – and keeping the pseudonyms straight.
Irina, the translation administrator at English Exchange, called me yesterday in a bit of a bind and asked me to do some translating/editing for the American Chamber of Commerce in Moscow. I managed to get it done on schedule and went by the EE office to deliver it this morning.
While I was there, I saw my good pals Marina and Sasha, who handle all the teacher visa stuff. They assured me they were still handling mine. A big relief. So I need to give them a notarized statement from Natasha, my landlady, and all the documentation by July 1. Still haven’t decided where to go. That will depend on where Zhorik is able to get a visa to. But I need to start narrowing down choices.
He said last night he shouldn’t have any problem, because he is registered as a student in what he said was the most prestigious law preparation institute in St Pete. European countries look more kindly on Russian students. So we’ll try for Amsterdam first.
Looks like I’ll have plenty of bucksi for the trip. I unexpectedly got 00 from the Institute of Diplomacy night this week. I thought they’d paid me ,000 but they’d only paid me 0. I have another two bills coming from English Exchange for teaching, another bill or two for last night’s editing, another couple from Golf magazine. There’s another grand coming from School #69 next Wednesday, and my 0 pension, plus my 0 or so a week income from my regular students. So that’s ,000 within a week, and an income of about 00 a month for the rest of the summer. That should assure a pleasant vacation for me and Zhorik.
Ken Kesey’s name came up in my e-mail communication with Sam Love. Back in the ’70s when we were both living in Washington, Sam called me one morning and invited me to come to his apartment a couple of blocks away. “I have someone here I’d like for you to meet.”
It was Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, whom Sam had met the evening before at some sort of alternative conference. Kesey hadn’t had any place to stay and Sam had invited him to crash in his apartment. He was not an impressive physical figure – short, pudgy, thinning reddish hair. How could this unassuming hippie-dude have written a masterpiece like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? But his mind was still leaps ahead of mine. Sam reminded me of his conversation in one of his e-mails:
The discussion I remember most was his observation that we are entering the "Age of Autism" where the public has lost its ability to respond when something happens. Like an autistic child the event happens and they don't deal with it then. Their perceptions and responses are out of sync. Also no memory.
I have often thought that's what allowed Bill Clinton and Bush to get away with everything. We no longer have memory because of all the overstimulation.
And Kesey was seeing this in the ’70s! Too bad he’s not still around. There are a lot more cuckoos today.