Different reactions from ex-oligarch Khodorkovsky and the PussyRiot activists to their release.


Mikhail Khodorkovsky's first press conference in the Berlin Wall Museum last Sunday had a bittersweet aftertaste. The ex-oligarch's shy smile was reminiscent of a reformed choir boy who had just heard from his priest that he did not have to do extra prayers. Putin's former adversary weighed his words very carefully. "Putin was fair to my family", he said without elaborating. The whole spectacle was clearly scripted by the Kremlin. Whatever Khodorkovsky had to sign to walk free, Putin can be happy with his tamed former challenger.

The first statements of Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were very different. The two activists from the all-female punk rock band PussyRiot said the whole amnesty was a "PR stunt" (Alyokhina) and the whole of Russia a "prison colony" (Tolokonnikova). These two quite obviously didn't do a deal with Putin.

Why are Khodorkovsky and PussyRiot reacting so differently? Why did one ask for a presidential pardon while the others went so far as to complain about their early release?

The 50-year-old Khodorkovsky was sick of life in prison and wanted to be with his mother, who has cancer. Knowing her son was safe might prolong her life. These are legitimate reasons to ask for an early release.

The two young women of PussyRiot, however, did not put their families before their political goals, although they both have young children. Tolokonnikova's anger at the political conditions in Russia even led her to start a hunger strike in her penal colony. That's a very risky move, as the prison system is based on the relentless arbitrariness of the guards. After her hunger strike, she was sent for three weeks travel through Siberia. Her family was not informed of where she was or even whether she was still alive.
Putin's political prisoners were very different personalities. Khodorkovsky and Tolokonnikova both ended their Gulag experiences looking as though they had just came back from a relaxing stay at a spa. This makes them good leadership material in our image-conscious, multi-media age. But the similarities end here.

Khodorkovsky is at the end of the day a businessman, a bourgeois, who gravely over-estimated his own influence in 2003 and paid for it over the last ten years. His son Pavel told me two months ago that his father would not fight to recover his lost fortune. For a businessman, this is a clear sign of being resigned to your fate. But it is also clever of the former oligarch not to try to play Russia's Nelson Mandela. Most Russians still think he is a fallen former billionaire and sympathy for him is very limited. The next generation of opposition figures has long since taken over. Alexej Navalny has fought corruption for years and his credibility is much higher than that of Khodorkovsky, who made his money with the usual dubious methods employed in Russia in the Nineties. Khodorkovsky has ample time now to enjoy the soft sheets of the luxury Adlon Hotel in Berlin.

A stay in a luxury hotel would not even occur to PussyRiot in their wildest dreams. Except maybe to sing one of their punk prayers there against international organised crime. The young women are real revolutionaries. Tolokonnikova's understanding of her own role in Russia is extremely radical, as her father explained to me recently during an interview. Even is she knows that she has little chance of bringing down Putin, she wants to overthrow his authoritarian, repressive, corrupt, reactionary, racist, homophobic and sexist state. no matter what price she has to pay personally. This radicalism scares even her father sometimes.

Tolokonnikova's daughter Gera will have to get used to the fact that her mother will not give up her fight for a better Russia. Neither Putin's Gulag nor Putin's mercy will change this. 

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz