LONDON — Oil titan Mikhail Khodorkovsky is not the first Jew who has risen to become Russia’s richest citizen. Before him Roman Abramovich and Boris Berezovsky had their stints, while Vladimir Gusinsky got close.
In Russia, however, life at the top is not all that it’s cracked up to be.
Berezovsky and Gusinsky are now in exile, facing prosecution if they ever return to Russia, while Abramovich, having cashed in much of his Russian oil and metals empire and bought a British soccer team, is a frequent guest of Berezovsky in London. As for Khodorkovsky, he’s in jail.
Russian authorities arrested Khodorkovsky at gunpoint October 25 on a snowy Siberian runway. He is being held on charges ranging from tax evasion to fraud. The charges concern post-communist privatization deals for the companies that went on to become Yukos, the oil behemoth that Khodorkovsky founded and recently merged with Sibneft, another firm that he bought from Abramovich. If a court so decides, both companies could end up back in state hands. The crackdown caused a sharp drop in Russia’s stock market this week and has prompted warnings that foreign investors might back away.
It’s not only the economy that took a hit, though. Russian antisemites are in trouble, too. Their favorite bogeymen, the Jewish “oligarchs,” as the country’s tycoons are called, are becoming an endangered species.
In the eyes of most Russians, the oligarchs are clearly guilty, of theft and corruption in the best case, and probably a lot worse. That much of their wealth is ill-gotten, no one really doubts. And what is to be done? Most Russians would answer: Lock ’em up, ship ’em out. There’s plenty of room in Siberia.
This, of course, is not what’s happening. As Khodorkovsky sits in Moscow’s most notoriously disease-ridden prison, most non-Jewish oligarchs are still riding high, even if a few are not likely to step foot in Russia again. The metals empire of Vladimir Potanin — who, along with Berezovsky, most brazenly boasted of his influence over Boris Yeltsin’s Kremlin — is thriving, as are Vagit Alekperov’s oil wells. The list of safe oligarchs goes on, but there are only a few Jews still on it: Mikhail Fridman of Alfa Bank, for example.
What are we to make of the fact that almost all of the major oligarchs in jail or exile are Jews, while almost all of those still in business are not? The answer is not as obvious as it may seem.
Vladimir Putin, whatever else he may be, is not an antisemite. He’s too practical for that, and too regularly appears at synagogues. Indeed, there is something beyond ethnicity that joins Khodorkovsky with Berezovsky and Gusinsky: political activism. Gusinsky ran the only media company that was openly critical of Putin. Berezovsky, after a falling out with Putin, whose presidential campaign he financed, declared himself in opposition and threw money at any political party that would take it. Khodorkovsky, once he was secure in his wealth, announced he was financing two liberal parties opposed to Putin.
Still, even if the cause of their travails are their politics and not their Jewishness, their ethnic background hardly goes unnoticed.
“The Kremlin went after Khodorkovsky because he became an opponent, and as we know, the Kremlin doesn’t play nicely with its opponents,” Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the opposition Communist Party, said in a recent interview. “But there are a lot of other people who should be in jail. After all, what good is it to the Russian man if the wealth is simply transferred from a Berezovsky to an Abramovich?”
Zyuganov’s words were carefully chosen. In the Russian language, there are two words for Russian. The one most often used in politics, rossiisky, is a civic definition, meaning any citizen of the Russian Federation. But Zyuganov used the word russky, an ethnic definition that encompasses the majority of the population, but not Berezovsky, not Abramovich and not Khodorkovsky.
Moreover, in their war on Putin’s political enemies, the Kremlin and its allies have often played to the deep reservoir of anti-Jewish feeling that exists in Russian society.
One loaded phrase that has cropped up in the Khodorkovsky affairs — in the press, as well as in comments by the prosecutors — is “economic crimes.” The words sound banal enough, but students of Soviet history will recall it as one of two special charges, along with Zionism, reserved especially for Jews by communist prosecutors.
It is, of course, possible that most Russians nowadays do not really remember such connotations. But Putin certainly does; after all, investigating economic crimes is something he would have been trained in back in his days at the KGB.
The Khodorkovsky affair — like those of Berezovsky and Gusinsky before him, and whoever will follow — does not represent a new wave of Russian antisemitism. It represents a very old wave, and it accompanies the revival of old modes of action that may have been buried but never died. Russia under Putin has now seen almost as many rigged elections as under Brezhnev and more repression of the press than Gorbachev or Yeltsin could ever stomach. Is it any wonder that political imprisonment would be next?
The Soviet Union, it was once declared, would be national in form, socialist in content. It was a nicer way of saying divide and conquer, a tried and tested way of ruling unruly populations. These tactics are back, and that’s not good for anyone — especially not Russia’s Jews.