The Washington Post Column

Russian Revanche

Before I join the international chorus of protest against last week’s arrest of the Russian oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, I’d like to reflect for a moment on a few other things that have happened in Russia over the past decade. In retrospect, it’s clear that the real transformation of post-Soviet Russia in fact began in 1993, not 2003. For those who can’t remember back that far, 1993 was the year the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, sent tanks to fire on his parliament. It was also the year President Yeltsin decided that the bickering, squabbling, elected politicians who surrounded him were not up to running the country. He turned to a more reliable supporter: the organization formerly known as the KGB.

At the time, Russia’s secret policemen were disoriented, bewildered and looking for new jobs in the nascent “security industry” — the private armies of rich men — and organized crime. But a few were still there when Yeltsin went to find them. Over the subsequent six years, they rebuilt their power base. They received permission to open mail, tap phones and enter homes without a court order. They began to monitor the Internet. They harassed human rights and environmental organizations and conducted extensive “tax inspections” of newspapers deemed too critical of the Kremlin.

By the time President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, came to power in 2000, the revanche was in full swing. Since then, the media in Russia have been curtailed to the point of blind obedience and are now almost entirely owned by the Kremlin’s friends. Opposition has remained legal — but only so long as it doesn’t become too powerful: Journalists and politicians who step too far out of line are regularly murdered. The Russian military is still prosecuting a dirty war in Chechnya, killing tens of thousands of civilians, destroying whole villages and keeping silent about it.

All the while, nobody in the West has much noticed that anything was changing. The Clinton administration went on calling Yeltsin a “democrat” and a “capitalist” long after it became clear that he was neither. Less than a month ago, President Bush praised Putin’s “vision” for Russia: “a country at peace within its borders, with its neighbors, a country in which democracy and freedom and rule of law thrive.” Then, last week, a band of masked men stormed the private plane of the richest man in Russia, arrested him and froze his $8 billion fortune.

True, the White House has remained silent — presumably President Bush has been struck dumb from acute embarrassment. But everywhere else, the protest has been loud and clear: press denunciations of the Russian president (“Vlad the Impaler”), politicians mourning (“it’s a creeping coup”) the end of Russia’s “rule of law”, the commentariat fulminating. This reaction is correct: With the Khodorkovsky arrest, Putin has taken his disdain for legal niceties, and his obsession with defeating potential rivals, to a new level.

But the sudden interest in Russia on the op-ed pages also reveals a good deal about what moves us nowadays when we read the newspapers. The murders of journalists, the arrests of environmentalists — these kinds of stories have become too mundane to interest the jaded American public, particularly the small slice of it that cares about foreign policy. Horrific rapes and murders in Chechnya — those are an “internal Russian matter” and not of much political significance. The arrest of a billionaire, on the other hand — a person who hobnobbed with Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney — that’s really interesting. Never mind that this particular billionaire, although an impressive philanthropist who has tried to make his company genuinely transparent, made his first millions by defrauding the Russian state.

Odder, perhaps, is the way our reaction appears to have marked Khodorkovsky himself. Speaking from jail a few days ago, Russia’s richest man announced his intention to resign from his company and “dedicate all my energy to my country — Russia, in whose great future I firmly believe.” He also hinted through a spokesman that he is considering running for president. Although Khodorkovsky’s wealth does make him a plausible rival to Putin, there is so far no evidence that he enjoys any popular support or that he has, until very recently, been terribly interested in the great future of Russia.

Who could have made him think that he has a future as a democratic politician — or that it would even be a good idea to drop hints to that effect? We in the West have made him a hero. Now we’ll see how far that takes him at home.