Tune in and speak up

By Mike Fox

On the other side of the world, in a prison in the Siberian wastelands, Mikhail Khodorkovsky is suffering through a show trial pulled out of a Soviet time capsule.

At the dawn of the new millennium, Khodorkovsky emerged from Russia’s chaotic 90s as indisputably the wealthiest man in the country. He gained his wealth from possibly illicit means at times (as nearly everyone in Russia during that period did) but realized that the only way to truly move forward would be to run a transparent and honest corporation. His company, Yukos, managed a vast majority of Russia’s oil reserves and helped him gain a level of influence nearly equal to then President, now Prime Minister but de facto leader, Vladimir Putin.

Previously aligned with the ruling party, Khodorkovsky began to support opposition political movements with his tremendous wealth. With rumors that his departure from Yukos was imminent, speculation that the charismatic and successful man would enter into politics proliferated.

In 2003, Khodorkovsky was arrested for exaggerated “tax charges.” After a shotgun trial, he was sentenced to hard labor in one of the worst prison camps in Russia and was set to receive a review of his case last week.

His corporation was sold off in supposed demonstration of the lack of business ideals he was trying to combat; now he has been abused in prison and exists near the bottom of most human rights lists. Granted, he is just one of several recent, high profile political prisoners. Other notables include recent Nobel Peace Prize Winner and prisoner of the Chinese government Liu Xiaobo and past Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi, a leader of the peaceful opposition to Burma’s military junta and house arrest prisoner of it.

All three of these exiled intellectuals have preached the importance of peaceful opposition. However, perhaps due to Khodorkovsky’s sordid history as an arrested business leader, he has received nowhere near the same amount of worldwide support.

But if he entered jail as someone with maturing ethical and political ideologies, he has evolved into an eloquent critic of the current order in Russia and a defender of personal liberty. His closing statements to the judge presiding over his review rang a warning bell for a Russia where the richest plot with politicians to stifle liberty. Granted, Khodorkovsky can be considered partially guilty of similar activities in the past, but there is something endearing about a man repentant for his crimes and horrified by the degree to which systems that enabled him to break the law have proliferated.

But why does this former Russian billionaire matter to us? His experiences and words are a stunning condemnation of passive acceptance of the status quo. He states, “And you, my opponents? What do you believe in? That the bosses are always right? Do you believe in money? In the impunity of ‘the system?’”

Khodorkovsky’s story and the ability of the Russian government to falsify his past while the general  population remained complacent and accepted the new order parallels a similar trend in our own country.

More and more, people just accept governance as a concept, without desiring to understand how the decisions made impact us day-to-day. The desire to just concentrate on surviving day-to-day is perfectly understandable, but people must recognize that if we don’t actively fight to be heard, we forfeit the right to control our lives.

Last week, Khodorkovsky didn’t only make his closing statements, but the United States made a bold statement on how it wishes to be governed. All the polls and analysts pointed towards an increase in partisanship and frustration with elected officials.

Well, if we’re upset with our leaders, let’s start leading and stop complaining. Let’s provide a new model based on acceptance of other ideas. This unwillingness to compromise or recognize one’s fallibilities is the same intolerance that Putin has shown towards Khodorkovsky. We’re never always right.

Khodorovsky and I share the same fear that our peers are being bullied into complacency. We have to remember that we always have a voice and Washington isn’t out of hearing range,. Flashy personalities – liberal or conservative – can’t be expected to fix our problems.  

Mike Fox is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]