Opinion: Is Mikhail Khodorkovsky the devil's advocate? II

Leonidas Donskis and Mikhail Khodorkovsky

This January, the Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Centre organized another big two-day international event for experts, politicians and intellectuals. The centrepiece of the second day of the conference was an address by none other than Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He was introduced by liberal Lithuanian thinker Leonidas Donskis who had taken great interest in supporting the prisoner during his term as a member of the European Parliament and had even received Khodorkovsky's thank-you letter from prison. The prisoner had written he was touched by Donskis' belief that he was fated for an important role in the history and politics of Russia.

Part I: Is Mikhail Khodorkovsky the devil's advocate?

Enough with the sanctions

The central message of Khodorkovsky's speech was the following: Lift sanctions on Russia, because they only make the people rally around President Putin. The best way, according to Khodorkovsky, would be just to ignore him, "isolate", but maintain the necessary relations. In other words, return to "business as usual", bar the cordial hugs. Khodorkovsky's entire speech consisted of variations on this one theme. All the talk about the inevitable downfall of the regime for unspecified reasons was just a cherry top for the democrats.

Half-truth is the most dangerous and penetrating form of lies, because it contains many truthful words, but the way they are arranged and mixed turns them into their opposite, although they are still received with one's guards down, as friendly messages rather than hostile. Especially when they are uttered by a man who has personally suffered the wrath of the one who is now destroying the world order.

Khodorkovsky did not speak, but rather read out a well-written text where passages about the regime's imminent fall and Khodorkovsky as the transitional figure were intermingled with the only request for the audience: enough with the sanctions and everything will be all right. Even though no one has yet imposed sanctions on entire sectors of the Russian economy - only on individuals and specific companies and banks - Khodorkovsky pleaded to call them off.

However, sanctions are the only means of preventing Russia's aggression. Otherwise, Moscow is given a free reign to do what it pleases without any consequence. Putin himself has said he wants to reign like a bear in the taiga. An advocate cannot reveal his intentions straightforwardly, he presents his position as the only right way that the jury are bound agree with if they just follow through the argument.

However, Illarionov was given the microphone afterwards and gave five questions that clarified the essence. When Khodorkovsky later tried to tell stories about how Crimea was annexed to Russia by the law and that the law must be obeyed (an excellent example of half-truths), Illarionov raised his hand once more.

Annexation by the law

To his credit, Donskis allowed free expression of opinions and gave the microphone to Illarionov for the second time. A Lithuanian would have asked if Lithuania's occupation by the USSR in 1940 was likewise in keeping with the law and therefore shouldn't we obey it. I am sure that an answer to this question is filed safely in Putin's drawer as one of the options for his imagined future.

The actual question was more international, but equally unrelenting: How should a German citizen have treated Germany's laws in the 1930s? This was a time when luminaries like Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein emigrated from their country, when Heinrich Heine's poetry volumes were burning in Nazi bonfires, when Jews were ordered to wear David's stars. By the law.

Khodorkovsky grabbed a glass of water and sighed, slightly turning towards Donskis: "Well, here it starts." The episode was quite reminiscent of Putin's last press conference, when his spokesman Dmitry Peskov accepted a question from Kseniya Sobchak, whereupon Putin burst out: "Why did you give her the word!" Peskov was defensive: "My mistake."

Donskis remained true to himself - a man seeking truth and clarity above everything else. I understand that it must have been tough for him, which he said himself. To his credit, he was faithful to his positions and did not insist on "no uncomfortable questions" for the sake of polite peace.

In his responses, Khodorkovsky got mixed up among explanations about laws and the constitution. A sharp analyst from Moscow who was sitting in the front row, Lilia Shevtsova, told me that after this question Khodorkovsky's hand was shaking as he was taking the glass of water. If Illarionov's question was met with applause, Khodorkovsky's awkward reply elicited nothing but silence. For me, it was a silence of clarity. No more masks.

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