As I reflect on his imprisonment, it's important for me, as someone who believes that the future of Russia will be written by democrats and not autocrats, to trust that his time in prison has not been spent in vain. But it's important for anyone here in the United States who supports human rights, democracy, and free enterprise to understand that as well.
Just as one's father may be a sportsman, a family man, or a businessman depending on the day, for me it's interesting to see how the name Khodorkovsky has come to symbolize different things to different people — each persona reflecting the need for change in Russia.
To some, my father is hopelessly stuck in prison, his name shorthand for the endemic corruption in the Russian legal system. Yet although his two trials on trumped-up and self-contradictory charges were farces, and while it is clear that the Russian judicial system is a handy tool of the Kremlin, my father is still looking for legal remedies to his situation.
Appealing to the head of the Russian Supreme Court this month, he lamented that his arrest and imprisonment paved the way for the persecution of thousands of individuals who didn't toe the Kremlin line, whose financial successes "became victim of a corrupt bureaucracy and judicial system subservient to it." He believes that the balance of power must change and the independence of the judiciary must be restored. His frequent appeals both in Russia and to the European Court of Human Rights in France present opportunities for a bevy of judges to stand up for liberty and the rule of law.
Others hear Khodorkovsky and think of a cautionary tale for investors. Before he went to prison, my father was hoping to strengthen his company, Yukos, by completing a multibillion-dollar partnership with ExxonMobil. But two private enterprises forging an alliance was too much for the Kremlin: the proposal dissipated, and Yukos was illegally expropriated. Exxon did return to Russia this spring to complete an agreement — with state-run Rosneft, whose best assets are former Yukos oil fields, snatched up as my father was thrown into prison.
Russia has an educated workforce, a growing middle class, and abundant natural resources. But only a democratic Russia, where property laws are respected and kickbacks are the exception, not the rule, will unlock the potential of all three. That's why entities that want to operate in Russia should seek opportunities to advocate for the pro-business, anticorruption reforms needed to make Russia a safer, freer place to invest and conduct business.
Finally, there are those who see his name as a symbol of hope, and see him as someone who stands up to authority no matter the cost.
There is no question that there is a sea change going on in Russia today.
Ordinary people are marching in the streets, denouncing corruption and voter fraud. Recently, 50,000 Muscovites attended a rally shouting "Russia will be free" — even as organizers had had their homes raided and families intimidated just days before. Russian business leaders are publicly donating to a fund created to support the work of popular anticorruption activist Alexei Navalny, who exposes the dishonest schemes of a burgeoning bureaucracy and is leading frequent rallies on the streets of Moscow.
Some see my father as helping to inspire this movement. And while he cannot play an active role from his north Russian prison camp, through his letters and his essays, often smuggled out of prison, he has become a moral voice for a cohort of Russians now active in civic life and aspiring to end untold years of autocracy.
The last time I saw my father was in September 2003, the month before his arrest, when he was visiting me at college in the United States. We talked about each other's goals and dreams — me, to finish school and set off in business; him, to leave the business world at age 45 (he was 40 at the time) and dedicate himself to building civil society in Russia. During one of our last face-to-face conversations I asked if he was fearful of returning home. Russian authorities had been stepping up pressure on him and his colleagues, with his close friend and business partner Platon Lebedev having been arrested that summer.
He said he was prepared for a possible arrest and that he would fight for justice. Though he has hardly gotten a fair chance, facing a rigged Russian judicial system at every turn, he hasn't given up fighting for a more just Russia, even after nearly a decade away from society.
In that time, he has been painted as an unnecessarily sanguine prisoner, a capitalist and a dissident. But I am most proud to call him my father.
E-mail Pavel Khodorkovsky at email@example.com.