By Marcus Brooks in LONDON – Oil titan Mikhail Khodorkovsky was not the first Jew who has risen to become Russia’s richest citizen. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man and now imprisoned in a Siberian labor camp near a radioactive mine. When Khodorkovsky was arrested, many, especially in the Jewish press , saw it as an attack against a Jewish businessman, and thus as a reinforcement of pernicious old stereotypes in a country famous for its institutionalized anti-Semitism. After the fall of the Soviet Union, there were attempts to rile up the Russian public by harping on the image of the rapacious Jewish businessman, of which there were several. Surprisingly, the attempts fell flat, perhaps because Russians were at the time too preoccupied with mere survival.
Gusinsky another billionaire is now in exile, facing prosecution if he ever returns to Russia, while Abramovich, having cashed in much of his Russian oil and metals empire and bought a British soccer team, is based in London.
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.
Indeed, there is something beyond ethnicity that joins Khodorkovsky with Berezovsky (now deceased) and Gusinsky: political activism.
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.
“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.
After all, what good is it to the Russian man if the wealth is simply transferred from a Berezovsky to an Abramovich?” But Zyuganov used the word russky, an ethnic definition that encompasses the majority of the population, but not the late Berezovsky, or Abramovich and certainly 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. Vladimir Putin, whatever else he may be, is not antisemitic. 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, it’s political activism. Gusinsky ran the only media company that was openly critical of Putin.
The Khodorkovsky affair – like those of Berezovsky and Gusinsky before him, and whoever will follow – does not represent a new wave of Russian antisemitism, instead I believe it is more of an attempt to silence any influential tycoon from getting involved in politics of Mother Russia.