The Quiet Philanthropist

The following is a letter sent from T.J. Gorton to the London Review of Books in response to the Keith Gessen book review of Richard Sakwa’s work on the downfall of Yukos and imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovksy.  Very compelling reading.

I worked for Yukos for four years from June 2001 as one of the Western staff Khodorkovsky brought in to modernise a company that was still more like a Soviet enterprise than an international oil company five years after privatisation. Keith Gessen gets most of the facts right (except that Yukos was never listed in London, only as a US ADR; the predator Rosneft was listed in London), but doesn’t pay enough attention to the prevailing atmosphere of the Yeltsin-era economy (LRB, 25 February). If fear was the staple of personal experience, lack of clarity (neyasnost) was the leitmotif of everything to do with the economy, from heavy industry to the ownership of land and lodgings. The young MBK (as Mikhail Borisovich was known in-house) and all the other future oligarchs had the prescience to see through the murk, and to take advantage of it. That is what capitalists do, and it is never a pretty picture at the capital-formation stage. In the case of Yukos, MBK started with an unwieldy and irrational jumble of rusting oil infrastructure, bought for a fraction of its potential value, and gradually modernised and rationalised it through substantial further investment. To have realised that potential in a transparent sale (which would have had to be to a foreign investor) would have taken time, and that, along with money and credibility, was what the Yeltsin government had run out of.

MBK once told an interviewer that hewas three generations of the Rockefeller family in one person. He is anextremely complex person, but the experts who regard Open Russia andall his philanthropic efforts as exercises in image-enhancement areseeing less than the whole picture. I moved to London in mid-2003, andthus missed the balaclava-clad tax police storming in with Uzis toseize computers (during one of the first raids, my colleagues told me,they took the monitors, thinking that was where the data were stored)and the catastrophe that followed. In London, as things began todeteriorate, I was contacted by some surprising people: the presidentof Magdalen College, Oxford, for example, who told me that MBK hadendowed a scholarship fund to bring ten promising Russians to studythere every year (being already fully endowed, this programme wasapparently unaffected by what happened). This wasn’t the only instanceof quiet philanthropy I came across, and if ten students a year won’tchange Russia, the thousands of computers and IT-training courses heprovided to provincial schools will over time have had a significantimpact. It seems to me there must have been ways of improving his imagethat would have been more cost-effective and had a more immediate andmore public effect, if that was all he was interested in. In any case,whatever his motives, they have no bearing on the merits of thejudicial travesty that keeps him in Cell Block Four. He is certainly noworse a person than the arch-cynic currently running the country heobstinately refused to abandon.