For several years now, Russian opposition activists, journalists, and politicians have tried to envision their country without President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime. Faced with the Kremlin’s continuous crackdown on free speech and civil liberties and increasingly repressive policies towards the Russian civil society, many of them found refuge abroad where they continue working to transform Russia without fearing for their safety.

“We may be at the point where one can only safely work against the Putin regime from abroad,” writes Masha Gessen, a Russian-born American journalist, in her recent Vanity Fair piece titled “The Putin Nemesis Plotting a Post-Putin Russia.” Gessen’s article focuses on Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oligarch and now an activist and philanthropist in exile. Khodorkovsky’s project Open Russia, a platform for democracy and human rights advocacy in Russia, is one such attempt to transform the country and it’s future from abroad. In her article, Gessen evaluates the potential of Khodorkovsky’s initiative and its importance for the country and its people today.

The new Open Russia is ambitious: it is an attempt to build an entire new leadership for Russian society that would exist and function parallel to the current one—until the current one implodes and Khodorkovsky’s pre-fab Russian leadership takes its place. Just as a shadow cabinet hones its skills while out of power, so too, in Khodorkovsky’s vision, must shadow leaders, shadow bureaucrats, shadow journalists, shadow organizers, and other shadow citizens practice their craft even though—or because—Putin’s regime has usurped all the institutions and activities that normally comprise a functional society. What Khodorkovsky is assembling is a vast Rolodex of Russian talent—people who can get to know one another, can publish, can teach and speak publicly, and can build ties with sympathizers still in Russia. The Rolodex grows.


The goal is twofold: first, to assemble an army of civilians who are capable of performing all the tasks that need doing in a country; and second, to find ways, in a nation where the public sphere has been effectively destroyed and communication severely restricted, to publicize the existence of such people and create an atmosphere of trust and goodwill around them, even as those of them who are physically in Russia are being silenced, marginalized, discredited, and killed.


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