A Tale Of Two Mikhails

Mikhail Tukhachevsky isn’t a name most people know, not even in the former Soviet Union, where they really should. He was one of the highest ranking generals in the Soviet army in the 20’s and 30’s, the period when the dust continued to settle on the bloody Revolution of 1917 and the bloodier civil war that followed. Tukhachevsky was a hero, literally writing the book on strategy for the Soviet military. He was popular at home and abroad, all the more impressive considering the fear everyone in Europe had of the communists.

Stalin had him killed. Tukhachevsky’s popularity was a threat to Stalin’s grip on power. As scared as Europe was of the communists, that’s pretty much how scared those in the Soviet Union were of Stalin. Stalin was fond of purges, cleaning out rivals and potential rivals quickly and brutally, all the better to set an example for anyone lucky enough to be left behind: the tall blade of grass will get cut.

It isn’t so easy to kill a popular, important man. Tukhachevsky commanded the loyalty of many in the military who were drawn to his charisma as well as his ideas. So Stalin did what they always do when they want to get rid of popular, important men: he framed him for treason. A show trial proved beyond any argument - if one could be found - that Tukhachevsky was conspiring with the Nazis. This was 1937, and everyone already knew what the Nazis were and the threat they posed. The trial was short, Tukhachevsky was executed along with seven other top Soviet generals, and then the Soviet people were told what happened.

Tukhachevsky’s military theories, which were gaining the approval of the conservative bureaucracy of the Soviet military, were also discredited, at least until 1939, when a battle against the Japanese proved their usefulness.

Today another Mikhail, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian oligarch, was sentenced to another six years in prison. He, too, had been popular and successful, a younger man threatening the grip on power of a feared ruler, in this case Vladimir Putin. Khodorkovsky’s plight has been taken up by many on the political Left as a human rights issue, and it surely is. He has spoken eloquently - when permitted, usually in court - on the necessity for democracy and civil rights in all societies. 

Whatever his true aims and beliefs, Khodorkovsky was an oligarch in post-Soviet Russia, the most successful of them, and you don’t get to be an oligarch let alone the most successful of them without getting some blood on your hands. The deal is, you can pretty much get away with murder so long as you support the government. Khodorkovsky wasn’t, at least not enough.

Khodorkovsky’s conversion may be genuine, but whether it came before or after his arrest is impossible to know. He never spoke out for the rights of his countrymen before his arrest; then again, maybe he knew what would happen if he did. Journalists have been killed in the street for criticizing Putin and his government. One critic, a former spy - maybe not so former - was killed in London by radiation poisoning. Perhaps courtroom speeches are the best he could hope to do. It’s hard to say, knowing what he had to do to get in Putin’s crosshairs in the first place.

However the defendant got there, a show trial is still a show trial, and it will always tell more about the prosecution than the defense.

- Daniel Ward