Khodorkovsky and Kafka’s The Trial

On May 7, Vladimir Putin was officially inaugurated for his third term re-election as Russia’s president after winning the March elections.

Recalling Putin’s first term in office from 2000 to 2004, one of his most notorious decisions was to eradicate nemesis, oil oligarch and then Russia’s richest man Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky during his trial in 2004
In this rather lengthy but well-researched read, Vanity Fair’s Masha Gessen provides a comprehensive lookback of the Khodorkovsky fiasco, which sets a good backdrop for the upcoming Putin era.

In this post, I take a closer look at the adjective ‘Kafkaesque,’ which was used by Gessen to describe Khodorkovsky’s trials, and to do so, I would refer to one of Franz Kafka’s most popular book “The Trial.”

“The Trial” is a perfect example of a Kafkaesque novel that evokes a mix bag of emotions, frustrating, ludicrous but endearing all at the same time.

This is epitomized by the Kafka statue found in Prague, a reenactment of an out-of-the-world dream where he rode on the shoulders of a headless giant.

Prague, a city that mesmerized me with the extent people revere and celebrate native Franz Kafka
In the book, protagonist Josef K woke up one morning to find himself arrested when officials and the Inspector stormed into his room. His crime? Unknown. Trial date? Unknown. Accuser? Unknown.

Ridiculously, K. was allowed to go on with his life as per normal but the only condition was for him to report to court regularly.

Admittedly, I was very disturbed because every conversation K. has with the bureaucrats begs the question.

“The main question is: who’s accusing me? What authority is conducting these proceedings? Are you officials?” K. asked the Inspector.

“These gentlemen and I are merely marginal figures in your affair, indeed we know almost nothing about it… Also, I am quite unable to report that you have been charged, or rather I don’t know whether you have been. It’s true that you are under arrest, but that’s all I know,” the Inspector replied.”

Such circular and almost pointless arguments revolved around his entire trial, court proceedings and new life as the ‘accused’ in a way that makes little logical sense.

Similarly, it was almost impossible to wrap my head around the two trials of Khodorkovsky, where he was charged with fraud, tax evasion and other economic crimes.

An excerpt from the BBC helps explain the situation:

“Last time Mr Khodorkovsky and Mr Lebedev (Khodorkovsky’s business partner) were found guilty of underpaying billions of dollars in taxes. The figure was so extraordinarily high that on appeal the Moscow city court slashed it six times while bizarrely reducing the length of the prison sentence by one year only – from nine to eight years?”

Being able to draw parallels between fiction and real life is honestly frightening and disconcerting, especially when reality reflects Kafka’s dark humor and his surrealist, metaphysical world.

Franz Kafka
But between K. and Khodorkovsky (a strange coincidence that both share the same initial alphabet K), it is comforting for the later to at least be able to identify his accuser.

“From the moment Putin had Khodorkovsky jailed—the Russian leader has never really denied that this was his personal decision—it was clear that Khodorkovsky would not be released unless he agreed to sign over his assets and leave the country.”– Vanity Fair

With President Putin back, the world’s attention will anticipate for more bewildering and inexplicable turns in the K. affair.


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