On Monday, May 27, I was on vacation in Paris when I decided that my personal circumstances do not allow me to return to Russia in any foreseeable future.
At that point I was running a university in Moscow, the 20-year old New Economic School. I was proud of what my colleagues and I had accomplished. The school has become a model for other universities in Russia as well as other emerging markets.
Sadly, I could not come back to Russia and therefore had to resign from the school. The board called an extraordinary meeting on May 30 to accept my resignation and appoint an acting rector, and asked me not to talk about my decision to the media. Neither the board nor I thought it should be a major media event.
I also had to resign from board positions at several Russian companies. My longest relationship as a board member was with Sberbank, the largest bank in Russia and one of the largest in continental Europe.
This was also a sad and painful decision. I have been a board member of Sberbank for five years, during which time the bank underwent an amazing transformation from a sleepy Soviet-style institution to a dynamic and modern customer-oriented financial company, and it was exciting to participate in this transformation.
Sberbank was scheduled to hold its annual shareholders meeting in just four days, so I hurried to submit a request that my name be taken off the ballot for the new board. Sberbank is a public company listed in Russia and the United States, so I knew I had to emphasize in my letter that this decision was driven by personal considerations unrelated to the bank.
Following the letter of the law, Sberbank immediately disclosed this fact. And my quiet life changed beyond recognition. Journalists began calling me, asking for the reasons for the resignation. As a board member of a public company, I had to reassure journalists and investors that my withdrawal had nothing to do with the bank, and that I had no negative information about the bank. But, following the request from the board of the New Economic School, I also had to keep quiet about the “personal reasons.”
Given that voluntary resignations from the boards of large companies are very rare in Russia, journalists started searching on their own for explanations and soon discovered what they were.
The truth was that I could not come back to Russia because I feared losing my freedom.
Why was that? Since February, I have been repeatedly contacted and interrogated by the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation as a “witness” in “Case 18/41-03.” Surreal as this may sound (like many other things below), this is the original case against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the imprisoned head of the Yukos oil company, launched in 2003.
Since then, the prosecutors apparently have used this case to produce further “subcases” — and jail terms — for Khodorkovsky, his business partner Platon Lebedev, and some of their colleagues. These cases are generally perceived in Russia as politically charged. This was especially true for the so-called “second case” against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev in 2010.
The widespread outrage over the additional sentences meted out to them in 2010 gave rise to then-President Dmitri Medvedev’s request for his Human Rights Council to carry out an evaluation of the case. The council gathered a panel of nine economics and law professors (including me) and asked us to read through the case and give our opinions. And so we did. While we worked independently, every expert declared that the case did not contain convincing proof of the guilt of Khodorkovsky or Lebedev.
These opinions had no legal weight, being only public statements of independent academics expressed after the trial was concluded, and therefore were largely disregarded. But not forgotten.
Right after Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin as president in May 2012, the spokesman for the Investigative Committee, Vladimir Markin, said the committee would look into the objectivity and independence of the experts. Already in the fall of 2012, some experts were interrogated, their offices and even houses searched, their computers and documents seized.
As for me, interrogations started in February 2013. After that, I heard that in February, a colleague of Mr. Putin had talked to him about my situation, and the president had reassured the colleague that I had nothing to worry about. This did not stop the investigation — I was interrogated twice and received demands for all sorts of documents and personal information. Moreover, the investigators introduced “operative measures” — the police euphemism for surveillance. Whenever I or my wife (who has nothing to do with the case) crossed the Russian border, we were subjected to special attention.
Interestingly, during the interrogations the investigators asked me to produce “alibis,” though they did not explain for what, and insisted that I was a “witness,” not a “suspect.”
Then on April 25, the investigators scheduled an interrogation, but instead came to my office with a court warrant to seize my e-mails going back five years.
In Russia, e-mails are treated as correspondence and therefore are protected by the constitution. To seize them, the investigators need a court order. The warrant gave no specific reasons why my e-mails had to be seized, yet concluded they had to be seized. When I complained to the investigators, one of them said that I was better off than Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet dissident who was sent to internal exile in Gorky. They also hinted that they had a warrant to search my home.
This demonstrated that the investigators can produce any search warrant they want without any respect for my rights, and that they can do it without warning.
I concluded that my next meeting with them could result in the loss of my freedom. I bought a one-way ticket from Russia and will not return to my country.
Since I made that decision, many observers have called me a “symbol of political repression,” a dissident and a political martyr. At the same time, President Putin and his spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, have said that my decision to leave was driven by personal and family circumstances.
They are correct. I have never been a politician, and I am not a political refugee. I left Russia for personal reasons: I personally prefer to stay free. I also have family reasons: My family wants — and deserves — to see me free. In this sense, I have no other but personal and family reasons to leave Russia.
I also do not want to be a “symbol.” I am just one simple person, and mine is an isolated case. What happened to me is similar to an accident, or a rare disease. Everybody faces the risk of contracting such a disease, but may also be lucky enough to avoid it. There are behavioral traits that reduce the risks — not speaking out in favor of the rule of law or against corruption, for example. As with other grave diseases, once you catch it everybody sends words of consolation but they all understand there is no help.
Or almost none. The Khodorkovsky trials showed there is one simple but effective therapy: witnesses who left Russia are alive and well. Those who stayed and refused to cooperate with the prosecutors ended up in prison. One of them, Vasily Aleksanyan, did not live to see his 40th birthday.
Sergei Guriev is a Russian economist and former rector of the New Economic School, in Moscow. He and his family currently live in France.