Thursday, April 2, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Khodorkovsky Case is the Dreyfus Affair of Today – With Equally High Stakes But Likely a Very Different Outcome

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 2 – The second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky is even more important than the first for as far as the future of Russia is concerned, Moscow commentator Yevgeny Ikhlov argues, and if it goes on without massive public objections by Russia’s intellectuals, the consequences for the future of that country are likely to be tragic.
In an article in “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” Ikhlov says that the trial and conviction of the oligarch in October 2003 showed that Vladimir Putin and his regime are prepared to run roughshod over the law in pursuit of their political ends, but “a second sentence would show that this [approach by the powers that be] is ‘forever’ (
Both what is at stake and how the country’s intellectuals bear responsibility for what happens next, he suggests, can be easily seen if the French intellectuals had acted more quickly or worse not acted at all, convinced as many Russian intellectuals appear to be that they have no choice but to support the incumbent regime.
Ikhlov makes this case by offering two “alternative” histories of the Dreyfus affair, one in which the intellectuals had spoken out far earlier than they did and one in which they failed to speak out at all and thus allowed the French establishment to get its way, either of which would have had profound but very different consequences for more than those directly concerned.
Suppose, Ikhlov writes, that Zola’s “J’accuse” and the manifesto of the French intellectuals had appeared a year earlier. “The publisher would have politely returned to Teodor Herzl his manuscript for the brochure of ‘The Jewish State.’” With the words, “‘Excuse me, sir, but you have written some kind of paranoid ravings.’’
“’You assert,’” in Ikhlov’s alternative history the editor might have said, “that neither progress, nor enlightenment, nor socialism nor liberalism is capable of defeating anti-Semitism even among the most advanced European peoples – and that Jews must look for salvation somewhere in the desert in the Ottoman Empire.’”
“’But look,’ the editor might have said, “’the entire flower of France and other enlightened countries have spoken out for the unhappy officer and for the pride of Europe, the great Emil.’” And when Herzl was on his way out of the editor’s office, the secretary might have observed “A poor young man, talented but with terrible nightmares.”
“I am not completely certain that if this had happened there would not have been a Holocaust,” Ikhlov says. “But at the very least, there would not have been political Zionism. The ideas of the Palestinophiles would have remained in history as exemplars of utopian thought. The victims of anti-Semitism would have resettled in the US or somewhere in the British Empire.”
Readers may ask, the Russian commentator continues, then “why did not political Zionism disappear two years later when the wave of protests rose in defense of Dreyfus?” The reason of course is that the failure of the intellectuals to respond immediately sent a clear signal that under certain conditions, the Jews of Europe might not find defenders when they need them.
But there is yet another “alternative” version of the 1898 Dreyfus case that Russian intellectuals should reflect upon as well, especially now, Ikhlov goes on. Suppose there had not been any manifesto in support of Dreyfus at all. In that case, the consequences not just for Dreyfus but for France and the world would have been horrifying.
Zola “would have secretly fled to London.” Books would be burned, and the cities of “’beautiful France’” would have been “seized with anti-Jewish outbursts.” Indeed, some of those things actually happened even though the intellectuals did eventually speak out, but the situation in each case would have been far worse if they had remained silent.
Had they not acted, “tens of thousands of French Jews would have sought to flee France,” Ikhlov imagines. The German Kaiser might have welcomed them to give a boost to his country’s economy, but a wave of anti-Semitism would probably have swept Germany among those who would feel threatened from the arrival of competitors.
In this situation, France, Germany and England might find themselves drawn into playing at war. And when the war finally did break out in October 1914, it would not have ended with Germany’s defeat but with a German victory over the French and all that would have meant not just for Europe but the world.
In short, Ikhlov concludes, “111 years ago, the French intellectual Dreyfusards saved not an Alsatian Jew who made a career in the General Staff and not a productive writer with Italian roots. They saved their country,” a reality that Russian intellectuals who in the main appear unlikely to do anything about the second Khodorkovsky trial would do well to remember.

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