Interview / I talk to the prominent Russian economist and public intellectual Sergei Guriev.
In late April 2013, members of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation arrived unannounced at the office of the economist Sergei Guriev, then rector of the new Economic School (NES), with a search warrant, and seized the previous five years of his e-mail—45 gigabytes worth of correspondence. For two months, Guriev had cooperated with the Committee as it repeatedly contacted and interrogated him as a “witness” in the original case against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the imprisoned chair and CEO of the now-defunct yukos Oil Company (in a surprising turn of events, Khodorkovsky was pardoned and released by President Vladimir Putin on December 20, 2013, three-and-a-half months after my interview with Guriev). The day his e-mail was confiscated, he understood that he was not just a “witness” but, rather, a suspect.
Guriev, a prominent public intellectual who had advised the Medvedev administration, became involved with the Khodorkovsky affair in early 2011, after President Medvedev’s Human Rights Council asked him to prepare an evaluation about the validity of the second round of government charges against the oil tycoon and his partner Platon Lebedev. This request, Guriev says, was driven by public opinion. “Everybody was outraged because the second case was obviously fabricated.” Guriev participated as one of nine independent experts who did not know each other’s identities. They presented their findings during a press conference in December, where each expert concluded that the evidence used to charge Khodorkovsky was insubstantial. The court and the prosecutors in the case dismissed the evaluations, says Guriev, and nothing changed for Khodorkovsky. Though this was traditionally a sensitive topic for the Russian government, the experts faced no consequences, and the matter was forgotten.
However, once Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012, the spokesman of the Investigative Committee announced plans to assess the experts’ “independence and objectivity.” Starting that fall, the panel members were investigated one by one. In April, Guriev realized the severity of the situation. He bought a one-way ticket to Paris, where his wife and children were already living, and left Moscow for good. In late May, he resigned from his public positions.
Though he was an open critic of the Russian government, Guriev was also its eager adviser—a man who used his influential status to better his country. He had managed to do what seemed impossible in Russia: during the nine years he was rector, nES became a private, competitive, independent, and internationally renowned institution with its own endowment during a time when such institutions did not exist.
I spoke with Guriev over Skype on September 4, 2013, four days before the mayoral election in Moscow.
Read the interview in the Winter 2014 issue of Harriman Magazine.