Mikhail Khodorkovsky is speaking out for the first time in a decade. Once ranked as the richest man in Russia, as well as Forbes’ 16th richest man in the world, Khodorkovsky was a model of success in the post-Soviet era of perestroika. He accumulated a tremendous amount of wealth during the privatization of state-owned assets, becoming a multi-billionaire through helming the oil company Yukos. He was on top of the world. While the rest of Russia sat and watched in horror as the bottom dropped out of their economy and their capital reserves plummeted into an abyss of inflation and war debt, he was one of the connected oligarchs who grew in wealth and political power.
It is after this idyllic period that the Russian oligarch managed to get himself on the bad side of the most powerful man in Russia, President Vladimir Putin. Putin, an ex-KGB officer whose policies are seen by many in the West as a symbol of Russia’s regression away from democratic practices and towards statism, argued publicly with Khodorkovsky over allegations of corruption.
In 2003 Khodorkovsky was arrested. He was convicted a few years later on fraud and tax charges, allegations that many believe were trumped up by the Kremlin and Putin. Khodorkovsky has always denied the charges, and continues to do so, believing that they were politically motivated. In any event, he was sentenced to nine years in a Siberian prison.
During his incarceration, Khodorkovsky continued to speak out against government corruption and the treatment of other political prisoners jailed in Russia. He wrote essays and even briefly attempted to exploit a loophole in electoral law and run for Parliament, though this attempt would prove unsuccessful. He also went on several hunger strikes to bring attention to the treatment of other prisoners.
Khodorkovsky was attacked and stabbed in the face by an inmate while doing time in an infamous uranium mining labor camp. The damage to his nose was addressed through plastic surgery, and the ex-tycoon himself says that the injury is virtually unnoticeable now.
In 2007, just months before he would become eligible for parole and a year before the next presidential election, new charges were brought against Khodorkovsky. He continued to publish chapters of his essay and PhD thesis “Left Turn,” which called for Russia and the global political and economic structure in general, to move towards a more liberal point of view. The billionaire oligarch was deep into the transformation of his character arc from industrialist to political dissident and, for some, even liberal icon.
In 2012, despite having his parole appeal rejected several years earlier, and despite being convicted of embezzlement during his second trial, Khodorkovsky’s sentence was reduced by two years, making him eligible for parole in 2014. President Putin vowed to review the case.
On December 19, 2013, Putin promised that he would pardon Khodorkovsky in the near future, a move that critics attributed to a public relations campaign in relation to the approaching hosting of the Winter Olympics in Russia in 2014. The pardon was issued the next day, citing the poor health of Khodorkovsky’s mother as the rationale, and Khodorkovsky was flown to Berlin, where he was reunited with family.
Khodorkovsky spoke to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour after his release, and talked about the conditions he suffered in prison, as well as the knife attack.
“If, before prison, I had been able to see all the future years in advance, I might not have survived,” Khodorkovsky said, in response to a question about his considering suicide.
He indicated that he would not return to Russia until he is certain that the charges against him would not be reinstated. He also said that he had no interest in going into politics to challenge Putin. Khodorkovsky did say that he would continue to speak out on social issues and hoped to influence Russian society towards more open democratic operation.
By Mark Clarke