Khodorkovsky picks iconic Cold War crossing to meet press

22nd December 2013, Comments 0 comments

Freed Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky chose a fabled Cold War venue for his first news conference in Berlin Sunday since his shock release from a Russian prison.

In the city cleaved by the Berlin Wall into East and West for nearly three decades, Khodorkovsky, 50, met the media at the former border crossing Checkpoint Charlie, in a museum dedicated to successful escapes from the communist bloc.

A replica of the iconic "You are leaving the American sector" sign stands outside, along with a slab of the defunct Wall as tourists pose with actors dressed in border guard costumes.

Eschewing larger, more staid press centres far better suited to accommodate the massive interest in seeing him, the former oil tycoon said he expressed "gratitude" to those who long rallied for his release.

Fresh from his digs at the luxurious Adlon Hotel at the city's Brandenburg Gate where a suite can run nearly 3,000 euros ($4,100) per night, Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, appeared relaxed, rosy-cheeked and elegant in an impeccably tailored suit.

He smiled often, patiently if a bit tentatively answering questions, and seemed unflustered by at-times raucous scenes around him in the overcrowded room.

However, Ukrainian-born Alexandra Hildebrandt, 46, the director of the privately owned museum, appeared overwhelmed by the crush of journalists.

After repeated attempts to convince photographers and reporters to leave a corridor for Khodorkovsky and his elderly parents to reach the front of the room, she threatened to cancel the news conference before it even began.

"I'll throw you all out," she shouted.

Minutes later, dozens of supporters, gawkers and people identifying themselves as journalists tried to rush the entrance and had to be pushed back by force by burly security personnel.

A few made it through nevertheless and took the last remaining spots in the standing-room-only audience.

Although access had been restricted to accredited journalists, activists appeared among the reporters in the room and applauded Khodorkovsky and his parents as they entered, and when he called for freedom for Ukrainian opposition politician and ex-premier Yulia Timoshenko.

One man wore a "Free Mikhail Khodorkovsky" T-shirt while another handed him a bouquet and several booed when Hildebrandt said Russian President Vladimir Putin also deserved thanks for Khodorkovsky's release.

The first question went to Anastasia Rybachenko, 22, a Russian government opponent who has been charged in connection with a mass protest against Putin in May 2012. She escaped arrest only because she was out of the country at the time.

Visibly trembling with emotion, she asked "based on your personal experience" how to fight for freedom while in prison.

Khodorkovsky said he intended to keep working for the liberation of "political prisoners" still left in Russian jails.

"I wouldn't like to be perceived as a symbol of a situation of there being no more political prisoners in Russia," he said of his own release.

"Please, see me rather as a symbol of the fact that the efforts of civil society actually can lead to the freeing of such people that one didn't expect at all, where the likelihood seemed so low."

Speaking in refined and eloquent Russian, Khodorkovsky chose his words with great care and appeared determined to maintain his dignity in the face of any rage toward Putin.

"Pragmatism does not foresee such unpragmatic things like revenge, hatred and so on," he said - his words translated by interpreters into English and German.

He declined to be drawn on plans for the future, noting that he had a one-year visa for Germany and had only arrived "36 hours ago".

As he left he stopped briefly to speak with supporters, shake hands and sign autographs before being whisked away by his handlers.

© 2013 AFP

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