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Home News Khodorkovsky: billionaire turned dissident martyr

Khodorkovsky: billionaire turned dissident martyr

Published on 19/12/2013

Mikhail Khodorkovsky went from being Russia's richest man with a $15-billion fortune to a rank-and-file convict who has languished behind bars in a succession of prisons for more than a decade.

President Vladimir Putin’s stunning announcement that he plans to pardon Khodorkovsky is the latest twist in the extraordinary riches-to-rags life of a man who was once touted as as a possible alternative Russian leader.

Khodorkovsky’s jet-setting life as the chief executive of the Yukos oil giant was turned on its head at dawn on October 25, 2003.

His corporate jet had landed in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk for a routine refuelling stop as he headed for a business meeting.

Armed agents from the FSB security service stormed the plane and arrested the tycoon, starting a process that two years later saw him sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of fraud and tax evasion.

A second trial — seen by critics as even more dubious than the first — saw Khodorkovsky convicted again and given a second sentence which after reductions added up to 10 years and 10 months. Khodorkovsky had been due for release in August 2014.

Khodorkovsky, who this year celebrated his 50th birthday, has now spent more than 10 years in jail, a period during which Russian society has changed to the point it may be unrecognisable when he steps free.

‘Hope not fulfilled’

Putin has until now repeatedly painted Khodorkovsky as a common financial criminal who profited illegally from the chaotic asset-stripping of post-Soviet Russia’s natural resources.

But rights activists and many Western commentators saw him as a martyr who suffered a purely political persecution.

In an emotional closing address to court after his second conviction in December 2010, Khodorkovsky said the hopes of a new life and great Russia he had when he founded Yukos had “so far not been fulfilled.”

Putin in December 2010 notoriously used a national television appearance to reveal again the extent of his personal revulsion of Khodorkovsky, declaring that a “thief must be in prison.”

Khodorkovsky said that Putin was incapable of feeling human emotions, only displaying “a love for dogs.”

Khodorkovsky was serving his first term in a remote Siberian prison camp before being transferred to a Moscow detention centre in 2009 for his second trial.

After his conviction he was moved to a prison in another remote part of Russia — penal colony number seven in the town of Segezha in the northwestern Karelia region.

Even before the second conviction, his life’s work — the oil company Yukos which he built out of the privatisation of Soviet industry — had already been broken up by the state and its remnants sold off.

Its chief assets were absorbed at opaque auctions by Rosneft, then a second tier company but now a state champion and the world’s largest listed oil company after its acquisition of TNK-BP.

It is now led by one of Putin’s closest confidants, Igor Sechin who many allege was one of the prime movers behind bringing Khodorkovsky to trial.

‘Out of control central power’

Born into a family of chemical engineers in Moscow, Khodorkovsky obtained his first degree in chemical engineering before going on to study economics. He is said to have been an energetic member of the Soviet Komsomol youth movement.

Even before the fall of the Soviet Union and aged just 26, he established Bank Menatep which he would later use to acquire a majority stake in Yukos.

He gained control over Yukos through a shady privatisation during which insiders picked up Russia’s choice natural resources assets for bargain-basement prices at questionable auctions that they in most cases organised themselves.

Khodorkovsky and his associates paid a reported $390 million for Yukos, which before his arrest had a market capitalization of more than $30 billion.

The softly-spoken Khodorkovsky proved a ruthless operator, aggressively consolidated control over what eventually became Yukos, muscling out foreign minority shareholders.

After the 1998 financial crisis, he invested massive amounts back into Yukos, which became the first Russian major to adopt international accounting standards and began to hire Western-trained managers.

Yet it was in prison that Khodorkovsky acquired a new gravitas, impressing both sympathisers and even some less inclined to support him with his lack of bitterness and sense of dignity behind bars.

He also penned a succession of articles for Russian and international media distributed through his lawyers, showing off a succinct literary style he had clearly worked to refine.

“An irremovable and out of control central power is losing the ability to adapt to an ever more changing world. It is incapable of offering an attractive vision for the future,” he wrote in an article for The New York Times to mark his 10 years behind bars.