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Home News Khodorkovsky: from billions, to prison, to exile

Khodorkovsky: from billions, to prison, to exile

Published on 22/12/2013

Mikhail Khodorkovsky served over a decade in Russian prisons after once boasting a multi-billion-dollar fortune but must now carve out a new role for himself as a free man in exile.

Khodorkovsky’s surprise release and transfer to Germany after a pardon from President Vladimir Putin marked the latest twist in the extraordinary riches-to-rags life of a man who was once touted as an alternative Russian leader.

His 10 years in detention in Russia’s notorious penal network, in prisons from Siberia to Karelia, became a symbol of the erosion of human rights in Russian under Putin and battered Russia’s image abroad.

With no possibility of returning to Russia soon due to a $550 million lawsuit, Khodorkovsky, 50, said at his first public appearance in Berlin he would work for his country’s future and to free other political prisoners.

For a man who has spent the last decade enduring the remorseless routine of Russian prisons and convicted twice for crimes he says he did not commit, he showed a remarkable lack of bitterness.

Possibly taking a leaf from the books of other former prisoners like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, he showed no hard feeling towards his nemesis Putin and refused to be drawn into expressions of revenge.

Some have speculated he could play a role like “Gulag Archipelago” author Alexander Solzhenitsyn after his forced exile from the Soviet Union in 1974, which did not halt his activism over prison conditions in the ex-USSR.

While dressed in the kind of impeccable business suit of a tycoon, Khodorkovsky exuded the quiet dignity and confidence of a dissident. But he said it was too early to know what he would do.

“It sounds perhaps rather strange… in our fast moving pace of the world that I, just 36 hours ago, only for the first time again won my freedom. In this time I couldn’t make plans for the future.”

Dawn raid on corporate jet

Khodorkovsky’s jet-setting life as the chief executive of the Yukos oil giant that he founded and turned into Russia’s best run company 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, to run concurrently with his first term. Khodorkovsky had been due to be released in August 2014.

During Khodorkovsky’s decade in prison, Russian society has changed to the point that it may be unrecognisable to him should he ever return, with the use of the Internet exploding and a new middle class emerging.

But one thing has not changed: Putin is still in power.

Khodorkovsky’s supporters have long contended his convictions were retribution for daring to finance and support opposition to Putin in the early years of the former KGB agent’s rule.

“One person takes decisions concerning me. All these 10 years. One person,” Khodorkovsky told the New Times weekly after his release.

There is little doubt Khodorkovsky had intensely riled Putin, as shown by a televised confrontation at the Kremlin on February 19, 2003 where the oligarch dared challenge the president over official corruption.

Just weeks before his 2010 conviction, Putin 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.”

Yet after his release, Khodorkovsky alluded to an almost intimate relationship with the Russian strongman. “Vladimir Vladimirovich and me have known each other for too long,” he told the New Times.

Life’s work broken up

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.

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

After his first conviction, its chief assets were absorbed at opaque auctions by Rosneft, helping turn a second tier company into what is now a state champion and the world’s largest listed oil company.

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

In what many saw as a poor taste joke after his release, Sechin said that Rosneft could offer Khodorkovsky a job but all current management positions were full.