Skip to main content

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.

Putin’s public enemy No.1

Jailed for being too political, Mikhail Khodorkovsky says it will take a generation for Russia to recover from his former friend’s vicious and disastrous rule

Mikhail Khodorkovsky visiting Eastern Ukraine in 2014 to meet with local businessmen and members of the public regarding the political crisis there. Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Mikhail Khodorkovsky remembers the moment back when Vladimir Putin turned against him. It was May 2000. Khodorkovsky was then Russia’s wealthiest individual. Putin had recently made his inaugural speech as President of the Russian Federation. They met at a barbecue in Moscow, where Putin floated the idea of a non-aggression pact between the Kremlin and Russia’s richest oligarchs. Putin asked the wealthy elite not to use their money or power to cause trouble for the government by inciting protests. In return, the Russian president promised not to interfere in their business affairs. “It took me a long time to understand that Putin was a cunning liar and hypocrite,” the 59-year-old Moscow businessman and outspoken Kremlin critic explains from his home in London, where he currently lives in political exile.

Khodorkovsky has recently published The Russia Conundrum. The book begins in the mid-1990s, when Khodorkovsky was serving as Deputy Fuel and Energy Minister in Boris Yeltsin’s Reform Cabinet. He left the Kremlin soon afterwards to head up Yukos, the oil and gas company. Putin regularly phoned Khodorkovsky during this time for advice about the economy, or to ask about Yukos. It was all a trick though. “If I knew now what I did when I first had a face-to-face meeting with Putin, I would have played a completely different game,” says Khodorkovsky. “Like many people, I was deceived by a chameleon.” 

Putin and Khodorkovsky’s public clash heated up in December 2001, when the Russian billionaire set up Open Russia, a philanthropic organisation set up to promote democratic accountability and press freedom. Khodorkovsky’s model was George Soros’s Open Society Institute and its mission statement of “building inclusive and vibrant democracies”. 

Putin viewed the importing of internationalist liberal reform from the west as treason and he punished Khodorkovsky accordingly. Yukos was worth nearly $30 billion when “Putin’s Mafia state” stole the company from Khodorkovsky in the early 2000s. Using several bogus legal loopholes and fictitious tax codes, the Kremlin ensured Yukos went insolvent, then later absorbed the company’s assets for a knock down price, via the main state oil producer, Rosneft. 

Khodorkovsky was put on trial in the summer of 2004, alongside his friend and business partner, Platon Lebedev. Many people in Russia thought the charges against them were farcical and the case little more than a politically motivated show trial. The former German Justice Minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, agreed. She chaired a commission from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which investigated the legality of the Yukos case. The commission found that the trial was based on “politics, not the rule of law”.

In Moscow none of that mattered. In 2005 Khodorkovsky was found guilty of tax evasion, corruption, embezzlement, and money laundering. As Khodorkovsky puts it: “For my supporters, I was a passionate champion of democracy, battling to save the nation’s soul; for my detractors, I was a greedy oligarch who stole the people’s inheritance. Neither version is the whole truth.”

In My Fellow Prisoners (2014) Khodorkovsky wrote about his more than ten years behind bars and his latest book describes the brutal conditions he endured. He was sent to camp IK14/10, 3,000 miles from Moscow, in the Chita region of Siberia. The summer temperatures exceeded 45°C and dropped to −45°C in the winter. Khodorkovsky could live with the extreme temperatures, the terrible prison food, and the bedbugs. He even accepted he was going to have to share a cell with hardened criminals, murderers, and rapists. But the strain was particularly taxing for his mother Marina, his father, Boris, and for his wife, Inna, and their children.

After Khodorkovsky was stabbed in the eye by a fellow prisoner, he was placed in solitary confinement. The prison authorities claimed this was done to protect his health and safety, but Khodorkovsky describes being placed in solitary as “a direct road to the cemetery”. He went on hunger strike in protest, asking to be put back among his fellow inmates. “I had no food, no liquids – by the fourth day, I couldn’t walk, and I was fainting,” he recalls. “When the doctor came, he informed me that the camp commander had accepted my demand.” Small victories like this ensured Khodorkovsky didn’t suffer from obsessive thoughts, or from the depression that afflicted so many other prisoners.

He was released in December 2013 and now lives in London, where he continues to lead Open Russia, which he relaunched in exile in 2014. Now a UK-based NGO, it was outlawed by the Kremlin five years ago. Khodorkovsky says the main aim of Open Russia is to give the Russian people the information they need to make decisions about their lives, to provide the means for people to think for themselves and to encourage free debate in a country where none exists.

Challenging the official Kremlin line comes at a high cost these days. Would-be-liberal reformers typically end up in an early grave or in prison. Putin has already tried, but failed, to have Alexei Navalny killed by lethal poisoning. The 46-year-old lawyer and Kremlin critic is the leader of the Russia of the Future party, and founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, or FBK. Navalny’s crime was attempting to run in the 2018 Russian presidential election, on an anti-corruption, liberal agenda. Russia’s Central Election Commission prevented him from entering the contest. Navalny is currently serving an 11.5-year prison sentence in a maximum-security penal colony, outside Moscow, on bogus claims of fraud and contempt of court. It’s a farcical, politically-motivated Kremlin conspiracy, says Khodorkovsky. “Putin uses people like me and Navalny to scare those Russian citizens who have swallowed the Kremlin’s indoctrination.”

Even if Navalny got near power, implementing liberal political reform in the Kremlin wouldn’t be so easy, says Khodorkovsky. “[As things currently stand]in Russia you cannot have a transfer of power by election, there is nothing in the law that allows for it. So if Navalny were to be released from prison today, he would have a stark choice: either to remain a dissident, or fight for power using force. And I’m not sure he would come out a winner in such a fight.” 

Khodorkovsky believes the chances of a political revolution inside Russia (with mass support of the people) toppling the Putin regime are extremely slim – at least any time soon. However, if by some small miracle Putin were removed from power, Khodorkovsky points to some possible replacements. “In a best-case scenario, Putin’s replacement would be [Russia’s current prime minister] Mikhail Mishustin, in the worst-case scenario, it would be [CEO of state-owned oil company Rosneft] Igor Sechin,” he says. “But there would be no changes in Russia itself [regardless of Putin being removed from power], because any autocratic regime in Russia requires an external enemy.” 

Khodorkovsky says history has a lot to answer for. For the last five centuries, Russia has been an empire, an agglomeration of territories invaded and swallowed up by successive tsars, then by the Bolsheviks after 1917. Empire has thus “become Russia’s default mode,” as Khodorkovsky puts it. And, more importantly, authoritarianism has always crushed expressions of popular discontent inside Russia and abroad.

This explains why Putin has used Russian history as a political weapon in recent years. Idealising Russia’s Soviet past suits Putin’s self-created image as a strongman autocrat, who claims to be saving his nation from the satanic influence of western enemies. But in order to create this revisionist fictional narrative, Putin has had to distort the facts of twentieth century Russian history. In April 2005, speaking to the Russian nation in his annual address, Putin described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

Khodorkovsky does not long for Russia’s communist past. Nevertheless, he admits that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 “dealt a trauma to the Russian population”. Putin, he says, “has exploited that trauma to hold onto power.” Khodorkovsky compares Russia’s victim mentality today to that of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s – when the Nazis began to consolidate power, following the humiliating defeat the country experienced after the First World War. “As a populist politician, Putin exploits Russia’s trauma in the same way as Hitler did in Germany,” he says.

Khodorkovsky then turns his attention to a question he asks many times in his latest book: is Russia part of Europe? 

“The origins of contemporary Russia stem from Kievan Rus,” he says. The medieval political, federation began in the ninth century, when Viking slave traders from Scandinavia landed in Kyiv. By 1125, Kievan Rus (located across a territory that today is modern-day Belarus, Ukraine and Russia) was one of the largest polities in Europe. “It’s quite clear that Russian civilisation and western civilisation have a lot in common, in terms of their roots,” Khodorkovsky adds. 

He also points to the other cultural, political, and theological similarities Russia shares with the rest of the European continent. The ideologies of socialism and communism, after all, were imported from Germany, Great Britain and France. Most of Russian literature, meanwhile, has its roots firmly in the western tradition too. The Russian Orthodox Church also has the same fundamental roots as most major western religions. “So Russian civilisation is part of western civilisation,” says Khodorkovsky.” But you could also look at it as a sister civilisation, because of the divergence that happened under the Mongol occupation of [Kievan Rus] in the 13th century.”   

Khodorkovsky speaks about Russia’s love/hate relationship with Europe almost like a prisoner going through Stockholm Syndrome. He says that Russia has always felt an ideological threat from Western Europe, while at the same time, “Western Europe was and remains for [Russia] the model of an ideal future.” Western Europe, conversely, “has always felt threatened by Russia’s huge size, by its incomprehensible vastness and its disorderly nature,” Khodorkovsky says. 

Khodorkovsky believes that western imposed sanctions on Russia must continue until Ukraine’s sovereignty is fully restored, and the conflict reaches its inevitable conclusion. But, he says, sanctions “have to be carefully calibrated,” after the end of the war, and the restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty. He has no sense of when the Russia-Ukraine war might end, or when Putin’s authoritarian reign will reach its conclusion. He believes, however, that while Putin is the latest in the line of Russian autocrats, there are indications that he could be the last. Sometimes, though, Khodorkovsky’s political predictions seem naively optimistic.

He claims, for instance, that it is in “Europe’s interest to help Russia become a modern civilised country with a stable economy and predictable political policies.” Khodorkovsky also argues that the security of the West can only be assured if Russia is strong, stable, and democratically governed. The West, meanwhile, he says, “needs to encourage a worthy competitor in Russia if it wants to be certain of its own safety.” 

Khodorkovsky also believes that for real political change to occur in the Kremlin, “Russia will have to deal with its own history in the same way as Germany did after the Second World War.” “The difference, of course, is that there is going to be no occupation of Russia and therefore it will have to seek internal resources to embark on this path of its own [historical reassessment],” he says.

Our conversation has come full circle, back to May 2000, when Putin made his official inaugural speech as President of the Russian Federation. He promised to create a free, prosperous, wealthy, strong and civilised land, where citizens could take pride in their country and command respect around the world. History took a different course. Today, Russia is a pariah state with no press freedom or open civil society. Putin’s announcement in mid-September of partial military mobilisation led to violent protests, and hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens have fled abroad. 

Khodorkovsky remembers reading Putin’s manifesto 22 years ago – he was struck by two things: first, how state power was always put ahead of individual private enterprise; and second, how similar Putin’s so-called “Russian” values were to the political ideals of Alexander III. The most repressive of the later Romanovs, Alexander decreed that the state must be built on three guiding principles: Orthodoxy, Autocracy and the Nation. 

Khodorkovsky also points to another idea at the heart of Putin’s political philosophy, that of Russian exceptionalism – the idea that Russia has been chosen to play a special role in history, with a unique identity and destiny. Khodorkovsky believes that Russia needs to stop looking into a mythical past that no longer exists, and move instead towards the liberal, individualistic freedoms of Western Europe. 

“If we’re talking about people being freed from their imperial heritage in Russia, I think it’s going to take a very long time,” Khodorkovsky concludes. “Perhaps 20 years after Putin’s death, at least.” 

The Russia Conundrum by Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Martin Sixsmith, published by WH Allen, is out now.

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.