Mikhail Khodorkovsky describes himself as one of Vladimir Putin’s “most prominent personal enemies”. The Moscow businessman spent ten years behind bars, mostly in a Siberian camp, after falling out with the Russian leader.
To my followers, I was a passionate advocate of democracy fighting to save the soul of the nation; to my critics, I was a greedy oligarch who stole people’s inheritance,” says the 59-year-old. “No version is the whole truth.”
The outspoken Kremlin critic recently published this The Russia MysterySubtitle: How the West fell for Putin’s power gambit – and how to fix it. It begins in post-Soviet Russia in the mid-1990s. Khodorkovsky was deputy fuel and energy minister under Boris Yeltsin. He soon left the Kremlin and became Russia’s richest man, at the helm of the Yukos oil exploration company. It was worth nearly $30 billion when what he calls “Putin’s mafia state” took it from it in the early 2000s.
Using legal maneuvers and fictitious tax laws, the Kremlin bankrupted Yukos and then absorbed its assets at a bargain price through its flagship oil producer Rosneft. The state “burdened Yukos with more taxes than he ever collected [revenue], and on the premise of outstanding taxes, the company was taken away,” says Khodorkovsky from his London home, where he lives in exile. “Then Putin used his buddies as buyers of the company.”
As Putin continued to wage war against his country’s oligarchic class in 2005, Khodorkovsky was found guilty of tax evasion, corruption, embezzlement and money laundering.
Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience, while the European Court of Human Rights claimed he had been denied a fair trial. Both pointed to the political nature of the case. Namely: Khodorkovsky’s creation of Open Russia – a philanthropic group that sought to promote democratic accountability and freedom of the press across Russia.
“During my ten-year sentence, I learned that my nerves are made of steel,” says Khodorkovsky. “I could sleep very deeply in prison no matter what was going on around me. I could see many people pushing themselves into depression while discovering that I was immune to it.”
The former billionaire was released from prison in December 2013. He continues to run Open Russia, now a UK-based NGO. It was banned by the Kremlin five years ago. In March last year, Putin offered a $500,000 reward to any citizen who could bring Khodorkovsky back to Moscow.
“I was quite amused to read this announcement [the Kremlin] put that kind of money up as a bounty on my head,” he says with a chuckle. “There’s nothing you can do about that, so I guess I have to live with it.”
If Putin were to have him killed, he says in his latest book, it would be “a very obvious and public gesture on his part.”
Khodorkovsky turns his attention to Russia’s future and believes that it will eventually evolve from a presidential autocracy to a federal republic. However, will there first be a coup in the Kremlin or a full-scale military conflict with the West before such a political transition takes place?
“It is important that Putin understands that the use of nuclear weapons will not frighten the West, but it will provoke a very harsh and unequivocal response from the West,” he says. “President Biden has positioned himself quite clearly and transparently on this issue.”
Khodorkovsky’s book also spends much of its time asking a relevant and politically charged question: Why is Putin still so popular with most Russian citizens?
Making Russia appear strong and powerful is the main reason, he says. When Russia first became embroiled in a conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Putin’s popularity among ordinary voters skyrocketed. Those approval ratings rose again last February after Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Many Western commentators have recently suggested that its popularity may falter as the war rages on and Russia suffers more military casualties. They point to the violent protests and the flight of hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens abroad following his partial military mobilization announced in mid-September.
Poorly organized and small in number, the protests hardly signal the beginning of a revolution that could topple the regime. Unlike, say, the Euromaidan revolution of 2014, when the Ukrainian people made a conscious decision that they wanted their country to grow into a full democracy. Armed with organized public protests, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets defying widespread corruption, police brutality and abuse of power by then-Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych and his allies, eventually calling for his resignation.
Since then, Khodorkovsky has been an ardent supporter of Ukraine. In March 2014, he addressed the crowds on Maidan Square in Kyiv and offered his public support.
“It is important to understand the difference between the political systems in Ukraine and in Russia,” he says. “On the eve of the Maidan, the Ukrainian regime could be described as an oligarchic republic. Oligarchs wielded real power in Ukraine. But there was a sort of system of checks and balances, maybe not the most robust system, but there was one nonetheless.”
Russia, on the other hand, is a dictatorship, he says. “In Putin you have a dictator who is ready to use force and weapons against it [his] Persons. This means that a Maidan-like revolution is not possible in Russia today, even if there was a genuine appetite for something like that.”
“If there should be a revolution [from the grassroots level] in Russia today it would be run by those with guns,” he adds. “It’s always been like that in Russia.”
Khodorkovsky says Western sanctions against Russia must continue until the war reaches its inevitable end. But he believes that after the end of the conflict and the restoration of Ukraine’s full sovereignty, they “need to be carefully calibrated”. If Putin is not stopped in Ukraine, Khodorkovsky claims the next step is the inevitable prospect of full-scale global war.
But he tends to overestimate his country’s status and place in the world geopolitical order. This makes his political predictions appear naively optimistic and even slightly delusional. “Russia is one of the most important – and most powerful – countries in the world,” he says. “The world must not ignore them.”
He claims that the West really didn’t understand Putin until recently. “It’s very surprising because Putin is a pretty typical autocratic leader,” he says. “The West thought it could negotiate with Putin without demonstrating violently. And that was a misjudgment.
“Putin would really like to put up another Iron Curtain in Europe,” he says. “But I firmly believe that he will fail. Because there is no debate: Russian civilization is part of Western civilization. And a dictator like Putin will not change that fact.”
The Russia Conundrum by Mikhail Chodorkovsky and Martin Sixsmith edited by WH Allen is available now
https://www.independent.ie/news/kremlin-critic-mikhail-khodorkovsky-putin-wants-another-iron-curtain-i-am-convinced-he-will-fail-42065476.html Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “Putin wants another Iron Curtain. I am convinced that he will fail.