Khodorkovsky’s Future

by David Pryce-Jones

The injustice done to Mikhail Khodorkovsky will be held against Vladimir Putin as long as anyone has an interest in history.  One of the first and richest Russian oligarchs, he ran Yukos, an oil company second only to the giant Gazprom.  The moment he looked like moving into politics, Vladimir Putin fixed him by inventing charges of tax evasion and having him sent to a prison camp in Siberia. When the five-year sentence ran out, Putin had it extended for another five. That’s how they do things over there, and always have, from the czars to the Communists.

Nobody knows what’s been going on behind the scene, but there has been some deal. Khodorkovsky asked for a pardon, saying that this was not an admission of guilt but a request to see his aged and infirm parents. You wouldn’t want to ask Vladimir Putin for mercy, would you, but Putin has let him go. The poor man looks like a zek, as they used to call political prisoners in old days — the skull shaven, trying to make the grimace on his face look like a smile.

Germans received him in Berlin, just as 40 years ago Germans had received Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The more things change, as the French put it, the more they stay the same. Published in exile, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago changed perceptions in the West. Khodorkovsky is a businessman not a writer, but he too could change perceptions. The injustice done to him is the basis for a political platform, if he so chooses. Quite a few commentators are comparing his situation to that of Nelson Mandela — it’s a winning hand to enter politics to rectify a wrong that everyone can recognize.

Unfortunately quite a few other commentators argue that Putin would never have let him go if he foresaw any danger of Khodorkovsky becoming a figure in the opposition. They say Putin did it to smooth the way of the winter Olympics coming up soon at Sochi in Russia. It will be intriguing to see who is right.

David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.