Magazine | July 29, 2019, Issue

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Human-Rights Leader

Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Roman Genn)
A conversation with the former political prisoner

London — By the evidence, security around Mikhail Khodorkovsky is very light. I tell him I have known people in the crosshairs: Some are fatalistic about their security, others are vigilant. Where does he fall on that spectrum? On the fatalistic end, he says. If a decision to kill him is made in the Kremlin itself, there is very little he can do to defend himself.

But there is this consolation, he says: “I know how unprofessional everybody in Russia is.” Khodorkovsky, like many of his countrymen, has a keen sense of gallows humor.

He is a human-rights leader these days, but he still has the air of a business titan, an air of command. This is accompanied by a certain restlessness. At the same time, he is thoughtful — so much so, in fact, that he will think for a long time before answering a question. He does not fill the air with words as he’s gathering his thoughts, as so many of the rest of us do.

In 2009, when Khodorkovsky was a political prisoner — the most prominent in Russia — Arvo Pärt, the great Estonian composer, dedicated a symphony to him. Pärt made some remarks, explaining the dedication. He began, “It would seem to me that the person of Mikhail Khodorkovsky needs no introduction.” Yet it does, certainly at this remove, and I will provide the briefest of biographical sketches.

Khodorkovsky was born in 1963 to parents who were engineers in a factory. His dad was Jewish, his mother Christian. The family lived in Moscow. From childhood, the future titan had a nose and desire for business. Paradoxically, perhaps, he was a fervent Communist. In college, he was an officer in the Komsomol, the Party’s youth league.

Sitting with him in London, I ask, “Did you think that Communism was forever?” “Of course,” he answers. And yet: “We did not think that Communism had really and truly arrived.” He recalls a slogan, well known to Soviet ears: “The Party solemnly promises that this generation of the Soviet people will live under Communism.”

Like a great many, Khodorkovsky turned against this ideology, the ideology that was long a state religion.

When Gorbachev took power in 1985, he loosened things, and Khodorkovsky, barely into his 20s, began his businesses: first a café, then an import-export business, and so on. I ask, “Do you think you were born with a business gene, the way some people are born for music, science, or sports?” He thinks for a while. “I’m not sure,” he says. “I don’t know.” He continues, “My talent in business was not innovation — there were other people who were always coming up with new ideas. But I was always able to know which of these would be successful. Also, I was not averse to risk.”

One more thing: “Organizationally, I was very successful, but that’s the result of training.”

In 1989, Khodorkovsky and partners founded Menatep, one of the first private banks in Russia. During the Wild ’90s, Menatep acquired the controlling interest in Yukos, an oil company. In time, Khodorkovsky became the richest man in Russia, by some estimations — worth some $15 billion.

The boss, Vladimir Putin, had a rule: Do what you want on the playgrounds of business, but stay well clear of politics. (By the way, Putin would far surpass Khodorkovsky, and possibly everyone else in the world, in billions.)

Khodorkovsky flouted the rule, repeatedly. In 2001 — a year into Putin’s reign — he founded Open Russia, whose mission was to foster democratic values. He fingered the Kremlin for corruption. He funded independent media. He funded opposition parties. He was even talked about as a presidential challenger to Putin.

By October 2003, the boss had had enough: Khodorkovsky was arrested, by a small army, some of them masked, at the airport in Novosibirsk. He would not be out of prisons and prison camps for a decade.

He was tried for tax evasion and sentenced to nine years. Then he was tried again, for embezzlement, and was sentenced to another thirteen and a half (later reduced to twelve). Putin was making an example of Khodorkovsky. The message to other oligarchs was: Politics is mine. They got the message.

At the culmination of his second trial, Khodorkovsky said that he and other Russians looked forward to living, one day, in “a land of freedom and law,” where “human rights will no longer be contingent on the whim of the czar, whether he be kind or mean.”

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was an unexpected thing: the oligarch as political prisoner and human-rights symbol. Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience (in other words, someone imprisoned for his views, not for an actual crime). Elie Wiesel and Yelena Bonner, among others, campaigned for his release. Arvo Pärt dedicated that symphony to him, saying that he wished the prisoner “peace of soul and vigilance of mind — anything more is beyond my power.”

Four times, Khodorkovsky went on hunger strike — in order to secure better treatment for his fellow (and less famous) prisoners, including a former colleague who was dying of AIDS. “In a Russian prison,” Khodorkovsky tells me, “the only way you’ll get anywhere is if you’re ready to gamble your life. If you’re not ready to do it — if you’re not prepared to die — you’ll never get anywhere. I gambled my life four times and won.”

At the end of 2013, on the eve of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin issued pardons for several high-profile political prisoners, including Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky immediately went into exile in the West.

Some prisoners emerge essentially untouched by their experience — without mental and emotional upset and scars. Others are very much touched indeed. Khodorkovsky seems to me and others in the former category: untouched, serene, balanced, happy. Is it true? “I think my family was much more touched than I was,” he says.

I use the word “home,” somehow, and then remark that “home” must be a complicated concept to an exile. In Khodorkovsky’s case, he says, “home is where my family is, or the majority of them. If they went to live somewhere else, I’d feel at home there, too.”

He now lives in Britain, and the very day he arrived here, the Russian state hit him with a murder charge — the murder of a Russian mayor in 1998. They do this, the Russian state, comical as it may seem to outsiders. When I ask him about the charge against him, he says, with the aforementioned gallows humor, “I’m rather upset because Bill Browder has been accused of several murders while I am charged with only one.”

It’s true. Browder — the financial investor who turned human-rights campaigner — stands accused of several murders, including the one of his own lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, whose murder by prison authorities turned Browder into a human-rights campaigner in the first place.

In 2014, Khodorkovsky relaunched his Open Russia, and he more recently started Justice for Journalists. Russian journalists seem to have an unusually short lifespan. Khodorkovsky is tired of seeing them killed with impunity, and he would like to do something about it.

People wonder how much money Khodorkovsky has, from his former fortune. I wonder too — but I don’t ask. News reports estimate hundreds of millions. At any rate, it is a fortune, though not like before.

Does he have a business itch he would like to scratch, amid his human-rights work? Does the entrepreneur in him need to start another company? No, he says. “I have no impetus, no stimulus. I have plenty of money. The desire to do something grand, something really large-scale, such as I did in Russia, has disappeared.”

I have the impression that, if he went broke next week, he could make it back in about a year. He does not disagree with me, citing his record. “It’s like a skill, which I have.”

We talk at length about the last three leaders in the Kremlin — from 1985 to the present: Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin. Khodorkovsky has insights into all of them. And he considers all of them, in their ways, tragic figures. Yeltsin had great personal courage, he says. In the end, however, he was just another czar, bequeathing power to his chosen successor, not a son but Putin.

Khodorkovsky, believe it or not, feels pity for Putin. He believes that Putin is utterly unsuited to the leadership of Russia; that he is in way over his head. Putin is a classic KGB man, Khodorkovsky says, trained to see threats everywhere. He is unable to see the opportunities (except for personal corruption). He has no vision of the future of Russia. He has no sense of what it would take to improve Russia and lift it up.

Putin is like a guard dog, Khodorkovsky says, very well trained. He knows how to do one thing: guard the master. But when the master collapses on the floor, the dog will not let a physician reach him — and the patient, the master, dies. Putin thinks he is protecting Russia, says Khodorkovsky, but he is doing the country no good. Quite the opposite.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky is doing good — as much as he can, from where he sits. He sees no reason that Russia cannot be a democratic state, observing the rule of law and affording the rights that people throughout the world enjoy. Russia is not genetically or otherwise barred from joining the family of democratic nations.

What does he want to accomplish with his Open Russia movement? He does not want “to accelerate Putin’s departure,” he says. Putin will eventually go, one way or another. “The key question is, What’s going to happen after his departure? We have a quite unpleasant tradition in Russia of getting rid of one czar, only to see him replaced by another. So what I want to do is try to change that tradition.”

As many of us see it, this is a noble way to spend one’s time — and money — after about 17 years in business (so brief a career) and another ten in Russian prisons.

This article appears as “An Open Russian” in the July 29, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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