Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested in October 2003 for tax evasion. Then aged 40, he sat on one of Russia’s biggest fortunes. He had acquired it through the privatisation of massive companies in the 1990s. He was hated by many as a get-rich-easy figure.
Platon Lebedev, his right hand man, had been picked up a few months earlier. He headed the conglomerate Menatep, which included the oil group Yukos, and handled vast resources of state money.
Khodorkovsky, with a degree in chemical engineering, had bought Yukos in 1995. It was President Boris Yeltsin’s concession to him for having financed his election campaign.
It was said that a dispute between Khodorkovsky and Yeltsin successor Vladimir Putin was behind the arrest. They were fierce rivals, one with the money – commanding the equivalent of 360 million euros to buy Yukos – the other with the political power.
The oligarch worked tirelessly, applying western management methods as the sector boomed, swelling his fortune to some 15 billion dollars. He even saw a possible merger with the American ExxonMobil. The Kremlin glowered.
Putin had vowed to cut Russia’s oligarchs down to size. Khodorkovsky the industrialist was bad enough, but when he encroached further into politics he crossed a red line.
He openly financed liberal party campaigning – political opposition to Putin. His Open Russia Foundation promoted democracy, civil liberties and judicial reform. His arrest came two months ahead of legislative elections.
He was convicted and sentenced at first to eight years in prison, then also for petrol theft – 250 million tonnes – and money-laundering and sentenced for 14 years. He steadfastly mocked the legal process as deeply tainted.
He became a symbol of anti-authoritarianism. Yukos was billed for taxes so high it couldn’t pay, and was broken up and auctioned into the hands of the state.