Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s fall from grace was spectacular, once Russia’s richest man he was thrown into jail for a decade on what he, and many others, believe were trumped up charges apparently at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Khodorkovsky has made no secret of his wish to see revolution in Russia nor any secret of his intent to help bring that about. Now living in exile in Europe, he’s been working towards his goal of a democratic transition in his homeland with his Open Russia movement.
Isabelle Kumar: Some might say you are courageous, others – downright foolhardy, because after 10 years in prison colonies in some of the remotest parts of Siberia you still seem so intent on taking on President Vladimir Putin.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “I’m not taking on the President, but the system that he embodies. I think that Russia deserves better.”
Isabelle Kumar: You are working behind the scenes now supporting a political opposition, is there now an alternative to President Putin’s rule, his hold on power in Russia?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “First of all, I am not working from behind the scenes. I am quite openly declaring my position. Secondly, I think that we should not overestimate the role of Vladimir Putin in the system which he embodies. We know this system – it is just the usual autocratic system. It was like this in the times of General Secretaries of the Communist Party. When Stalin, who was quite different from Putin, was leaving his position, on his death, lots of people were crying and saying ‘Oh, who can replace him?’ And there was no problem. And I think, the alternative exists today as well. Our task, my task is to do everything possible to make this alternative democratic.”
Biography: Mikhail Khodorkovsky
- Mikhail Khodorkovsky was once Russia’s richest man, head of oil giant Yukos
- He spent 10 years in prison in Russia charged with tax evasion
- Many think he was singled out as he was funding opposition political parties
- Khodorkovsky was pardoned by President Vladimir Putin and freed in 2013
- Khodorkovsky now lives in exile in Europe
Isabelle Kumar: This is going to be a long term job, one can only imagine, given the situation in Russia today. Do you ever see yourself returning to Russia and challenging Vladimir Putin for the presidency?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “Without a doubt I will go back to Russia, but the issue of what position to take or not – I am not interested in it now. I think what is important is to have a political team that can support the necessary reforms after the regime change. This is something we did not have at the beginning of the 1990’s and this is something that under my very eyes brought about these very difficult consequences.”
Isabelle Kumar: So you are not ruling it out then?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “I’m not only not ruling it out – I’m absolutely sure that I will be coming back to Russia, but now is not the right time to discuss who will occupy what positions in the post-Putin Russia. Today, our task is to put together a team that will be able to lead the necessary reforms in the transition period in order to organise our first fair elections. That is the task I am setting myself. In two years between the end of the regime and the first fair elections – that’s the time for this ‘reform team’ to work. And my present day task is forming this team.”
Isabelle Kumar: Anyone who is involved in Russian politics obviously has to pronounce themselves on the issue of Crimea whether it should be returned to Ukraine, so this is a bit of a hot potato for the opposition. Where do you stand on that – very clearly – do you think Crimea should be returned to Ukraine?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “Immediately after the annexation of Crimea I spoke in Ukraine and said, that this action was completely illegal, and that it is impossible to behave in this way in the modern world. But what has happened, has happened, and today this is a long-term problem. Yes, it’s a very important problem from Ukraine’s point of view. Yes, it is very important from the world’s point of view. Yes, of course, for Russia this has become a sort of a point of no return, but it’s behind us now, and the government that will be solving the issue of Crimea, will need to have its people’s permission to do so.
This can happen only after our first fair elections. Once fair elections are held, and the new government has the people’s mandate, then that government will have to solve the problem. I have my vision on the situation, but I know it won’t be solved in the transition period.”
Isabelle Kumar: So that doesn’t really sound like a particularly clear response – you could just answer me with a yes or a no. Do you think Crimea should be returned to Ukraine – if you were in the position where you could do that – is that what you would do?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “I understand that you are in the paradigm of Putin’s Russia and you want to have this decision taken by one person. I’m vying for another Russia, a democratic one, where no one is able to say: ‘I’ll do this like that’, before he gets a mandate from society to do so.”
Isabelle Kumar: This is quite true – but we know how popular this was when Crimea was annexed – so we can only think that in that case it will stay with Russia – it’s not going to be possible to reverse this, from what you are saying?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “Society today is less intensely discussing this issue – and, in my view, in a much more balanced way. And there are different points of view. Naturally my views and the views of my supporters are based on the fact that it was an illegal action. We need to solve the problem. And this solution should take into account the opinions of people living in Crimea, without a doubt, but also Russian citizens and Ukrainian citizens. I don’t think there will be a quick solution to the problem, but I’m sure it will be found.
Isabelle Kumar: Ok, lets move onto a different topic now – because you have said that you do count on returning to Russia at some point but how do you think Russians nowadays, how do they see you, do they see you in your former role as an oligarch or are they now aware of the Mikhail Khodorkovsky that I see in front of me now?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “I hope that opinions of the Russians, which are formed today essentially by effective propaganda – be it about myself or about much more important problems, like, for example, relations with the outside world – that these opinions will change. I very much hope people will see me as a human being, as I am now, after 10 years in prison and after what I would call exile. But all this is much less important than the issue of how they will see their own future. I would like my compatriots to see their future not embodied by single person, whoever he is – but the future in a democratic country with a normal parliament, with division of powers, where life is defined by the people themselves. This is how I see our task for a long term.”
Isabelle Kumar: Having said that though in the short term you are facing accusations of murder in Russia, your name is being tarnished. You are going to have to clear your name, how can you do that in Russia?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “I’m not that concerned with what the Kremlin propaganda is saying about me. Russian citizens, in general, are rather sceptical about television and the louder the noise from a hungry fridge, the less attentive they are to TV. But even the most trustful person would ask the authorities: ‘What new things have you learned about Khodorkovsky now, 18 years after the events in question – knowing that 15 out of those 18 years Khodorkovsky was in your hands – what new things have you learnt? Let’s see if there is an answer to this question. If the answer is zero, as in was before, then trust will be like zero.”
Isabelle Kumar: You are still though, whether you like it or not, a symbol of Russia’s oligarch class. How influential is that class of oligarchs now in Russia today – do they exert influence?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “In my view, the idea itself that Russian oligarchs are influential, was successfully put into the heads of the Russians and also, funnily, into the heads of our Western colleagues, by Boris Berezovsky. But in reality Russia is a completely different country. It’s the authorities who are in charge of money in our country not the other way around. So, neither in Yeltsin’s times, nor in Putin’s time have rich people had that much influence over political decisions. That is why the attempt to pressure Putin’s inner circle with sanctions into telling him what to do, this attempt was doomed to failure from the beginning! Of course, these sanctions tied the hands of Putin himself, depriving him of the possibility to reward his cronies. This is how it works, but not the other way around.”
Isabelle Kumar: Really? And don’t you not think that what has happened to you has sent waves of panic through these people? And even if you do say the opposite, they were quite influential to a degree in Russia. So, has what’s happened to you sent waves of panic through the oligarch class in Russia and outside the country?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “I would like to state my position once again. The rich people in Russia have never had any real power, compared to the power of Kremlin. The Kremlin of Yeltsin, the Kremlin of Putin defines the political behaviour of the country. We have a saying that roughly translates as ‘the strength of steel decides more than gold’. This is how it works in Russia.”
Isabelle Kumar: Do you think that at one point in your life, President Putin considered you a threat? Do you think he still considers you a threat, now when you are in self-imposed exile?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “I thought that at that point, in 2003, I was not a political threat to President Putin, because psychologically I was part of the system. I thought about the development of industry and, yes, I was thinking about the development of civil society, but I never thought about politics as an urgent issue for myself. I thought that some other people were dealing with politics. Once I left the prison, of course, I was a different person. I do not care about business. Now I care about the future of Russia and I know exactly how I want to see it. I want to see a future Russia as a democratic country and I know what is needed for this and how Putin judges the efficacy of my efforts, we can see in the pressure that they try to exert on me.”
Isabelle Kumar: Other people who have been in your position, other opposition politicians have on occasion reached untimely ends, they’ve been assassinated, do you fear for your own life?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “Listen, 10 years of my life I spent in a prison barrack. I was stabbed with a knife and I could’ve been killed any day with a very simple order from the Kremlin. Wherever I am today, I feel much safer than then, so I just don’t think about it.”
Isabelle Kumar: When we have talked about these high profile assassinations of opposition figures, there has obviously been a lot of conjecture as to where the order for that took place, some say it came straight from the top – what do you think?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “I have no information which would help me to come up with serious charges against a concrete person. But what is obvious, is that this atmosphere of hatred, the atmosphere of looking for enemies, for the ‘fifth column’, which is the result and, in a way, the core of the internal politics of the present Kremlin administration, has led to these consequences. There’s no doubt about it. The political responsibility is without a doubt on Putin. Whether his direct order is behind it, or somebody from his circle, we’ll learn with time only, I hope.”
Isabelle Kumar: President Vladimir Putin is extremely popular in Russia. One recent opinion poll put his popularity rating at 82% – why is he so popular?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “In Russia, unfortunately, there’s a rich tradition of authoritarian leadership. And people are afraid to talk truthfully even at home, in their families. And, of course, nobody will tell the truth to sociologists, to pollsters, because everybody suspects them – and in some cases this is quite justified – to be connected to the FSB. People are afraid. That’s one part of the issue. The second part is also well known, it’s the ‘hostage syndrome’. As people’s fates are dependent on Kremlin bosses, they try, even in their own heads, to express their loyalty to them. And, of course, propaganda works perfectly – these guys have honed their craft. But, if we look at other countries, let’s take Romania – everything can change overnight. Ceausescu had 92% popularity, and two months later in the same region he came to a very sad ending.
I just hope that the present regime will not bring the situation to such extremes. I hope that the fear – from the West, among others, and from some Russian citizens – of change, this fear of change, will not lead us to the catastrophic mistake of not understanding that these changes are inevitable. So either you are ready for the changes, or not. If you’re not ready then you’ll be overwhelmed.”
Isabelle Kumar: You talk about this and at the same time in Russia the economy has been severely battered not only by the drop in oil prices but also by sanctions. You obviously have this deep wish for a revolution in Russia – do you think the seeds of that then could be borne from the economic hardship suffered by ordinary Russians?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “The sanctions have a rather symbolic meaning. But, of course, we all understand that if the Russian economy had normal development, if we could have today a normal quality of state management, not excellent, but just normal, then ordinary people would be living much better. The oil prices would not have this overwhelming – at least psychological – influence, that they have now.
Unfortunately, we both, you and I, know and understand that modern-style management is impossible when everything in a huge country is decided by one person. He can be very intelligent, but if society is not involved in the process of management, if there is no division of powers, if there are no normal state institutions, there is no hope for stability in the country. And if there is no stability, then there is no normal economy. Just look – how can Western countries negotiate with Putin? He’s not responsible for what he is saying. His words are not supported by any solid, normal institution. All the agreements that can be reached with him, will only be short-term. They work only when he guarantees it personally. But his mood can change, he’s human; and there’s no institutions. This is the main problem we have, not oil prices or sanctions.”
Isabelle Kumar: On that question of sanctions, do you think they should be lifted?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: I think that this question should be decided by the West. We will solve our problems independently of whether we have sanctions or we don’t. The policy of the West towards Russia should be based on the understanding of the fact that Russia can solve its problems only by itself. What can the West do? It can help, it can assist the new Russian political elite to come into existence. It can help in preventing the political field in Russia from becoming completely barren – because later it will, God forbid, grow only poisonous plants. This is where the West can help. But we can only solve the issues of Russia by ourselves.”
Isabelle Kumar: Russia does seem to have carved out a very important role for itself when it comes to the international scene, for example in Syria, how do you feel about that?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “I’ve talked about it publicly many times, and I maintain my position. I think we have enough internal problems. Syria for the Kremlin regime is not an attempt to have a positive influence on the world. This is not even about protecting Russian national interests. It is about protecting their own position, their own power. It’s an attempt to switch the attention of Russian society from real problems to virtual problems that exist for Russian society only on TV. So, because of that, Putin is not a reliable and long-term ally in Syria. He is solving his own problems, but not the problems of the world or the problems of Russia.”
Isabelle Kumar: Finally Mr Khodorkovsky we began by talking about your time in prison, it has obviously made you the man you are today, can you share with us a particularly poignant moment of those times of incarceration?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “I did spent 10 years in prison, in harsh conditions. Of course, I have grown there, if only because I am older now. Prison gave me time to rethink myself. Time does not have for me the same significance it had before. In prison I learnt to think in longer terms. So, possibly, the most remarkable thing for me was the fact that Russia is a huge country. I was 6000 kilometres away from Moscow for part of my time there, and then also near the Finnish border, perhaps an hour from Moscow, but in a different direction. But all the people in this huge country – even the ones in prison, people from all walks of life, are people who share the same culture. When I came to Europe, I saw a multicultural world. I am in Germany and then after driving for an hour I’m in a different country, say France, with a completely different culture. In Russia you can fly for seven hours, and the culture remains the same. This is a very important achievement of our country, and when people say that Russia shouldn’t be that huge, that it should be divided, I really don’t take that seriously. People who say that, they don’t understand that we are just one whole entity.”
Isabelle Kumar: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, many thanks for having been with us on the Global Conversation
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “Thank you.”