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Unlikely Martyr: Mikhail Khodorkovsky as Noble Dissident in Putin’s Russia

Newly released from prison, the Jewish tycoon was Russia’s wealthiest oligarch – and the Kremlin’s chief critic

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Mikhail Khodorkovsky in the Khamovniki District Court during his December trial. (Krasilnikov Stanislav/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis)
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This article was originally published on May 31, 2011.

Instead of defending his innocence at the final day of his trial on nebulous charges in 2010, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man and now imprisoned in a Siberian labor camp near a radioactive mine, read to the court a political manifesto that lambasted the stagnation and corruption into which contemporary Russia has sunk. “The obvious conclusion a thinking person can make is chilling in its stark simplicity,” he intoned in the tiny courtroom packed with reporters and the pensioners who’d come to show their support. “The siloviki bureaucracy can do anything,” he said, referring to the powerful faction in the Russian government whose roots are in the security forces. “A person who collides with ‘the system’ has no rights whatsoever.” He added: “I am ashamed for my country.” It was a moving speech that laid out, powerfully and clearly, everything that is wrong with Russia today; it made even my sober male Russian friends tear up.

When the judge handed down the guilty verdict just before the New Year, hundreds protested outside the courtroom. German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the ruling, as did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The White House issued a statement condemning “abuse of the legal system for improper ends.”

The case still hasn’t receded from Russian headlines. The press secretary of the court that heard Khodorkovsky’s case revealed to an opposition newspaper that the judge in the case didn’t write the verdict and that he was pressured from the outside. (She has since been made to take a lie detector test—she passed—and been forced out of her job.) Fifty-five “official” celebrities have signed a controversial open letter praising the verdict in the case, and 45 others signed one opposing it. When U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden gave a major policy address at Moscow State University in March, he cited Khodorkovsky’s case as a blight on Russia’s already troubled record. “Get your system right,” he said. Foreign investors regularly cite the Khodorkovsky case as a metaphor of the risks of doing business in Russia: If you run afoul of the Kremlin, you can have it all taken away in a heartbeat, even if you are the richest, most powerful man in Russia.

When Khodorkovsky was arrested, many, especially in the Jewish press, saw it as an attack against a Jewish businessman, and thus as a reinforcement of pernicious old stereotypes in a country famous for its institutionalized anti-Semitism. After the fall of the Soviet Union, there were attempts to rile up the Russian public by harping on the image of the rapacious Jewish businessman, of which there were several. Surprisingly, the attempts fell flat, perhaps because Russians were at the time too preoccupied with mere survival. The Jewish oligarchs had all come of age in the Soviet Union where, unlike their Orthodox Christian countrymen, few Jews hung on to their religion. Khodorkovsky, whose father is Jewish, was no exception. His political ambitions, and his risky battle with Putin, made it even less likely that he would openly identify himself as a Jew, even as his cause was adopted by the American Jewish and Israeli press.

Khordokovsky’s former deputy at Yukos Oil, Leonid Nevzlin, who fled to Israel (which has no extradition agreement with Russia) ahead of a similar battery of charges, including murder, told the reporter Gal Beckerman that he and his former boss and friend had made opposite and deliberate choices in the face of state persecution. “I always felt that I am first of all Jewish and then a Russian citizen,” Nevzlin said. “For Khodorkovsky, it was the opposite. And the Yukos case made us face this specific question. What choice would we each make? Where would we like to live? And each of us made his own choice. I totally respect Khodorkovsky’s choice, though it doesn’t match mine.”

Khodorkovsky’s choice was Russia, a choice that landed him in some of the country’s most notorious prisons. It has also meant taking on a vaguely Christian-tinged role, a just man laid low by Caesar’s hand. In the nearly eight years since a team of commandos stormed his private plane at what appeared to be the behest of then-President Vladimir Putin, Khodorkovsky—every minority shareholder’s worst nightmare—has reinvented himself as Russia’s preeminent martyr. After his initial conviction, in 2005, for tax evasion, Khodorkovsky began to write liberal political screeds from his crowded prison cell. He wrote op-eds for Western publications, like the New York Times, and maintained a correspondence with Lyudmila Ulitskaya, one of Russia’s most famous contemporary novelists. He has PR teams in Moscow, London, Paris, Washington, and New York. During Khodorkovsky’s second, and even more politicized, trial, his cadre of lawyers is always available; every journalist in Moscow has their mobile numbers. Recently, his main PR team in London hired Washington-based Randy Scheunemann, Sen. John McCain’s foreign policy adviser during his last presidential campaign. (Scheunemann also did a stint with Sarah Palin.)

But no amount of PR could have made Khodorkovsky into such a sympathetic figure without the Kremlin’s unintentional help. Putin’s relentless pursuit of Khodorkovsky, his apparently insatiable desire to see the man remain in prison, his flashes of seemingly genuine anger whenever Khodorkovsky’s name is mentioned, the fact that Khodorkovsky was convicted in his second trial for something that directly contradicts the conviction in the first, the fact that, even before the 14-year sentence was handed down in December, rumors started to circulate about a third set of charges—all of this has shown Khodorkovsky as a victim of the Kremlin’s selective, pettily vindictive justice. There was nothing, after all, that he did that the other oligarchs—many of them still flourishing—didn’t do. “My personal opinion is that Khodorkovsky, without any doubt, was a horrible transgressor of the rights of minority shareholders, and was fraudulent and avoided taxes, but that’s not why he’s in jail,” says Alexey Navalny, a young blogger who has made his name as an activist minority shareholder in state companies. “He’s not in jail for this. My demand isn’t so much to free Khodorkovsky but to jail everyone else.”

Older generations of liberal Russians, who saw their friends jailed for their views in Soviet times, have a sort of knee-jerk empathy for Khodorkovsky: If the state has put him in prison, then he is a dissident. Indeed, last Tuesday, immediately following the Moscow City Court’s rejection of Khodorkovsky’s latest appeal, Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience. This is a strange development for a man with a soft, high-pitched voice who avoided the limelight in favor of the quiet search for loopholes and deals. “He’s not a dissident, he’s a victim of bad decisions, including his own,” Alexi Golubovitch, who served in various high-ranking positions in the oligarch’s companies, Yukos and Menatep, over 15 years, told me over lunch in his office in the historical center of Moscow. He left the company in 2001—it had become “too Soviet” in its mentality, he says.

“Khodorkovsky needs to be freed because his jailing is unjust, not because he’s a real dissident,” says Golubovich. “A dissident is selfless.” And selfless Khodorkovsky is not. There are still untold millions at stake, and a case pending at the European Court of Human Rights, in which Khodorkovsky seeks damages from the Russian state to the tune of $98 billion, the largest in the court’s history.


The Western investors who denounce the case against Khodorkovsky as politically biased were once his bitter enemies, trampled underfoot as he built up the biggest fortune in post-Soviet Russia. “He was uniquely ruthless, uniquely scheming,” says David E. Hoffman, whose book The Oligarchs provides the definitive account of the period. At the turn of the millennium, Khordorkovsky and his fellow oligarchs were seen not as entrepreneurs moving Russia forward, but as a danger to its future development. These oligarchs “threaten Russia’s transition to democracy and free markets,” wrote Lee S. Wolosky, a former Clinton counter-terrorism official and a professor at Columbia, in a 2000 article in Foreign Affairs. He was not alone in his assessment.

Back then, Russia was in a precarious position. It was only nine years since the collapse of the Soviet Union had shoved Russia on the fast track to a free market; it was also by no means a sure bet that Russia wouldn’t slide into the authoritarianism—both political and economic—that began to grip the other former Soviet Republics.

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Eileen P. says:

Fascinating article.

Beatrix says:

Whatever Khodorkovsky did, the result seems to be that he got in Putin’s way, first in business and now, potentially, in politics. That means Khodorkovsky is imprisoned unfairly, and that fact cannot go unchallenged by anyone who believes in justice.

Success in business and even unproven questionable business practices should not result in ongoing prison sentences that seem to have no end.

yehudah says:

excellent article. too much coverage of the case ignores the fact that khodorkovsky is a thug, and you are to be congratulated for redressing that.

John 1947 says:

Khordorkovsky may have been a thug, but presently, he did the honorable thing. He is resisting the authoritarian state and made a noble choice. He is also not stigmatizing Judaism unlike Nevzlin who stole from Russia but said “I always felt that I am first of all Jewish and then a Russian citizen.” The world thinks of us as rootless cosmopolitans and untrustworthy because we have show no commitment to others. Khordorkovsky lessened anti-semitism in Russia, Nevzlin proved the hateful caricature true.

alex says:

Khordorkovsky does not consider himself a jew. He should have known that he can not go against Putin. Now he will suffer for that…


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Unlikely Martyr: Mikhail Khodorkovsky as Noble Dissident in Putin’s Russia

Newly released from prison, the Jewish tycoon was Russia’s wealthiest oligarch – and the Kremlin’s chief critic