Yukos oil company chief executive officer Mikhail Khodorkovsky stands behind a glass wall at a courtroom in Moscow on May 24, 2004. (Alexey SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images)
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Putin to Pardon Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Jewish oil tycoon turned noble dissident has been imprisoned for 10 years

by
Stephanie Butnick
December 19, 2013
Yukos oil company chief executive officer Mikhail Khodorkovsky stands behind a glass wall at a courtroom in Moscow on May 24, 2004. (Alexey SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced plans to pardon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Jewish oil tycoon arrested in 2003 for tax evasion and a barrage of other charges. “He has spent more than 10 years behind bars. It’s a tough punishment,” Putin told reporters during a press conference today.

In May 2011, Julia Ioffe profiled Khodorkovsky, “once Russia’s richest man and now imprisoned in a Siberian labor camp near a radioactive mine,” who had after eight years in prison become something of a martyr. The transformation from notorious tycoon to noble dissident wouldn’t have been possible, Ioffe noted, without the unintentional help of the Kremlin—and particularly Putin, Khodorkovsky’s longtime adversary—who in vilifying him to such an extreme degree and pursuing and convicting him on contradictory charges only gave Khodorkovsky a wider audience for his cause.

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.)

It seems to have worked. “A decree to pardon him will be signed in the nearest time,” Putin told reporters.

Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

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