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The Putin Show | The Economist

2013 article: Ten Years After Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Arrest

Now that model is in retreat. Instead of following a Western model of modernization and reform, the crown prince has taken the path of China and Russia, where “political transition” means that power is retained by a tiny, very wealthy elite. In Russia in 2003, Vladimir Putin arrested, for “corruption,” Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Russia. Khodorkovsky was unluckier than the Saudi princes — he wound up in a Siberian labor camp, not the Ritz-Carlton — but his arrest served the same purpose: It frightened Russia’s other rich men into submission, and it established the Kremlin, not the oligarchs, as the ultimate source of power.

Russia Adds Chess Champion Kasparov, Former Tycoon Khodorkovsky To ‘Foreign Agents’ Registry

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Khodorkovsky films


If Vladimir Putin is the enigmatic Mr Hyde of 21st-century Russia, then Mikhail Khodorkovsky is its Dr Jekyll. He’s an oligarch, a plutocrat, a political player and a contemporary of Putin who nonetheless seems to be the good guy. He appears entirely sincere in his commitment to democratic reforms in Russia and seems to float free of the glowering gangster code of omertà that governs all those who enriched themselves at Putin’s tsarist court. 

Alex Gibney’s absorbing new film shows his remarkable metamorphosis throughout this. While all the other post-Soviet wiseguys just bulked up and looked ever more morose and fractious (there is a startling glimpse of Roman Abramovich who has this characteristic oligarch sulk-frown) Khodorkovsky became smilingly sleek and telegenic as he voiced his political concerns. With close-cropped hair, rimless spectacles and a black sweater tucked into his blue jeans, he looked like a combination of Steve Jobs and Jerry Seinfeld.

In his London exile, where he sponsors anti-Putin activism, Khodorkovsky seems untroubled by the fact that so many Putin critics have met violent ends in the UK. It may still happen to him – something this new documentary does not directly address. Khodorkovsky is shown getting London tubes and trains on his own, like a British commuter, with no obvious security guards. But surely he must travel with at least two or three burly guys.

His easygoing calm has something to do with having been put in prison in 2003 – after challenging Putin on the corruption issue – on trumped-up charges of tax evasion and embezzlement. Khodorkovsky repeatedly threatened hunger strike in prison and was ready to face death. After 10 years, Putin freed him. Whether Putin likes it or not (and of course he doesn’t), Khodorkovsky’s talent for communication, his flair for television and political rhetoric and the very fact of having served a prison sentence widely seen as unjust makes him look like a Dostoevsky or a Solzhenitsyn for our time.

But the fact remains that Khodorkovsky is a Putin-vintage oligarch and he didn’t get that rich by being a nice guy. The last film about him, Cyril Tuschi’s Khodorkovsky, was a semi-dramatised documentary that was made in 2011 when he was still in prison and it conferred on its subject more of a tragic mystique than Gibney’s film. This one interviews Khodorkovsky in his London exile as if things are basically settled, at least as far as he is personally concerned. Perhaps that is true and perhaps not. I felt that Gibney had not exactly solved the sphinx riddle of Khodorkovsky’s seraphic calm; he does not question him closely about his personal life.

But his film does present Khodorkovsky in context in a way that I haven’t seen before. He was the oligarch smart enough – and ruthless enough – to do as well or better than anyone in the Yeltsin/Putin free-for-all years, and then his smartness and ruthlessness perhaps gave him a perspective on it all. I think he simply became bored with mega-riches and, instead of buying a football team or buying power, what Khodorkovsky bought was criticism-of-power, a position of prominent dissidence normally afforded to writers and artists, and which Khodorkovsky achieved semi-accidentally through imprisonment, which he met with stoicism. What a strange story – and it’s not over yet.


Tuschi’s documentary about the jailed Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a fascinating insight into this mysterious and ambiguous figure, into the dark heart of Putin’s Kremlin, and even into the soul of contemporary Russia itself. Khodorkovsky was jailed in October 2003 for non-payment of tax. Before that, he had been one of the world’s richest men, head of the Siberian oil giant Yukos. Tuschi’s film portrays Khodorkovsky’s tax evasion as more a case of failing to give the top gangster his cut. The sudden emergence of Russia’s super-rich elite was not the natural process of dynamic capitalism: more an action by which Putin, the capo di tutti capi, created a platoon of supportive mafiosi for whom state assets were carved up. Khodorkovsky was one of these men, but around a decade ago infuriated Putin with his talk of an “open Russia” and was pursuing business links with the US, and with the oil-rich Bush family – apparently on the verge of selling shares in Yukos to foreigners.

Putin’s motives in imprisoning Khodorkovsky look nakedly political and territorial. But is Khodorkovsky cut from the same cloth? In jail, he could be making a theatrical display of penitence for his own role in state plunder, or perhaps he is just biding his time for elevation to Russian secular sainthood and his own populist grab for power. He is evolving into that traditional figure capable of holding the public spellbound, in the west and Russia itself: the political prisoner, and it is tempting to compare him to Solzhenitsyn, or the imprisoned officers of the 1825 Decembrist uprising. Tuschi even invokes Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. This film is a commanding insight into Putin’s Russia.

The German director Cyril Tuschi’s sober documentary gives a lucid account of the events preceding and following the arrest, features frank, informative interviews (including one with Khodorkovsky after his second trial) and raises some important questions. The most significant issue concerns Khodorkovsky’s decision to stay in Russia. Did he believe he could win a battle with the thuggish Putin, a politician as ruthless and unprincipled as Stalin? Or was he a man left so guilty by his depredations in the 1990s that, like a character out of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, he was seeking some form of punishment and redemption?

Christian Michel, who advised Khodorkovsky in the early years of his wealth creation, even suggests the oligarch, eyeing a political career in opposition to Putin, wanted to go to jail “to redeem himself” in the eyes of the Russian people. It would be in his character, said Michel, to “play this sort of gambit – to sacrifice his queen in order to win the end game”.

It’s therefore no surprise that most people will leave the cinema thinking the baddie of the piece is not the man who plundered Russia’s resources for his own personal gain, but villainous old Vladimir Putin.

Unsurprisingly, the Russian prime minister declined to be interviewed. But he crops up in newsreel footage throughout the film, including a famous televised press meeting he held with Russia’s richest men in February 2003, when Khodorkovsky, already flirting with opposition politics, brings up the topic of corruption. The look Putin gives him! It’s a death stare that says: you, my friend, will soon be sleeping with the carp at the bottom of the Volga (or failing that, a gulag six time zones away from Moscow).

Khodorkovsky Film Stolen 2011

The film premiere comes at a time when Khodorkovsky is facing another six years in jail, following a second trial that culminated in December. Opinion in Russia is deeply divided about a tycoon who became Russia’s richest man during the 90s era of “robber capitalism”, but who has conducted himself with dignity since his arrest on an airport runway in Siberia in 2003.

A number of prominent Russians have gone public about their support for the jailed oligarch – two in the past week. On Monday, pop star Alexander Buinov recanted a denunciation he and dozens of other celebrities signed up to in 2005. His move followed a similar volte-face by ballerina Anastasia Volochkova on Friday.

“Some people’s attitude towards Khodorkovsky is changing because he’s proved himself to be manly,” said Vladimir Pribylovsky, a political analyst. “Back when we had what you could call elections, the Kremlin needed to bring in votes and the case against him brought a big plus,” he said. “But when people saw that the other rich guys weren’t arrested, many started to sympathise with him.”

He said he believed support for Khodorkovsky was growing because the former tycoon has become a symbol for Russia’s warped justice system.

“Every person has a level of tolerance up to which they can be silent,” he said. “The divide between words on television and real actions has grown to be so large, that it hits people hard psychologically.”Tuschi said he had been threatened in Russia when he was making the film: “When I started the project, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya had just been murdered. I drove through Russia and realised that I had to fear the Russian police. I have nothing to worry about with German police, but in Russia it’s a different story,” he told the Berliner Zeitung.

“Once we were quite openly threatened. We were in Siberia on a train between Novosibirsk and Chita, where Khodorkovsky was in jail. Three young men attacked us. They were the regional representatives of the KGB. They knew exactly who we were and what we were doing there. It was very scary.”

For the Russians who spoke to him on camera, the consequences could be severe. The Russian daily Kommersant printed a front page story about the film which suggested those who took part may live to regret it. Khodorkovsky’s ex-wife Elena, who appears in the documentary, allegedly sent Tuschi an email on Sunday telling him he had made a mistake by giving an interview to a Russian journalist, the Süddeutschezeitung reported.

German-born Tuschi, whose parents are from Russia, has been working on the film for the last five years. The final 111-minute edit condensed 180 hours of interviews conducted all over the world. As well as speaking to Khodorkovsky’s ex-wife, Tuschi interviewed his mother and son, who is exiled in New York. But perhaps his biggest coup was a 10-minute interview with the inmate himself.

King or pawn? On the trail of Mikhail Khodorkovsky

The question that overhangs the film is why Khodorkovsky spurned various opportunities to flee into exile in 2003 and avoid arrest. Various interviewees pay tribute to the man’s strategic intelligence, bracketing him alongside the chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov, another vocal enemy of Putin. Did Khodorkovsky offer himself up to the authorities as part of a long-term plan to earn redemption in the eyes of the Russian people, who’d hitherto regarded him as a predatory capitalist? A former adviser, the libertarian Christian Michel, talks of the oligarch sacrificing his queen in order to triumph in the end game.

Tuschi himself agrees with these chess-playing analogies. “He seems to think eight steps ahead of other people. So when he gets arrested, you wonder what the purpose of the move is. I don’t want to romanticise him too much – he’s very stubborn and in some ways has a very boring personality. What I find interesting is that nine years in prison has made this man who trained as a scientist very well-read in literature and philosophy. But as long as Putin stays in power, I think he will remain in prison.”

Navalny in his own words

On Mikhail Khodorkovsky, formerly owner of Yukos, Russia’s biggest oil company, who was jailed in 2003, released in 2013 and now lives abroad:

“Perhaps if he had stayed an oligarch, I would have had a lot of points of dispute with him, particularly on the rights of minority shareholders, which I worked on as a lawyer. Yukos was famous for various corporate battles. But that was 10 years ago, and discussing it is pointless. I don’t see any position that Khodorkovsky has now that I don’t share.”

On Putin’s reaction to Ukraine:

“Out of nowhere, without any warning, boom: suddenly a genuine, anti-criminal revolution. This was a terrible blow for Putin, a hundred times more painful that the Georgian events, than [former president Mikheil] Saakashvili and his anti-corruption reforms. He cannot allow this in Ukraine. So I think one of his strategic goals in the coming years will be to do absolutely everything to undermine the Ukrainian state, to ensure that no reforms work, so that everything ends in failure.”

On the consequences of Russian actions in Ukraine:

“Putin likes to speak about the ‘Russian world’ but he is actually making it smaller. In Belarus, they sing anti-Putin songs at football stadiums; in Ukraine they simply hate us. In Ukraine now, there are no politicians who don’t have extreme anti-Russian positions. Being anti-Russian is the key to success now in Ukraine, and that’s our fault.”

On what he would ask Putin

“I would be interested to understand his motivations, particularly on Ukraine. Because he is destroying our country. It will all collapse, and surely he can’t not understand that it’s all going to collapse.

“If he wants to be an authoritarian leader, then that’s one thing. But why doesn’t he want to be a Russian Lee Kuan Yew? Why does he want to base his authoritarian regime on corruption? There are other ways of doing it.”

On finding the ‘Putin account’:

“I think there are probably a number of numbered accounts in Swiss banks where money is kept that Putin considers his personal money. But in the main it is all kept by nominal holders, like [head of Russian Railways Vladimir] Yakunin or the Rotenbergs [two billionaire brothers, who are childhood friends of Putin]. The money is communal.

“If intelligence services really wanted to find Putin’s money there would be ways of doing so, but all we can do is work with open sources and the information we get from insiders. We can’t show up at a Swiss bank and seize documents or analyse transfers. Corruption in Russia is so open that even we can find a huge amount. But to find Putin’s accounts, that’s beyond our capabilities.”

On how he spends his time under house arrest

“I’m reading a huge number of books; basically doing what everyone dreams of doing but never has time for. I’m watching the ‘250 best films ever’ one by one. All this American nonsense like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and other old films.”

Jailed Russian billionaire scorns court hearing appeal 2011

Khodorkovsky, who was convicted in December of stealing oil from his own company and laundering the proceeds, said on Tuesday that a “venomous Stalinist spider” was behind the verdict.

It was a bold attack against the very system that is deciding his fate. The assistant of the judge who handed down the conviction in the lower court later claimed the verdict had actually been written by judges at the Moscow city court, which is hearing the appeal.

“From which dusty basement did they dig out the venomous Stalinist spider who wrote that gibberish?” Khodorkovsky asked, visibly agitated.

Lyudmila Ulitskaya has shown she is not afraid to take on the Kremlin over jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky or the right to freedom of expression

When the letters were published as a book two years ago, Ulitskaya’s Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Articles, Dialogues, Interviews became part of Russia’s extensive literature of exile. The prison camp – or gulag – has long occupied an important position in the Russian imagination for dissident writers, from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who believed imprisonment could be a transformative experience despite its basic inhumanity, to Varlam Shalamov, who felt that nothing civilised could come from incarceration. In his letters, Khodorkovsky admitted that he was “closer to Shalamov than Solzhenitsyn. Prison is a place of anti-culture and anti-civilisation. Good is evil and lies are the truth.”

But whatever personal redemption Khodorkovsky might have found, Ulitskaya admits that the realities are brutal. “Generally, anyone who comes out of a Russian prison is physically and emotionally mutilated,” she says. “A year-and-a-half ago, there were 900,000 prisoners in Russia and most were not there for a major crime but for financial reasons, yet their punishment is the same as if they’d murdered someone.”

Khodorkovsky: “After 10 years in prison I feel safe pretty much anywhere,” he said.

The Khodorkovsky-Ulitskaya correspondence

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