The Billionaire Dissident
An oil tycoon in a glass cage aspires to be Russia's next Sakharov.
He has been stabbed, spied on, and sent to solitary confinement. His oil company assets have been seized by the state, his fortune decimated, his family fractured. And now, after nearly seven years in a Siberian prison camp and a Moscow jail cell, he is back on trial in a Russian courtroom, sitting inside a glass cage and waiting for a new verdict that could keep him in the modern Gulag for much of the rest of his life. Each day, he is on display as if in a museum exhibit, trapped for all to see inside what his son bitterly calls “the freaking aquarium.”
Mikhail Khodorkovsky was once Russia’s richest man, the most powerful of the oligarchs who emerged in the post-Soviet rush of crony capitalism, and the master of 2 percent of the world’s oil production. Now he is the most prominent prisoner in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a symbol of the perils of challenging the Kremlin and the author of a regular barrage of fiery epistles about the sorry state of society from his cramped cell. In a country where the public space is a political wasteland, his case and his letters from prison evoke a different age.
“No doubt,” he wrote us from inside the glass cage, “in modern Russia any person who is not a politician but acts against the government’s policies and for ordinary, universally recognized human rights is a dissident.”
The idea of a dissident with overseas bank accounts and an army of lawyers and publicists writing blogs and Twitter feeds on his behalf from safe quarters in London and Washington seems paradoxical. Certainly, it is a long way from the penurious imprisonment and exile of the Soviet-era dissidents who embodied the term, the Andrei Sakharovs and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyns who defied Communist power. Yet in today’s Russia, Putin and his fellow KGB veterans have broken the opposition, marginalized the few survivors of Boris Yeltsin’s epic if flawed revolution, and ensured that no force in society is strong enough to undermine their rule. The most today’s reformers can muster are small protests like the gathering last New Year’s Eve resulting in the arrest of an 82-year-old activist in a snow maiden costume. Open defiance, then, is left to a robber baron with a murky past, a billionaire dissident for a new era in a country that may have shed its Soviet skin but not its autocratic skeleton.
From his glass cage, Khodorkovsky needles the regime every chance he gets, and it has so far proved powerless to stop his pronouncements, smuggled regularly to Russian newspapers, literary figures, and an array of international media. In March, on the one-year anniversary of his latest trial, he called the security-services-dominated “conveyor belt” substituting for a justice system “the gravedigger of modern Russian statehood” and prophesied darkly that “its destruction will occur in the traditional way for Russia, from below and with bloodshed.” His frequent writings even earned him a literary prize this year for his correspondence with famed Russian writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya. His financial battle against the Kremlin is being waged in European courts to the fury of Putin’s advisors, and his imprisonment is a regular irritant in Russian-American relations. U.S. President Barack Obama raised it before visiting Moscow last year, and the State Department’s human rights report in March cited Khodorkovsky among the six Russian political prisoners it identified by name. “The arrest, conviction, and subsequent treatment of Khodorkovskiy,” the report said, “raised concerns about due process and the rule of law.”
But for all that, Khodorkovsky’s voice is largely ignored in Russia today. The media, controlled or intimidated by authorities, give him little attention. The political parties he once funded have been effectively evicted from national politics. Many Russians agree with Putin, who last November compared Khodorkovsky with the mobster Al Capone, suggesting he too was responsible for murders but had to be tried for financial crimes.
When we visited Khodorkovsky’s trial, the one-time titan of Russian capitalism was escorted in handcuffs each morning by Kalashnikov-toting guards. The glass cage was an upgrade from his first trial, when like other Russian defendants, he sat in an actual cage with metal bars. As soon as the glass door closed each morning, Khodorkovsky would search for familiar faces. There were not many. His wife rarely comes. His business partners have fled the country. Only a handful of people not paid to be there bother to show up.
Little wonder. While the Kremlin mulls what to do with Khodorkovsky, the prosecutor was spending each day reading monotonously from 186 binders of oil contracts, accounting forms, and other documents, making no attempt to explain their relevance to the charges that Khodorkovsky led an organized criminal group that embezzled nearly 350 million tons of oil from 1998 to 2003 — essentially the entire production of his Yukos Oil Company — and laundered more than $24 billion of the proceeds. Even fellow prosecutors could not stifle yawns and the judge’s eyes glazed over, as Khodorkovsky dutifully examined his copies, marking them with a green highlighter. The only break in the tedium came one day when Khodorkovsky complained to the judge that a guard was blocking his view.
This is what his life has come to, begging for a better vantage of his show trial. “My own fate,” he wrote us one day from his glass cage, “has become a reflection of the fate of my country. That has already happened in our history before. Today, when we read Solzhenitsyn, [Varlam] Shalamov, Aleksei Tolstoy, we understand from their heroes’ fates the history of our country better than from dry chronologies in school textbooks. Maybe my life will also help to understand today’s Russia better — it will become a symbol of changes.”
If Khodorkovsky is right and his experience has become in a small way that of Russia’s flailing democracy, then it is a story of flawed protagonists, hidden agendas, and dashed ideals.
“It’s literature, absolutely,” said Grigory Chkhartishvili, who, under the pseudonym Boris Akunin, is one of Russia’s most successful living novelists. Although they have never met, Chkhartishvili struck up a correspondence with Khodorkovsky, seeing his case as a tale of power, money, and intrigue that puts a society on trial as much as a man. He calls it a Dreyfus Affair for Russia. “If I’d written a novel like that,” he told us, “nobody would have believed it.”
Khodorkovsky is 46, but he now looks much older, a short, gaunt man with graying stubble where hair used to be. The man in the glass cage is no longer the commanding figure we knew in Moscow as bureau chiefs for the Washington Post at the beginning of the Putin era. Those were the years when Putin was launching his campaign to consolidate power, taking over independent television, driving opposition parties out of parliament, eliminating the election of governors, and forcing oligarchs who defied him to flee the country. Khodorkovsky was the one who refused to go.
The son of chemical engineers, he grew up as part of the old system, a leader of Komsomol, the Communist Party’s youth league, with aspirations to run a factory. His father, Boris, was an admirer of Stalin (“Later, it turned out he was such a son of a bitch,” Boris told us ruefully), and though his mother, Marina, was skeptical, she did not disabuse her son. “He was a believer,” she told us. “He had Lenin’s portrait and a red flag above his desk.” It was not until much later that he saw things differently. Khodorkovsky told Ulitskaya that reading Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich changed his life. “I was shaken,” he wrote. “I despised Stalin as having tarnished the party’s cause in the interest of the cult of his own personality.”
If he was a product of the system, young Misha nonetheless had a rebellious streak growing up in Moscow. Family and friends are full of stories of clashes with authority figures. “He constantly argued with us,” Boris remembered. “I wanted to beat him up so much. But you can’t do that with children.” Nadezhda Zlobina, a friend since third grade, recalled Misha standing up to a chemistry teacher and taking over the class. “He was never afraid of arguing with teachers,” she told us. “So he said something to Putin — it didn’t surprise me because he was never afraid of speaking up.”
Yet Khodorkovsky was no Solzhenitsyn. He may have been headstrong, but what he cared about most was acquiring money and power. With the advent of perestroika, he experimented with get-rich-quick schemes. In 1988, he started his own bank, Menatep, and became a conduit of government money to state enterprises, pocketing huge profits by holding dollars in an era of massive ruble inflation. By age 30, he was buying state assets through manipulated auctions. He acquired control of Yukos, then the country’s second-largest oil producer, for a paltry $309 million in a 1995 auction run, conveniently enough, by his own Menatep bank.
He made plenty of enemies, forcing foreign creditors to write off debt by threatening to take them to Russia’s corrupt courts and cheating investors by issuing new shares to dilute their stock. “In the early years, he was playing games,” said Sarah Carey, an American attorney who later served on the Yukos board. “I don’t think they were illegal, most of them, because the laws were so incomplete.”
But by 2001, Khodorkovsky dreamed of playing on the international stage and declared himself to be cleaning up his act. He plowed some profits back into the company, improved technology, recruited Western executives, and adopted Western accounting practices, doubling the company’s output and transforming it into Russia’s largest oil producer on the verge of a $45 billion merger. “He was doing a first-rate job,” Carey said. “The company wasn’t perfect, but no company was. They were openly and energetically moving in the right direction.”
Khodorkovsky was also becoming a bigger force in Russian society, promoting Western-style democracy and the rule of law. He formed a charity called Open Russia and doled out tens of millions of dollars to human rights groups, foundations, and political parties critical of the Kremlin; he also assiduously cultivated contacts in Washington and other Western capitals while negotiating with international oil giants about possible mergers. He reasoned he was living three generations of Rockefellers in one life — from robber baron to pillar of business to philanthropist. We went to see him in his wood-paneled Moscow office during this makeover and asked if it was about rehabilitating his image. No, he said. “This is more for the soul.”
Perhaps, but Khodorkovsky’s soul was competing with his ego. When Putin came to office, he told the oligarchs they could keep gains from the shady 1990s as long as they did not challenge his rule. Khodorkovsky did not listen. He aspired to control much of parliament, and some allies were even told he harbored ambitions to become prime minister, though he denies that. In a new memoir, Lord John Browne, the former chief executive of BP, recalled listening to Khodorkovsky boast of his influence over parliament and being struck by the hubris. Then he recalled Putin telling him, “I have eaten more dirt than I need to from that man.” At a climactic Kremlin meeting, Khodorkovsky lectured Putin about corruption in a state privatization deal. “Putin just exploded,” a top advisor told us. Five months later, Khodorkovsky’s business partner, Platon Lebedev, was arrested, and Khodorkovsky was warned to leave the country. He refused. “The West accepted him,” said Aleksei Kondaurov, a former top Yukos executive. “So I think all that made him overestimate his security.”
In October 2003, armed, masked agents of the FSB, the KGB’s successor, stormed onto Khodorkovsky’s private plane on the tarmac in Novosibirsk and arrested him. He was eventually sentenced to eight years in prison for fraud and tax evasion, and the state seized much of Yukos in what even Putin’s economic advisor called “the scam of the year.”
The episode dispelled illusions in the West. “We’d all met him,” Condoleezza Rice, who was U.S. President George W. Bush’s national security advisor at the time, told us recently. “Everybody was kind of surprised by the harshness of it. We had all advocated on behalf of Khodorkovsky.” Bush would no longer see Putin the same way. “Looking back now,” Rice said, “it’s definitely clear just what a watershed moment it really was.”
How do you make a dissident? For 10 days after his sentencing, Khodorkovsky disappeared. Finally, on the 10th day, his wife, Inna, received a letter saying he was in a Siberian prison camp 3,100 miles from Moscow. He was sent there by train, the sole passenger in a special wagon. Only after 100 hours, when the train pulled into the small city of Chita, did he learn from the station loudspeaker where he was. From there, it was another 14 hours to the prison in Krasnokamensk. And from there, it was only a matter of weeks before he resumed the stream of prison statements that have come to define modern dissent in Russia.
Once closed to foreigners, Krasnokamensk is so remote there is no plane service, and the streets have no names. Even the camp’s name, YaG 14/10, came from the Gulag, when it was reserved for prisoners sentenced to “harsh regime.” Khodorkovsky was the only white-collar criminal among the zeks, Soviet-era slang for prisoners still used today. It was as if he had landed on another planet. “The first thing he asked me: ‘Is there Internet in Krasnokamensk? Are there cell phones?'” recalled Natalya Terekhova, a lawyer and the first outsider to see him. “He didn’t even know how far from Moscow he was.”
As soon as permitted, his mother made the trip. She packed 14 bags — sheets for the suspect Siberian beds, pots and pans to fry up Misha’s favorite potatoes, plates to serve them on. “We didn’t know whether they had dishes,” she shrugged. “We brought everything.”
Marina’s question was the same as everyone else’s. Assuming they were bugged, she scrawled it in a notebook.
Why didn’t you leave? Do you regret it?
No. If I hadn’t stayed I wouldn’t have been able to look honestly into my children’s eyes.
“He whispered that,” Marina recalled. “You could whisper there.”
As Khodorkovsky settled into Barracks No. 8, he realized anything he did wrong, real or invented, invited punishment. He was sent to isolation for seven days for having tea in an unauthorized area. He was fined for taking his shirt off to sunbathe near a window. In the isolation cell, prisoners could not lie down or sleep except at night, and there were no chairs. “You can only squat or sit on the floor,” said Terekhova. Khodorkovsky began studying the prison rules to defend himself. But then he was sent to isolation for having an unauthorized copy of the rules.
“Putting me in isolation was an obvious attempt to break me, to humiliate me, on top of the original injustice,” Khodorkovsky told us. “Whose will is this? Where does it come from? I don’t know. I know somebody called from Moscow from the federal prison authorities. The rest we can just guess.” But he said he has adjusted. “I am becoming harder facing injustice, and I fight using all available tools.
“Right now,” he added, “I don’t have too many tools available.”
One night in 2006, Khodorkovsky bolted awake from a slashing pain on his face. “It was dark,” he remembered. “Blood was running. I could hear the steps of someone running away.” Khodorkovsky stumbled to a bathroom and saw a bloody gash on his face. He had been stabbed as he slept.
Five stitches were put in. His attacker, a fellow prisoner, was caught and brought to him.
“I asked him why he did it,” Khodorkovsky told us.
“I didn’t have a choice,” the man answered.
The assailant later claimed to be rejecting unwelcome advances from Khodorkovsky, but a Russian court dismissed the assertion. Khodorkovsky’s lawyers said the man wanted to be sent to isolation to escape his own prison enemies and attacking the most famous inmate would do it. Everyone knew Khodorkovsky was watched carefully.
“People were afraid of him because they realized something strange was going on around him,” Khodorkovsky’s bunkmate, Roman Starodubtsev, told us. “As soon as he made a wrong step, the administrators immediately punished him. So it was dangerous even to talk with him. If you talked with him for five minutes, 15 or 20 minutes later they called you to the administrators to ask you everything you were talking about.”
Conditions were brutal, from 40 degrees below zero in winter to over 100 degrees in summer. At first, Khodorkovsky was put to work stitching police uniforms, but he was constantly in trouble for sloppy craftsmanship. When not working, he read voraciously; unlike his Gulag predecessors, he was allowed to subscribe to as many as 174 newspapers and magazines at a time, arriving by truck a week late.
In our correspondence with Khodorkovsky, it was the terrible unpredictability of life as a prisoner — and the coarse immorality of the criminal justice system — that provoked his most emotional response. “Just like in the past, it remains a criminal school for a person who gets into it. Lies, provocations, mean intrigues are the usual everyday routine for its inhabitants,” he told us, scrawling out answers in his glass cage.
His fury leapt off the page. Lack of meaningful work made prisoners “evil,” he said. Lack of visits “destroys families.” Bureaucrats ban everything from care packages, “even salt.” What grated most was “the impossibility to predict my future, even in the most primitive, trivial ways. Clocks are banned in prison, so nobody would ever be able to tell when and where you are taken out of jail. ‘With documents.’ ‘Without documents.’ ‘Dress according to season.’ That is the most information you can rely on. I learn only 10 to 15 minutes before I am supposed to take a walk or take a shower (and that is only once a week).”
This was not a billionaire resigned to his fate. “I realized,” he wrote sarcastically, “that all I have to do is ‘relax’ and take life the way it is, whether that includes 24-hour observation of me, searches obvious and not, or many other ‘pleasures’ of prison life.” Sure, he concluded, “compared to the Gulag, which physically destroyed millions of my fellow citizens, today’s Russian prisons are a huge step forward.” But it was, he said, “Gulag Lite.”
Prison has long held a near-mythic place in the Russian psyche, with Siberia a cleansing way station where aristocrats plotted revolutions and nuclear physicists turned into peace activists. Khodorkovsky claims that legacy now. “Prison,” he told Grigory Chkhartishvili, the novelist, “makes a person free.”
In his first 40 years, Khodorkovsky had been many things — a hustler and a banker, an oilman and a philanthropist — but never a political thinker or writer. Putin has turned Khodorkovsky into both. His most famous polemic, published during his first year behind bars, surprised everyone by denouncing the liberals who had run Russia in the 1990s — and whom he had supported with millions of dollars. They were “dishonest or inconsistent,” “effete bohemians” who “cheated 90 percent of the population” and “turned a blind eye” to the corruption of privatization. They should feel “a sense of shame.” As for himself and his fellow oligarchs, “We were accomplices in their misdeeds and lies.”
If this seemed a prison conversion, Khodorkovsky continued to turn heads with a series of further statements known as his “Left Turn” essays, arguing that Russia should turn away from the policies of the democrats and accommodate the grievances of old Communists by restoring welfare programs and addressing complaints about privatization. “A leftward turn,” he wrote, “is as necessary as it is inevitable to the fate of Russia.”
Ever since, Khodorkovsky’s writings have been extensively parsed and debated by those who still care about politics in modern Russia, a string of interviews, letters, and essays that collectively add up to tens of thousands of words and a philosophical treatise for the new era. “I can define myself as Voltairian,” he wrote at one point, “in other words, a supporter of free thinking, of freedom of speech.” He has bristled at the “racism” of the assumption that Russians are genetically unsuited for democracy, argued that judicial reform is a prerequisite for dismantling authoritarianism, and mused about God, freedom, and the mystic power of the Russian soul. He even changed his views on the massive transfer of public wealth into private hands that he helped engineer to his own benefit. “Russians have a right to be angry,” he told us, “as the privatization was not too fair.”
Over time, a new Khodorkovsky emerged, a self-conscious cultivator of the image of martyred democrat. The change captured the imagination of people like Chkhartishvili. “Putin didn’t surprise me at all,” Chkhartishvili told us in a stylish Moscow restaurant. “Khodorkovsky surprised me.” In 2008, Chkhartishvili published his months-long correspondence with the tycoon in the Russian edition of Esquire, a literary sensation that prompted authorities to throw Khodorkovsky into isolation again. As a writer, Chkhartishvili told us, “the most dramatic thing to watch is when a big person suddenly turns in a direction absolutely different. Take Andrei Sakharov, for example. There are a lot of similarities.”
Just a few years ago, such a statement would have been heresy. With his Nobel Peace Prize and clarion call of resistance to Soviet totalitarianism, Sakharov is the patron saint of the few aging Soviet dissidents still active in public life today. But many veterans of the human rights movement have come to embrace this view of Khodorkovsky, however reluctantly. They see him if not as a hero, then at least a convert.
When we sat in a smoky Moscow literary hangout last summer, Lev Ponomaryov, a courageous human rights campaigner since Soviet times, remembered his only meeting with Khodorkovsky, just 10 days before his arrest. Khodorkovsky promised money for his human rights group. “He was ready to support us,” Ponomaryov said. “He told me, ‘We are tired of being afraid.’ He meant he was too cautious before.”
That is also increasingly the view of those who know Khodorkovsky the best, the family he left behind to puzzle over the sacrifice of the man who brought them dizzying wealth and then recklessly cast it aside in a feud with Russia’s leader. In Moscow’s distant suburbs, where his 76-year-old father and 75-year-old mother still live in an 18th-century aristocrat’s compound now housing a boarding school for orphans that he founded and they run, there is plenty of confusion over that choice.
Their house was a shrine to the imprisoned son. Baskets of dying flowers were scattered about, arrangements sent to mark his latest birthday behind bars. His father, Boris, eagerly pulled us into a side room to see a massive portrait of his son as Jesus sent by an admirer. So it was a little bizarre to notice pictures of Khodorkovsky shaking hands with Putin in neat frames in the parlor. One was taken just weeks before the campaign against Yukos began, with the caption: “The president of the Russian Federation thanks Yukos.” Why pictures of Putin? “You have to know your enemy by the face,” Boris said. Marina sighed. “Putin will never let him out,” she said.
A few weeks later, we met Khodorkovsky’s 24-year-old son, Pavel, in New York, where he lives in self-imposed exile. It was the day after his honeymoon, and he looked so much like his father that he was easy to pick out of the crowd at an Italian restaurant. His cheeks rosy red from a week in Mykonos, he was nursing jet lag with a lunchtime mojito. Fifty-six guests had come for his wedding in a French château with 365 windows, one for each day of the year. Clearly, there is some money left of Khodorkovsky’s billions. Pavel would not elaborate except to say, “The family is not in trouble.”
But for Pavel, it remains hard to reconcile the father he still admires with the man who landed in this mess. Until the latest trial, Pavel said, his father did not see things for what they were. We noted that Khodorkovsky had told us that perhaps he had been “naive” in not fleeing Russia when he could. Pavel said this is a change. No longer is his father just blaming people around Putin. “He came to understand Putin had sat back and allowed it all to happen,” Pavel told us. “He’s now less naive, less idealistic.”
Arguably, so is Russia. The hope and optimism of two decades ago is gone. Russians harbor little romance for democracy, jaded by the political and economic tumult of the 1990s that they came to associate with the term. Nor do most of them see the billionaire dissident as a hero. Putin is supported by many, accepted by most. Pockets of opposition emerge from time to time, but to little effect. On Khodorkovsky’s birthday last year, a handful of protesters near Red Square was arrested. No one much cared.
Khodorkovsky whiles away his days in court. One day we sat next to Nastya, his daughter, who was 12 when he was hauled away. Now turning 19, she wore a turquoise top, an ankle bracelet, and blue jeans with colorful swirls. She brought a report card that was passed into the glass cage. Khodorkovsky smiled broadly and flashed a thumbs-up. Nastya was the only relative to show up in court when we visited. His wife, Inna, attends the trial only occasionally, and their twin sons, who turn 11 this year, are not allowed in the courtroom because of their age.
After a year, the prosecution wrapped up its case and Khodorkovsky opened his own defense in April with a blast at authorities. “I consider this case to be political and corrupt, orchestrated by my opponents to prevent me from walking free,” he told the court from the glass cage. Brandishing two glass jars of oil his lawyer had smuggled into the courtroom, he mocked the notion that he stole his own oil: “To speak of me defrauding myself, in my opinion, is absurd.” A verdict could come this spring. Because Russian judges convict more than 99 percent of the time, even in cases of no interest to the Kremlin, few doubt the eventual outcome, which could result in 22 years behind bars. “It’s quite obvious there are people who want him to stay in prison forever,” said Vadim Klyuvgant, his lead attorney.
Yet Khodorkovsky’s support sometimes comes from surprising places. The guard who checked our passports each morning as we entered the courthouse confessed that she has been secretly sending Khodorkovsky letters of support in prison for years. Gennady Gudkov, a KGB veteran now serving in parliament as a member of Putin’s party, told us he saw the new trial as “senseless” overkill. “Basically, Russia for the past few years got used to being silent,” he said. “Now they shut up completely.”
When he is not in court, Khodorkovsky spends 23 hours a day in a 35-square-foot cell with several other men and no fresh air or sun save for a few shafts of light through a tiny ventilation window. “They’re sleeping, they’re eating, they’re defecating, they’re urinating, they’re reading books, they’re preparing for court — all in one room,” said Karinna Moskalenko, another of his lawyers. A glass cage, a Siberian prison, and a stuffy jail cell would change anyone. “He’s become less refined,” Klyuvgant said. “He’s become harder. He’s not afraid to be tough in situations when it’s needed.”
He needs to be tough, as tough as Russia itself. “I have been psychologically prepared to spend my entire life behind bars,” Khodorkovsky told us. “I cannot say that makes me happy. But it feels easier this way.”
Susan Glasser is the former editor in chief of Foreign Policy.