When Mikhail Khodorkovsky was a boy within the Soviet Union, he spent summers along with his great-grandmother in Kharkiv. “It was a long time ago, and I thought I’d forgotten all those years,” he says. “But when I saw the footage of the Kharkiv bombing, and when I saw people [taking refuge] in the Kharkiv metro, everything just turned upside down inside me.”
Khodorkovsky — as soon as Russia’s richest man and now considered one of its outstanding dissidents — will not be the emotional kind. If he had been, he wouldn’t have thrived within the wild-west privatisations of the Nineteen Nineties. Nor maybe would he have survived the last decade in jail that made him an emblem of opposition to Vladimir Putin. In individual he’s unfashionably, off-puttingly unsentimental: he typically ends reflections on Ukraine with darkish smiles. “Yes, yes, dark sense of humour and sarcasm are my outstanding features. This is why I like the British.” Khordokovsky, now 58 years previous, has been based mostly in London along with his spouse since 2015.
Even so, the battle has shaken him. When it began, he stopped sleeping. Now he criticises the west for not realising what’s at stake. “If we don’t manage to deal with this plague in Ukraine, we’ll have to face it in other territories,” he says, by means of an interpreter.
The Kremlin’s “next step is going to be the air blockade of Lithuania. It will allow Russian aviation to fly right through between Russia and Kaliningrad. Then Nato will face a question of what to do.
“For sure, Putin is going to lose eventually. If he wins now in Ukraine, he will, because of domestic problems, start a war with Nato. And eventually he will lose that war. Had it not been for so many casualties, I would have said that I’m actually quite happy, because he has embarked on a route that is going to lead to his demise. But this specific victory in Ukraine depends entirely on the west.” If the west fails now, it might face a “very long, hot frontier in Europe, 2,500km long.”
It can be simpler to low cost Khodorkovsky if his alarmism had not come of age. A yr in the past, he steered the Russian autocrat may trigger his personal downfall by means of “a serious political miscalculation resulting in defeat in a military conflict.”
He dismisses these, together with Henry Kissinger, who need to make concessions to Putin. “With all respect to Henry Kissinger, he has a notion of Putin as some kind of projection of Leonid Brezhnev . . . [But] Brezhnev was no gangster. Second, Brezhnev fought [in the second world war]. He, and people around him, realised that war is the worst thing. Putin has never fought. He has no understanding of what wars are like. He understands computer games and wars on his laptop.
“[Kissinger] doesn’t realise that you don’t find agreement with a gangster when you’re talking from a position of weakness. He doesn’t realise that, for Putin, a war is just a normal way of getting his electoral ratings up. He has started wars four times.”
A query swirls in my head: has Khodorkovsky modified? The moustache has gone, however has the greed? In the Nineteen Nineties, he purchased share vouchers from bizarre Russians at a pittance; later, by means of the rigged loans-for-shares scheme, he took prize belongings. He was Russia’s richest man by the age of 40.
But he additionally needed to promote a stake in his oil firm Yukos to ExxonMobil. He veered into politics, calling out corruption at a televised assembly with Putin. Both strikes infuriated the Russian president. Khodorkovsky was jailed for tax evasion and fraud. He was pardoned shortly earlier than the 2014 Sochi Olympics, when Putin nonetheless cared about his world picture. He has lived in exile since.
How did jail change him? “The most important lesson was a different take on time. In business, you always have the impression that you’re always lagging behind. You need to make the decision now, otherwise everything will be terrible. When you’re in prison you learn about things happening outside a week later. You take a decision, which will only be conveyed to people a week or maybe a month after that. Suddenly you realise that nothing bad has happened because of that. You could have taken even longer.”
Other oligarchs learnt a unique lesson: don’t oppose Putin. Does he perceive why Roman Abramovich and others really feel they can not communicate out? “Abramovich and others you call oligarchs in the west: I see them as Putin’s agents, no more than that, but no less.” Oligarchs might don’t have any affect over Putin, however “they have a lot of levers in their hands to influence public opinion and politics in the west. This is why Putin has an interest in them as a tool of influence.”
What did he make of Abramovich’s fruitless peace talks between Moscow and Ukraine? “I think Putin gave him the green light to take part, so that Abramovich could protect himself from sanctions. My personal opinion is that, during the elections, Abramovich is going to work in Putin’s interests.” Abramovich has all the time denied a detailed relationship with Putin.
Khodorkovsky can be against an EU embargo on Russian oil, arguing that duties can be higher, as a result of they might not push oil costs up a lot. But he doesn’t suppose this can be a boomtime for Russian oil firms: bans on know-how switch “has a very serious impact on the cost of oil production, which eats into the money that the [Russian government] has, including to finance the war.”
Khodorkovsky pledged to not become involved in politics after leaving jail, however quickly ended up sponsoring civil initiatives and opposition candidates. “I’m sure [Putin] has regretted his decision to let me go, many times!” Indeed, in 2015, Khodorkovsky was charged in Russia with organising the 1998 homicide of a mayor in Siberia, a transfer seen as politically motivated. But the try to construct an opposition has foundered. Why? “Have you heard about many oppositions in dictatorships?”
Russians have “Stockholm syndrome,” he says. But he additionally sees indicators of Putin’s fragility, within the failure to declare a common mobilisation for the battle in Ukraine. “If he were totally convinced that Russian society is a monolith, he would have drafted these people a long time ago.”
Ultimately Russia’s future will likely be determined because it all the time has been, Khodorkovsky argues, matter-of-factly. “Regime change in today’s Russia can only come via force. It could be Putin’s entourage, it could be the army, or it could be society . . . This is another reason why Putin and [Belarusian dictator Alexander] Lukashenko do not dare to arm the people. [Ukraine’s Volodymyr] Zelenskyy didn’t really fear his own people and he handed out arms. If Putin hands out 40,000 AKs in Moscow, he will not be with us tomorrow.”
Many Russians resent Khodorkovsky for the chaos of the Nineteen Nineties. He is bored with discussing that: “Mistakes were made and I would have done a lot of things differently. But I don’t like memoirs as a genre, I like to move on.” (He says he retains about $500mn in belongings.)
Khodorkovsky is ambivalent about Alexei Navalny, the charismatic Putin critic who was just lately moved to a maximum-security jail. “We have absolutely no differences as far as this war is concerned or the need for regime change. But we disagree quite a lot on the future of Russia, which is normal.” Khodorkovsky argues that Navalny sees himself as a future tsar. “I think believing in a good tsar is a very dangerous idea for Russia today” — as a result of any tsar-like determine wants an exterior enemy to control. Instead the subsequent authorities of Russia “should be put together by the regions, because the regions, unlike the tsar, don’t have any vested interest in foreign aggression.”
What about Khodorkovsky’s perception that Russia may someday be a standard European nation? “Nothing has happened to destroy this idea. Russia is part of Europe. The fact that Germany had Hitler did not turn Germany into a non-European country . . . Putin is trying to turn Russia eastwards, but this is too much for one lifetime.”
His personal id is below pressure. “All my life I have identified with Russia. [But] I realised that those people in the Kharkiv metro are my people, and those people that are bombing them are my enemies. Sometimes I slip and call Putin’s army ‘our army’, but my wife, who is Russian through and through, always reminds me that they’re not our army.”
In 2000, oligarchs supported Putin taking energy, believing he didn’t pose a menace to them. Did Putin change or did they misjudge him? “It would have been nice for me to say that he was different before, because that would mean that I didn’t make a mistake. He has changed of course. But fundamentally he remained what he was: a KGB person and a gangster, which is one and the same. But he is a very talented person, who can impress the person he is speaking to with what they want to see. When people laugh at George W Bush for saying, ‘I looked the man in the eye and found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy’, I never laugh — because I didn’t see Putin for what he was in reality.”
And who’s Khodorkovsky in actuality? He comes throughout not a martyr or perhaps a politician — he dislikes posing for photographs, for starters — however a intelligent man and an unyielding one.
“This is a result of undervaluing my life,” he explains. “In prison, your own life is not worth much . . . I would suggest that people look after their lives and value them. But if circumstances demand, there is no point in being afraid, because when you’re afraid, you die all the time.”
On the spot
The e-book that influenced you? Hard to be a God (1964) by the Strugatsky brothers, science fiction writers. Their books describe what is occurring in Russia now precisely.
Was Boris Berezovsky murdered? I can perceive why it may have been suicide.
Does your life have one other chapter, after this one? I hope so.
What do folks get flawed about you? Lots of people in Russia suppose that I need to lead them. They don’t realise that this can be a arduous job, and I’ve had sufficient.
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