The Man Vladimir Putin Fears the Most?

A new documentary charts Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s journey from oligarch to Siberian jail, and becoming the biggest thorn in the side of the all-powerful Russian president.

Taly Krupkin
Taly Krupkin
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Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaking in London, November 2015.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaking in London, November 2015.Credit: Reuters
Taly Krupkin
Taly Krupkin

The sudden death this month of writer Vladimir Pribylovsky – known for his investigations into the sources of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s wealth – caused many in Russia to wonder whether anyone can still threaten the president’s entrenched rule. The international arrest warrant issued last month against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the wealthiest man in Russia, seems to indicate that the Kremlin sees him as the most prominent opponent of the all-powerful president.

The Russian authorities added Khodorkovsky’s name to their list of wanted men, claiming that in 1998 he ordered the murder of Vladimir Petukhov, then-mayor of the Siberian city of Nefteyugansk.

Khodorkovsky had been released from Russian prison in December 2013, after serving eight years for tax evasion and fraud, although many of his countrymen and others saw the 2005 trial as political persecution. In 2014, the Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that the trial against Khodorkovsky’s oil company, Yukos, was an attempt by the Russian government to seize control of the company’s assets and prevent its owner from entering politics.

The Hague court ruled that the Russian courts had “bent to the will of the Russian executive authorities” and jailed “a man who gave signs of becoming a political competitor.” It ordered Russia to pay a group of Yukos’ former shareholders $50.2 billion.

Khodorkovsky had been released after Putin pardoned him for humanitarian reasons, and was granted residency in Switzerland. At the time, experts assumed that Khodorkovsky had promised Putin he would refrain from political activity in return for his freedom. However, his activities since are not consistent with this hypothesis.

In the past two years, Khodorkovsky has spoken to journalists worldwide about his plans to oust the president. He publicly declares his willingness to replace Putin himself, and that he won’t hesitate to support other opposition leaders – including prominent opposition politician Alexei Navalny – if that would help to replace the government.

‘Inevitable and necessary’

In London last month, a few days before Russia issued the international arrest warrant against him, Khodorkovsky said that Putin’s government can be expected to fall within a few years, and called for a revolution in the country. “With the absence of fair elections and other mechanisms for a legal change of power, the only way to change things is revolution,” he said at a press conference, adding, “Revolution is inevitable and necessary.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, January 21, 2016.Credit: AP

But is Khodorkovsky really capable of bringing about Putin’s downfall, and would the Russian people accept him as a leader? In an interview with Haaretz, Eric Bergkraut – director of a new documentary, “Citizen Khodorkovsky” – offers a rare glimpse into the personality of the mysterious billionaire. Bergkraut believes that if Khodorkovsky really wants to convince Russians of his worth, he must speak openly about his behavior in the 1990s.

The documentary begins with Khodorkovsky in prison, and accompanies his elderly parents during 24-hour train rides from Moscow to the detention camp in Siberia. After Khodorkovsky’s release, the film chronicles his travels throughout Europe, including to Ukraine during the anti-Russia demonstrations in Kiev’s Independence Square.

After years of correspondance, Bergkraut says he was surprised by Khodorkovsky when they first met. “We met at Zurich railway station, just two months after his release,” he recalls. “Even though it was a sunny day, he had a neatly folded umbrella with him. Clearly a man prepared for all eventualities ... We took the train together and he was surprised that a Swiss train could run four minutes late. He told me, in an ironic tone, that in the camp he had always been angry when the morning inspection wasn’t on time. I gathered that this man liked to be in control and that my task wouldn’t be an easy one,” Bergkraut adds.

The documentary portrays Khodorkovsky as a man determined to bring down Putin’s government, even if it means paying with his own life. “I’m a soldier in the free Russian army,” says Khodorkovsky in the film, but doesn’t reveal the details of his plan to bring down the government.

But it’s Khodorkovsky’s intellectual ability and inclination not to say exactly what’s on his mind that’s likely to deter many Russians, who are tired of the rule of the former KGB man and would like a leader whose behavior is more transparent. According to Bergkraut, for some viewers the struggles of political prisoner Khodorkovsky will be reminiscent of famous freedom fighters who became political prisoners. But for others, the interviews are likely to remind them of his sworn rival.

“Obviously, Khodorkovsky sees himself as a leader on a mission – very much like Putin. Of course, the missions are very different. Maybe prison taught him to be patient, and this may be an experience like the one Nelson Mandela had. But I don’t think Khodorkovsky would ever compare himself to Mandela,” notes Bergkraut.

But even those Russians who don’t see any similarities between Putin and Khodorkovsky are likely to be deterred by the oligarch’s past. Khodorkovsky is an intellectual who, before his transition to the business world, worked in a Moscow chemistry institute; he says he believes in a more Western Russia, in equal opportunities, and social welfare for the weaker classes. But his meteoric rise in the business world took place during the crime-ridden 1990s.

Even if the arrest warrant is a continuation of political persecution on Putin’s part, Khodorkovsky may be forced to speak more openly about his business past if he wants to change his image as one of the oligarchs who made their money from the public purse, at a time when the entire country was in a spin after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

“I think Khodorkovsky should talk much more openly about the 1990s and his role during that time, in order to become the man of Russia’s future. I hope that he and his expansive advisory staff come to the same conclusion,” says Bergkraut.

“He is a proud man, he always wanted to become a manager, director and build things,” the director adds. “This was and probably is his main interest – not getting money for himself. I don’t know if he’s a man who’s able to admit errors publicly. Of course, it was a crazy time – you probably couldn’t become a main player without doing things wrong.” However, Khodorkovsky “should talk about this,” Bergkraut concludes.

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