Meet Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s Freed Oligarch and Putin Foe

The Russian oil tycoon once presented a serious challenge to President Vladimir Putin, who threw him in jail for ten years

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khodorkovsky.ru / Reuters

From right: Hans-Dietrich Genscher of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) welcomes Russian former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky at Berlin's Schonefeld airport, on Dec. 20, 2013.

During a news conference on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin made an unexpected announcement: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Putin’s greatest political foe who had been imprisoned for nearly a decade, would be freed “in the near future.” The next day, Khodorkovsky was released from prison four years before his sentence was to run out.

In the summer of 2002, just two year after Vladimir Putin originally came to power promising to rein in Russia‘s oligarchs, TIME wrote about Khodorkovsky in a list of People to Watch in International Business. “At 39, Khodorkovsky has amassed a $7 billion fortune and a reputation as one of the robber barons of Russia’s transition to capitalism,” TIME wrote. “But he’s working to clean up that image.”

(MORE: Khodorkovsky’s pardon: another sign Putin is winning.)

A little over a year later, Khodorkovsky was charged with fraud and tax evasion, the opening salvo in a decade-long legal battle that effectively removed him as a political threat to Putin’s power. Special forces troops surrounded Khodorkovsky’s plane when it stopped to refuel in Siberia, and he was dragged off to prison. “The dramatic move, part of an ongoing probe into Yukos, was seen by skeptics as a Kremlin-led effort to keep the tycoon, who has funded opposition parties, out of politics,” TIME wrote of Khodorkovsky’s arrest.

In the year before his incarceration, Khodorkovsky had funded opposition parties, and he was widely viewed as a potential challenger for Russia’s presidency. As the Russian government seized $13 billion of Yukos stock, Putin insisted that the case was about rooting out corporate corruption. But many wondered whether Khodorkovsky’s prosecution would turn him into a de facto opposition leader or a political martyr. “It’s very hard to tell how this one can end,” a Yukos board member said at the time. “If they let him out of jail, he won’t agree to be muzzled, and he doesn’t want to leave the country.”

Khodorkovsky was tried for the first time in 2004, while Putin cruised toward an easy reelection. In June 2005, Khodorkovsky was convicted of six of seven charges of fraud and tax evasion and sentenced to eight years in prison in Soviet gulag-like conditions. At Krasnokamensk, a Siberian labor camp, Khodorkovsky was denied any intellectual activity–no books; television only in the recreation room with other inmates. Once Russia’s wealthiest man, he performed manual labor for 16-hours-a-day. In the meantime, Yukos’s core assets were sold to an unknown company that was later bought by the state oil company Rosneft.

In 2006, a fellow prisoner slashed Khodorkovsky’s nose, claiming it was an accident. The director of the Federal Penitentiary Agency initially denied that the knifing occurred, then a few days later blamed Khodorkovsky for his own assault. Around the same time, what was left of Yukos filed for bankruptcy and was declared bankrupt the next year. “Now 42, Khodorkovsky may return to Russian society in his prime at 50, toughened by his experience and hungry for action,” TIME wrote in April 2006. “A charismatic modern leader could emerge. If he survives the camps, that is.”

When Putin ran up against constitutionally mandated term limits, his handpicked successor, Dimitri Medvedev was easily elected president, and Putin became the country’s prime minister. Dissidents expressed their dissatisfaction with Putin’s quasi-authoritarian rule. In March 2009, Khodorkovsky was back in court, facing new charges that he and a former business partner embezzled $25 billion. When he was convicted in December 2010, TIME wrote about the absurdity of the charges. The court found that Khodorkovsky stole 350 million tons of oil from his own companies, some of which never even produced the amount the court said he stole from them. “When faced with such nonsense, it is very hard to take it seriously,” Vadim Klyuvgant, the lead attorney for the defense, said during the trial. “Anyone who has watched this trial understands that it is just a farce.” The judge added six years to the eight Khodorkovsky was already serving.

After Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, in an election observers widely questioned, protests calling for reforms broke out across Russia and lasted for months. From his prison cell, Khodorkovsky wrote a column describing the impotent injustice of the country’s judicial system and why he still had hope for change.  “We are beginning to stand taller in the deceitful courts and on the streets of our cities,” he wrote. “We are still afraid, but now, even more than that, we’re ashamed in the presence of our children. And we can’t be made to bend anymore.”

On Thursday, Putin announced made the announcement that Khodorkovsky would be freed, and he was released from prison the next day. He traveled to Germany to visit his ailing mother, Marina, who had visited him every few weeks during his years of incarceration. In the latter years of his imprisonment, Khodorkovsky’s son Pavel became his father’s voice to the rest of the world. Pavel, who lives in the United States, founded the Institute of Modern Russia, a non-profit that advocates for strengthening the rule of law in the country. “I would like to thank everyone who has been following the Yukos case all these years for the support you provided to me, my family and all those who were unjustly convicted and continue to be persecuted,” he said in a statement. “I am constantly thinking of those who continue to remain imprisoned.”

In his announcement of Khodorkovsky’s pardon, Putin also declared amnesty for other high profile political prisoners such as two jailed musicians from the protest band Pussy Riot and a group of Greenpeace protesters. While some see the acts as an attempt to shore up Russia’s human rights record ahead of February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, freeing his greatest political rival might be a sign that Putin is fully comfortable in power. As TIME suggested in 2006, Khodorkovsky has been released at age 50, indeed “toughened” by his experience. But seven years later, Putin may prove a foe too powerful now to be defeated.

63 comments
Tanynia Coote
Tanynia Coote

Maybe some from Russia can shed some light on this man, I have never heard of him. I am intrigued.

Gen Petrov
Gen Petrov

This is a thief, not a "political prisoner". Abramovich does not hide taxes and he is fine

Gen Petrov
Gen Petrov

There is a clearly double standards here. This is like if Berny Madoff go for president in the US, and sentenced because of his crimes, he could shout, what he is political prisoner too. This is ridiculous!!!

John Adams
John Adams

Interesting event as the Winter Olympics approach...

Gen Petrov
Gen Petrov

There is no way this thief can be called a political prisoner. He had commit huge tax crime, literally he stole billions of dollars from government. In the US if you hide billions in taxes you will go in prison too

Tiffany McFadden
Tiffany McFadden

This is an interesting story, I had no idea that Russian politics was this bureaucratic.

ibtlius
ibtlius

Bad move by Putin


Why did he release this thug who with other Russian oligarchs ruined the Russian economy partnering with the Chicago boys during the Yeltsin regime?

Jodi Jones
Jodi Jones

Maybe he will unseat Putin. That'd be nice. Russia is very intolerant.

Yoshi
Yoshi

Looks like he hasn't seen the sun in quite a while.

Stanislav Varava
Stanislav Varava

...every thief in Russia may say :"I'm against Putin"...And He becomes "a prisoner of conscience " )))

Sharon Tadmor
Sharon Tadmor

those releases are so ridiculous as the reason is so clear and not less cruel and tyranic than their irrational imprisonment.

Matias  Slavorum
Matias Slavorum

. No opposition , Khodorkovsky will not. Since Russian prison since imperial times, gave pardon only those who admitted his guilt and repented . This custom survived in the Soviet Union that is now in Russia. 100% probability that the original petition , as well as video and audio materials were kept by law enforcement agencies . And if Khodorkovsky try to break their promises. What materials will be made public that he recanted and gave it what he believed . In addition, it has a lovely and cute 23 -year-old daughter Anastasia , which is always in sight of special services. And if he wants her to be happy ? He will not repeat past mistakes.

guysinsky
guysinsky

The next day, Khodorkovsky was released from prison four years before his sentence was to run out."

His sentence would run out in 9 months, not four years. 



gandhi
gandhi

I am very glad that Mr. Khordorkovsky has regained his freedom.  I do not thank Mr. Putin who is apparently just another run of the mill tyrannt.  I will not be attending the Sochi olympics.  Long live the long suffering Russian People, the people who gutted the Nazi armies and saved the world.  Merry Christmas to Christians everywhere.!!!

Matias  Slavorum
Matias Slavorum

. Khodorkovsky boy of 90 . Son of ordinary engineers who worked on the specialty and does not even think about politics. But everything changed in 1988 . When the Jewish community finally realized that the Soviet Union will collapse soon . It was then that the older generation has begun to take youngsters to a redivision of socialist property. After 1991 began bandit privatization ( raider takeovers , billions in fraud and criminal war). It was a golden time for Khodorkovsky. In record time he swallow our largest companies . Including the expense of compromising and forceful action . Whoever was by none , he became everything. Like all the oligarchs 90's he gone crazy from impunity and megalomania . Tried through the media publish dirt on Putin. However miscalculated by underestimating their strength. For which he paid freedom.

Ryu C Astro
Ryu C Astro

What a story, Russia will be the next Big Oil Reserve Country, and the President will always have control of its natural resources.

SirSi'ed Blvd
SirSi'ed Blvd

I am more interested in what are the first 3 things he would like to do as a free man.... This would be very interesting !!!

Bardo Floyd
Bardo Floyd

Free at last, 10 years behind bars, what a shame!

Sağlıklı Yaşamın Sırrı
Sağlıklı Yaşamın Sırrı

Kilo probleminiz mi var? * Cilt probleminiz mi var? * Bölgesel yağlanmalarınız mı var? * Vücudunuz da selülit veya catlaklar mı var? * Saç veya tırnak problemleriniz mi var? BUNLARIN ARTIK HİÇBİRİ PROBLEM DEĞİL. HEPSININ ÇÖZÜMÜ VAR. ARTIK DAHA FAZLA ÇÖZÜMÜ ERTELEMEYIN. BIZIMLE İLETİŞİME MESAJ BÖLÜMÜNDEN MESAJ ATARAK İLETİŞİME GEÇİN PROBLEMINIZI ÇÖZELIM.SİTEMİZİ ZİYARET EDİN.

M Mustafa Uyan
M Mustafa Uyan

'' I'll be Back'' said he, I'm sure. He is that kind a guy. I hope.

Riccardo Mil
Riccardo Mil

They said make all the money you want, but don't try to get into politics. No media acquisition nor any influencing. Basically don't mess with status quo.

Oscar Guerrero
Oscar Guerrero

Putin better watch out now. He just piss off a guy with a lot of money.

Ezekiel Onyango
Ezekiel Onyango

Russia still has political prisoners?,really suprised

Max Stoliarov
Max Stoliarov

if the use of the budget money in order to build a castle for private use and use of soldiers as a builders means to be on the wrong side of Putin ... yes of course!!! xD

James Mjomba
James Mjomba

He was put in by putin.......thats the routine.

Ana Laura Navarro
Ana Laura Navarro

Wow, he over-qualifies to work for the U.S. government, only he is smarter :D lol

David Houghton
David Houghton

Did he also find himself on the wrong side of Putin?

Max Stoliarov
Max Stoliarov

he tries his best to arrest every economic criminal, especially the corrupted ones ... you heared only about one case with Khodorkovsky ... have you heard that our formal minister of defense was arrested recently?

David Houghton
David Houghton

Let me rephrase: Does Putin arrest every tax dodger, or just those who oppose him politically?

Max Stoliarov
Max Stoliarov

oh you meant Time does propaganda? :) might be :) i was a better opinion about this source of information :)

Max Stoliarov
Max Stoliarov

hahaha :) listen :) im russian :) my parents used to do business back in 90s and we know how Khodorkovsky got his oil tycoon from the very beginning ... its not a propaganda ... he really stole plenty to get a prison sentence ... in some countries that would be life sentence!!! :D

gelosoil
gelosoil

jealousy is a bad instructor .........:):).....i bet you most of those commenting on his ethics would without second thought grab whatever they could if they could......It is only that you didnt get the chance to steal as much that you didnt do it ,right?....or if you had the chance and saw the state collapsing you d just walk away from it all?...why do you expect from others to do what you dont?....this is not honest.