Russia’s once-richest man, now one of its most prominent dissidents, believes regime change will happen — but only by force
When Mikhail Khodorkovsky was a boy in the Soviet Union, he spent summers 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 — once Russia’s richest man and now one of its prominent dissidents — is not the emotional type. If he were, he wouldn’t have thrived in the wild-west privatisations of the 1990s. Nor perhaps would he have survived the decade in prison that made him a symbol of opposition to Vladimir Putin. In person he’s unfashionably, off-puttingly unsentimental: he often ends reflections on Ukraine with dark smiles. “Yes, yes, dark sense of humour and sarcasm are my outstanding features. This is why I like the British.” Khodorkovsky, now 58 years old, has been based in London with his wife since 2015.
Even so, the war has shaken him. When it started, 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, through 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 may face a “very long, hot frontier in Europe, 2,500km long.”
It would be easier to discount Khodorkovsky if his alarmism had not come of age. A year ago, he suggested the Russian autocrat could cause his own downfall through “a serious political miscalculation resulting in defeat in a military conflict.”
He dismisses those, including Henry Kissinger, who want 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 question swirls in my head: has Khodorkovsky changed? The moustache has gone, but has the greed? In the 1990s, he bought share vouchers from ordinary Russians at a pittance; later, through the rigged loans-for-shares scheme, he took prize assets. He was Russia’s richest man by the age of 40.
But he also wanted to sell a stake in his oil company Yukos to ExxonMobil. He veered into politics, calling out corruption at a televised meeting with Putin. Both moves infuriated the Russian president. Khodorkovsky was jailed for tax evasion and fraud. He was pardoned shortly before the 2014 Sochi Olympics, when Putin still cared about his global image. He has lived in exile since.
How did prison 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 different lesson: don’t oppose Putin. Does he understand why Roman Abramovich and others feel they cannot speak 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 may have no influence over Putin, but “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 always denied a close relationship with Putin.
Khodorkovsky is also opposed to an EU embargo on Russian oil, arguing that duties would be better, because they would not push oil prices up so much. But he doesn’t think this is a boom time for Russian oil companies: bans on technology transfer “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 not to get involved in politics after leaving jail, but soon 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 murder of a mayor in Siberia, a move seen as politically motivated. But the attempt to build an opposition has foundered. Why? “Have you heard about many oppositions in dictatorships?”
Russians have “Stockholm syndrome,” he says. But he also sees signs of Putin’s fragility, in the failure to declare a general mobilisation for the war 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 be decided as it always 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 1990s. He is tired of 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 assets.)
Khodorkovsky is ambivalent about Alexei Navalny, the charismatic Putin critic who was recently moved to a maximum-security prison. “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” — because any tsar-like figure needs an external enemy to govern. Instead the next government 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 belief that Russia could one day be a normal European country? “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 own identity is under strain. “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 power, believing he did not pose a threat 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 is Khodorkovsky in reality? He comes across not a martyr or even a politician — he dislikes posing for photos, for starters — but a clever 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 book that influenced you? Hard to be a God(1964) by the Strugatsky brothers, science fiction writers. Their books describe what is happening in Russia now exactly.
Was Boris Berezovsky murdered? I can understand why it could have been suicide.
Does your life have another chapter, after this one? I hope so. What do people get wrong about you? A lot of people in Russia think that I want to lead them. They don’t realise that this is a hard job, and I’ve had enough.
Originally published at the Financial Times.