Mikhail Khodorkovsky is back, although back in Washington, not Moscow


Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, formerly Russia’s richest man, speaking in Kiev, Ukraine, in March.CreditSergey Dolzhenko/European Pressphoto Agency

(Peter Baker) WASHINGTON — The last time he was here, Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky was an oil tycoon and Russia’s richest man in the midst of a political fight with the Kremlin. He had been warned to leave his country and stay away. But when he was done with his business in Washington, he defiantly headed home.

Eleven years later, Mr. Khodorkovsky returned here this week for his first public visit since then, now Russia’s most famous political dissident after a decade in President Vladimir V. Putin’s prison camps. He was a little older, a little grayer but no less defiant as he vowed to lead a political movement to counter Putinism in Russia.

“Russia has been wasting time these past 10 years,” Mr. Khodorkovsky told an audience of American admirers at a dinner sponsored by the advocacy organization Freedom House on Wednesday night, in his first speech in the United States since being released from prison last year. “Now is when we must begin to make up this lost time.”

Mr. Khodorkovsky’s visit signals a re-emergence after a period of staying largely out of sight. Now living in Switzerland, with much but not all of his fortune gone, Mr. Khodorkovsky announced last month that he was re-establishing Open Russia, his foundation supporting civil society in his home country. In recent days, he has positioned himself as the leader of a renewed opposition intent on replacing Mr. Putin and bringing European-style democracy to Russia.

At age 51, he is an unlikely dissident. A onetime Communist youth leader, he grew up in Russia’s emerging Wild West capitalism to take advantage of what he now says was a corrupt privatization system and led the country’s largest private oil company, Yukos.

He eventually refashioned himself as a reformed robber baron now committed to freedom and rule of law, but when he challenged Mr. Putin’s chokehold on Russian society, he was arrested in 2003 by armed officers who stormed aboard his private plane.

He was convicted on tax and fraud charges while his company was dismantled and largely absorbed by a state oil firm headed by a close Putin ally. When Mr. Khodorkovsky’s sentence was almost up, he was put on trial again on essentially the same charges and given a new prison sentence. Mr. Putin pardoned him last December in a gesture to the West before the Sochi Olympics.

Ever since, many in Russia and elsewhere have wondered what Mr. Khodorkovsky would do next. He had agreed to stay out of politics until August, when he would have been released anyway. Now freed from that commitment, he is making clear that prison has, if anything, emboldened him in his desire to change his country.

“It’s not just Putin that needs to be replaced,” he told a small group of journalists and foreign policy specialists over lunch this week. “The entire system needs to be changed.”

He said only a fraction — he estimated 12 percent — of Russians are currently European-oriented, but he hoped to convince many of the rest that they should be, too.

“I see that I might be able to offer myself to the European-oriented part of the population as its political representative,” he said. “I don’t know whether it will work out or not, but I’m going to give it a try.”

He expressed some hesitance about the idea of becoming Russia’s leader himself. “I really hope they find somebody else,” he said. “Historically, the person in charge during the transition period most likely ends up in jail.”

Then he added with a laugh, “I’ve had enough.”

The idea may be fanciful anyway. Oligarchs like Mr. Khodorkovsky, much less those with Jewish roots, have never been especially popular in Russia, where they are blamed for fleecing the state of assets before Mr. Putin’s rise.

Moreover, Mr. Khodorkovsky has not dared to return to Russia since his release. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper, wrote after his latest announcement that “the most famous political refugee risks gaining the image of an enemy of the country.”

But his supporters said he should not be underestimated. And those he met in Washington were struck by his resolve. “I have to say I’m impressed by him,” said David J. Kramer, the president of Freedom House, which promotes democracy and human rights around the world. “But he’s still figuring out how he can make a difference. And it’s obviously very difficult to do from outside the country.”

He arrived in Washington with some of the same entourage he has had for many years, including his lawyers, Anton Drel and Maria Logan, and his longtime translator. His son, Pavel, 29, who was living in the United States when his father was arrested and later founded a group of his own to push for civil society in Russia, sat at his table at the Freedom House dinner.

From Washington, Mr. Khodorkovsky headed to New York for an interview with Charlie Rose and an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Those who knew him before prison were surprised that he seemed so much like the man they knew then, unbroken by his decade behind bars. If anything, he seemed stronger and deeper than before. The notion of prison as cleansing the soul and ennobling the spirit is a powerful motif in Russian literature (see Dostoyevsky) and Russian reality (see Solzhenitsyn).

“There is a part of the Russian spirit that is tied to jail,” said Leon Aron, a Russian émigré who heads the Russian studies department at the American Enterprise Institute and also hosted Mr. Khodorkovsky this week. “There is a category of people who are not broken by the suffering in jail, but instead get crystallized there and become more serene but even more tenacious to the values that have been tested in jail.”

Indeed, Mr. Khodorkovsky largely brushed off questions about his time in prison, describing it almost clinically and without emotion.

“For 10 years, you’re thinking about what’s happening where you are not,” he told the journalists and Russia specialists. “You’re thinking about family, which is where you are not. You’re thinking about processes taking place in the country where you are not. You’re thinking about what is happening outside the wire where you are not. And you go through a process of removing yourself from that.”

Now that he is out, he has been adjusting to a new reality. And he said he knows Russia will not change quickly. He put the odds of Mr. Putin’s being out of power in 10 years at 50 percent.

But he added that if nothing else, prison taught him patience. “You look at time differently,” he said. “Ten years for me is not a long time.”

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