Khodorkovsky will work to free political inmates
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oligarch who crossed President
Vladimir Putin and ended up in jail for a decade, says he plans to
devote his life to securing the freedom of the country’s political
At a packed news conference just two days after his surprise
release from a Russian jail, Khodorkovsky said Sunday that he wants
to pay back all those who had worked so hard for his own release.
But he dismissed any suggestion that he might take a leading role
in Russian politics, a move that would have catapulted him from
being Russia’s most prominent political prisoner to being Putin’s
main sparring partner.
”The time that is left for me is time I would like to devote to
the activity of paying back my debts to the people … and by that
I mean the people who are still in prison,” the 50-year-old former
oil tycoon said, naming several business associates who remain
behind bars in Russia.
However, Khodorkovsky said he would not be ”involved in the
struggle for power” in Russia, nor fund opposition parties.
This may come as a relief to Putin, who has introduced a series
of laws in recent years aimed at stifling the efforts of his
Khodorkovsky’s appearance Sunday at a turbulent news conference
before hundreds of journalists near Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie was
charged with symbolism. The location was one of the main crossing
points from East Berlin to West Berlin during the Cold War.
Calm and composed in a dark blue suit, with only his shaved head
betraying his recent incarceration, Khodorkovsky said his release
shouldn’t be mistaken as a sign that there are no more political
prisoners in Russia.
”You should see me as a symbol of the fact that the efforts of
civil society can lead to the release also of those people whose
freedom was never expected by anyone,” he said.
Khodorkovsky thanked the media, human rights groups and Western
politicians who played a role in securing his release by drawing
constant attention to his case. He said they also helped him keep
up his spirits during the long ordeal.
”The most important thing for a prison inmate is hope,” he
said, speaking in Russian.
It’s not clear when, if ever, Khodorkovsky would return to
Russia. Hinting that he may have retained some of his vast fortune,
Khodorkovsky also ruled out reviving the business career that once
made him Russia’s richest man.
”My financial situation doesn’t require me to work just to earn
some more money,” Khodorkovsky said Sunday, explaining his future
focus on political prisoners.
Khodorkovsky was convicted in 2003 for tax evasion and
money-laundering in cases that were widely criticized as revenge
for his political activities. He faced a second trial and prison
sentence in 2010, and was not due to be released from prison until
He was serving his sentence at a penitentiary in the
northwestern region of Karelia before his surprise release and
flight to Berlin in a private jet on Friday.
During his 10-year imprisonment, Khodorkovsky transformed his
image in the eyes of many from that of a ruthless oligarch into a
prominent voice of dissent in Russia. He bolstered that aura with
thoughtful editorials – written by hand, since no computers were
allowed him in prison.
On Sunday, he cited the multitude of online media – many of them
freer to criticize Putin than traditional Russian newspapers and
television stations – as an important achievement for his
”For me, many of these sources of information – Facebook,
Twitter – are new,” he said.
It is unclear how he intends to use what remains of the $15
billion fortune he is reported once to have amassed.
Six years ago, authorities in Switzerland ordered the release of
up to 300 million Swiss francs ($250 million) linked to
Khodorkovsky’s Yukos oil company. The money was part of some $5
billion frozen in Swiss bank accounts at the behest of Russia in
the case against Yukos.
Asked about his next move, Khodorkovsky said he wasn’t sure but
that he had a one-year visa for Germany.
”For the time being, my family matters are the most
important,” he said. His parents Boris and Marina were in the
audience, as well as his oldest son Pavel.
A return to Russia isn’t imminent because of the possibility
that he could be charged again, Khodorkovsky told journalists.
”At the moment, if I were to go back to Russia, I may not be
allowed to leave the country again,” he said.
Some in the West had interpreted Khodorkovsky’s release, along
with an amnesty that covers two jailed members of the Pussy Riot
punk band and the 30-member crew of a Greenpeace protest ship, as
being aimed at easing international criticism of Russia’s human
rights record ahead of February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin’s
Khodorkovsky said he opposed any boycott of the 2014 Winter
”It’s a celebration of sport, something which millions of
people will celebrate,” he said. ”Obviously, it should not become
a great party for President Putin.”
Jim Heintz in Moscow and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to