Mikhail Khodorkovsky was once the most powerful businessperson in Russia. Then Putin imprisoned him. Now he watches from London in rage and shame at what Putin is doing.
Trained as a chemical engineer, Khodorkovsky was a founder in 1989—while the Soviet Union still existed—of one of the first commercial banks in Russia. He was once considered Russia’s wealthiest businessperson. In the early part of this century, Khodorkovsky led Yukos, Russia’s largest oil company. This once-state-owned entity achieved a market capitalization of $21 billion when it produced nearly 20 percent of Russia’s oil.
But Khodorkovsky’s interests went beyond making money. In 2001, he founded the Open Russia Foundation to strengthen civil society in Russia, including funding human rights organizations. As he became more and more vocal in pushing for democracy in Russia and openly challenging Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia’s president began to fight back. Khodorkovsky once openly challenged Putin about business corruption on national television.
In 2003, Khodorkovsky was imprisoned on trumped-up charges of tax evasion and more, after a dramatic predawn raid on his company jet. Conveniently, this ensured that Khodorkovsky would be in prison when election season rolled around in 2004. In a series of show trials (his lawyers were not allowed in the courtroom, as an example), Khodorkovsky ended up spending a total of 10 years in a Siberian prison, housed with violent criminals. He’s well versed in the lack of tolerance that Putin has for any independence in business and has written that today’s oligarchs who are so much in the news are merely “alternate” bankers for Putin.
Khodorkovsky was freed in 2013, ostensibly because Putin took pity on him to allow him to see his ailing mother, but more likely it was due to global pressure regarding the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics. Khodorkovsky had to promise to leave Russia, which he did, with his family, first settling in Switzerland and later in London, where he lives today. These days, Khodorkovsky says there’s nothing more that Putin can do to him. He walks around London without bodyguards, even descending into the Tube unprotected.
When I met him at his offices on March 28, he was wearing his signature jeans and leather jacket. He was busy preparing for a trip to the United States. He’ll be in Washington the first week of April for meetings at the White House, the State Department, and with members of Congress.
I wondered what his message would be for Washington’s decision-makers.
“I have two messages. First, we need to really help the Ukrainians, and we need to be brave. Because if we can’t be brave, Putin will decide to take the next step, which will be invading Poland or the Baltic countries.
“Second, we must see two different types of Russians. It’s a big mistake to see all Russians as if they are supporting Putin.”
Without prompting, he immediately moved on to discuss the controversial remarks that President Biden delivered a few days earlier in Warsaw, Poland, stating that Putin “cannot remain in power.”
Khodorkovsky leaned in and emphatically told me: “I think that Biden was right in his last speech about Putin, and I was very upset that the White House bureaucrats said it was a mistake. Putin is an enemy of the U.S. as well. If he stays in power, there is no peace. You can try to be an ostrich, with your head in the sand. It is not the task of the U.S. government to remove Putin, but … until Putin leaves, we will never have a normal life. That is the opinion of a large part of Russian society.
“We must understand correctly what Biden meant. It’s not that he said what the American government should do. This was his remark to the Russian audience. It is up to the Russian people to remove Putin from that position.” Chuckling, he continued: “Putin understood this exactly as the White House understood it. So everyone understood Biden correctly.”
For Putin now, Khodorkovsky insists, even though it is not “real” that Russia is at war with either the U.S. or NATO, “it is real in his head.” That’s why “without removing Putin from power, the war will never stop.”
Khodorkovsky, in exile, expanded and continued his philanthropic work in support of his Open Russia Foundation. But the fury with which he works now is a direct result of the horrors of this recent Russian onslaught against Ukraine. As Khodorkovsky describes it, Putin uses war to get out of his own internal political problems. Four times, Putin tried to resolve his domestic political difficulties through war, Khodorkovsky tells me, recounting the years when Putin entered Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine twice now—1999, 2008, 2015, and 2022, respectively. “So why would somebody even think that he would decide to solve his problems differently a fifth time?” he asked.
He said he’s been surprised by the reactions of some neighboring nations. After all, this is a part of the world where memories (both real and imagined) play a major role in politics. “Memory goes both ways,” he comments.
He’s pleased by the role of Poland and especially the Poles’ response to the Ukrainian refugees. “For me, the most unexpected situation was Poland,” Khodorkosvky told me. “There are nearly two million Ukrainians there now. They are coming to [stay with] Polish families. It’s incredible. I asked about the need for medicine for Poland, and they said they don’t need it. ‘We are using our own medical insurance system, and it is enough for Ukrainians as well.’” I remark to him that this has been surprising to me, too, along with the embrace of the European Union by a Polish government that before the war was both anti-immigrant and hostile to the EU. “Yes, yes, I agree,” he says, and adds, “but Hungary,” referring to the Hungarian President Viktor Orbán’s semi-embrace of Putin and continued hostility to the EU (of which Hungary is a member state) and to democracy in general. (Orbán, in a tough fight for reelection to take place on April 3, has modeled his regime increasingly on Putin’s and has largely embraced Russia in the war with Ukraine.)
Meanwhile, as negotiations sputter on between Ukraine and Russia, the issue of sanctions—whether or when to halt them—is being discussed by the Western powers. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph on March 27, said that sanctions could end if Putin withdraws and agrees to stop his aggression (and could be reinstated if necessary). I asked Khodorkovsky what he thought of sanctions ending. He was quick to make a differentiation among sanctions.
“Some sanctions may be removed after the sovereignty of Ukraine is restored,” he said. “By sovereignty, I think that means the situation that existed until February 24, 2022. But not all sanctions. Nobody should remove sanctions that are connected to technology. People will be idiots if they help him to rearm his army. Because of that, technological sanctions, some financial sanctions, and some sanctions against his inner circle must be kept in place. Next time, I think Putin will do the same thing when he has a problem with his electorate, and I think that this will happen within the next two years.”
He continued: “Most problems between Putin and the Ukraine are not only the problem of territory, not only the problem of the Soviet Empire. The biggest problem for him is that there is a democratic country on his border,” he says, referring to Ukraine. “Democracy is a big problem for him. The next step for him is invasion of Poland or the Baltic countries,” Khodorkovsky surmises, because Putin is fearful of democracy encroaching into Russia.
“Until Maidan [the 2014 Ukrainian revolution for democracy], he didn’t have such a tough relationship with Ukraine. Maidan was the breaking point.” Khodorkovsky went to the square in Kyiv during the 2014 Ukrainian protests for freedom to speak to the crowd. He then addressed students at the Polytechnic University in that city: “I am an unconditional supporter of building a law-based democratic nation-state with a unitary civil nation in Russia, and unconditionally support the analogous aspirations of the Ukrainian people.”
Now Khodorkovsky believes that “we should unite with those Russians who see Putin as an enemy, even if they have different opinions about the Russian future.” And his philanthropy is fueling this work. Under the banner of a group of Russian émigrés called the Anti-War Committee of Russia, Khodorkovsky is directing two projects, the Ark and Sunrise.
“The Ark project was designed to provide support to Russian refugees who escaped Putin’s regime,” Khodorkovsky said. “Their problems are different from the Ukrainian refugees’. There are at least a quarter of a million now. We forecast that there will be two to 2.5 million of these Russian refugees leaving Putin’s regime in the next few years,” he said. Many of these refugees are moving to cities like Tbilisi in Georgia, Yerevan in Armenia, and Istanbul in Turkey.
“These are the opinion leaders,” he says of this new generation of refugees. Among them are the best and the brightest of Russian society. “We are working to ease their living accommodations, help with bank accounts, psychological support. These are different problems from the Ukrainian refugees’.”
“The Sunrise project,” he told me, “is to help Ukraine. We purchase cargo [for transport] and deliver specific medical supplies and medical equipment where they are most needed, like in Kharkiv and Kyiv.” Sunrise is also providing needed foodstuffs for Ukrainians.
“We are now working on a third project, designed to find a way to provide representation to that part of Russian society who no longer feel comfortable being represented by Putin,” he continued. “It is important to these people to preserve their Russian identity—this Russian diaspora—but they don’t want to be associated with Putin. There is a difference between this Russian diaspora and the entire Russian diaspora. The difference is that these people want to go back. But they want to return when Putin is gone. We want to assist them.”
I wondered aloud if this diaspora could destabilize Putin. “I don’t expect that their impact will be to destabilize Putin,” Khodorkovsky answers me. “But Putin’s regime is going to end very soon. It will inevitably end with a lost war. It could be a lost war now with Ukraine or, tomorrow, a lost war with NATO—because he is not going to stop. As soon as he loses the war in Ukraine or the next war, his days are numbered. And at that point, [world powers] will be interested in having Russia remain whole, not fall apart, because Russia falling apart wouldn’t be a pleasant thing for anyone.
“So if we are talking about a framework of five years before Putin goes down, then this diaspora [is] the people who will come back and make a difference. If we are talking about 10 years, then there would be other people, not those who left today. But with high probability, we are talking about a framework of five years. And that’s why we want to work with these people.”
In the meantime, of course, Putin continues to imprison those who oppose him and his war inside Russia. The most famous political prisoner today is Alexei Navalny, leader of the Russia of the Future Party. Khodorkovsky predicts that Navalny will remain imprisoned until Putin leaves and will then be freed. He is quick to mention another political prisoner, someone to whom he is very close. Open Russia, his NGO that promoted civil society and democracy, had its offices forcibly shuttered in Moscow in 2021, and Khodorkovsky’s “good friend and colleague” Andrei Pivoverov was placed on trial. He has been held in pre-trial detention for 10 months and faces up to six years in prison. “I also worry for him,” Khodorkovsky said.
Rumors have long abounded that Khodorkovsky, who once harbored political ambitions (which led to his imprisonment) against Putin, still would like to play a political role in a post-Putin future. That’s why I was surprised by the answer he gave me when I asked if he would like to return to Russia. Before answering, he became solemn and heaved a sigh.
“That’s a good question. Before February 24 [when Russia invaded Ukraine], it would be an easy answer,” he responded. “Yes, of course I would want to come back. But now I have a problem watching my Russian compatriots inside the country. I can’t look at them. I can’t face them. I hope that this will pass inside of me. But when they say, let’s continue to kill Ukrainians, I don’t want to have anything to do with this.… My mind is split between my friends in Ukraine and my co-citizens in Russia. My friends in Russia are normal, but I know a lot of people there with a different opinion. There are a lot of people like that.”
He has been giving interviews at a furious pace during the war, anxious to get his message out. So I wonder, in closing, whether there is a question that he’d like to be asked and hasn’t yet been asked.
“What you already asked, no one asked me before: how I feel as a Russian when a fascist regime is established in my own homeland and Russia starts a war with a homeland where my family and friends are. It is like a war between Americans and Canadians. You basically wake up one morning, and you realize that your Russian identity has been cracked. Maybe you feel like you don’t want to be Russian anymore, and you also understand that this is not possible. You are Russian.”