LONDON—Russia’s former richest man and longtime prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, wearing slightly threadbare jeans and a thick sweater under his jacket, was making coffee in his office on Hanover Square. Snow was falling outside, covering the British capital with a wet, cold blanket a little reminiscent of Moscow, and there is no doubt that is where Khodorkovsky’s thoughts were as we talked.
Earlier in the day, last Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin had boasted to the Russian parliament about the country’s new nuclear weapons, which are capable, he said, of destroying millions of lives “at the speed of a meteorite.”
Khodorkovsky, adjusting his rimless glasses, said quietly that Putin’s speech had left him shocked: “Sounds like the old man is out of his mind, something needs to be done about that.”
“While Putin spoke about war and death, his audience full of Russian officials was applauding, beaming with idiotic smiles—I was disgusted to see that,” Khodorkovsky said in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast.
One wouldn’t have expected him to speak kindly of the Russian president, whom Khodorkovsky has known for many painful years.
In 2003, when Khodorkovsky was head of the oil giant Yukos and reputed to have a personal fortune of some $15 billion, he showed up at a Kremlin meeting without a tie (seen as a sign of disrespect) and confronted Putin in front of everybody there: “Mr. President, your officials are bribe takers and thieves.” Since then, it is said, Putin has never forgiven Khodorkovsky for that declaration, despite the fact—or because of it—that many people believe it to be true.
From 2003 to 2013, the erstwhile oligarch was locked in Russian prisons and prison camps for alleged tax evasion and theft. Then, five years ago, Putin pardoned Khodorkovsky, and the former oil tycoon left Russia on the first day of his freedom, joining the large population of exiled Russian businessmen here in “Londongrad” who hope that one day the Russian regime will “fall apart.”
Through it all, Khodorkovsky was able to preserve some of his fortune, and today he is the richest Russian philanthropist sponsoring independent media, human rights, and investigative projects inside the country, although he does not go back to Russia himself.
One common strategy used to silence opponents and critics of Putin is to level charges of outrageous crimes against them. (One, tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, was tried and convicted for tax evasion after he died in a Russian prison.)
In 2015, two years after Khodorkovsky was released into exile, he was charged with the 1998 murder of Vladimir Petukhov, mayor of Nefteyugansk, a town amid rich oil fields in central Russia. Prosecutors accused Khodorkovsky of hiring an assassin to kill Petukhov 17 years earlier because the mayor had pressured Yukos to pay more taxes.
In 2007, a Russian court sentenced the head of Yukos security, Alexei Pichugin, to life in prison for ordering three murders, including Petukhov’s. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russian authorities had violated Pichugin’s rights, but last year the Russian Supreme Court upheld the sentence.
Khodorkovsky has denied his involvement in the murder. His former lawyer, Vadim Klyuvgant, refers to the prosecutors’ accusation as “fantasy.”
After Khodorkovsky’s decade in prison he devoted himself to support for Russian civil society. Instead of retiring and enjoying his life on some sunny beach, the former tycoon comes to work every day at his office in chilly London.
As he analyzed Putin’s most recent speech, Khodorkovsky noted that the kind of nuclear weapons presented in a graphic video accompanying the Russian president’s remarks (many of which were shown converging on Florida) were not really new. Back in the days of the Soviet Union, scientists had talked about the same sorts of weapons but decided not to include them in the state’s arsenal, Khodorkovsky pointed out, because they could be dangerous to the Russians themselves, and certainly would complicate or thwart what formerly would be good-faith efforts to reduce the chances of nuclear war.
“In my view Putin demonstrates to us that he is not interested in Russia any longer, he sees himself in the international arena, threatening foreign governments, forcing them to love him,” Khodorkovsky told The Daily Beast. “That love for Putin that he desires did not happen—after the conflict in Ukraine, after his actions in Syria, nobody felt it—so now he says: ‘Here is how I will force you to love me.’”
Khodorkovsky also has warned his supporters in Russia about the dangers that lie ahead as Putin boasts of invincible ICBMs, cruise missiles, and underwater drones that no other country in the world can stop. Speaking on a video link from London, the erstwhile billionaire urged his Russian followers that Putin could push the so-called red button at any moment.
“Before, I hoped we would never see the Third Word War, but now I am not that sure,” he said, then added, speaking figuratively: “Guys, let’s burn down the throne of this damn czar, then we’ll live normally.” To do that, the philanthropist called on Russians to reform the political system, to create a parliamentary republic.
In the interview with The Daily Beast, Khodorkovsky noted that President Putin has never seen war with his own eyes. “His aides let him watch too many war movies, he has not seen real war, which this time would mean blood and death all over the planet.”
The chief executive once knew Putin personally and well, said, “It is hard for me to imagine that Putin, whose children live in the West, who knows perfectly well that there is no external threat for Russia, cannot foresee the reaction here to his message: Right now the West’s top politicians and military bosses are rubbing their hands, eager to take Putin’s message to their voters and ask for money—and so, the arms race begins.”
Indeed, that sense that the Putin speech was a watershed is now widespread, even though U.S. President Donald Trump has yet to comment on it. Russian independent expert Alexander Golts agreed with Khodorkovsky’s point: “Putin’s horrible message means that the Cold War between Russia’s and NATO’s forces begins right now.”
All this is taking place as Russia’s presidential elections approach on March 18. At this point, Khodorkovsky and his supporters do not doubt that President Putin’s popularity is solid and a will return him to office for another six years. So Khodorkovsky is preparing his Russian supporters for the 2024 elections, and apparently with more confidence than ever, his messages sounded revolutionary. Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, he said, “If we do not water the tree of our freedom with blood of patriots and tyrants, it will never bloom.”
But in the meantime, in Russia, dozens of opposition activists have been arrested, interrogated, beaten, imprisoned. Khodorkovsky said he expected more arrests to come after the vote two weeks away, but his Open Russia Foundation’s group of human-rights defenders and lawyers will provide legal support to Russian political dissidents.
Khodorkovsky is well aware that other critics and opponents of Putin have been killed under highly suspicious circumstances, not only in Russia, but, in one infamous case, here in “Londongrad.”
Alexander Litvinenko, formerly with Russian State Security (the FSB) fled Russia, obtained British citizenship, and became a fierce critic of the Kremlin. The FSB (successor to the Soviet KGB) does not forgive what it considers traitors. And in 2006, after Litvinenko’s accusations against Putin became increasingly personal and scurrilous, he was poisoned with a fatal dose of polonium-210, a rare isotope put in his tea at a London hotel.
On Monday this week, a Russian intelligence officer who had spied for the West and been given refuge in Britain after he was released by Moscow in a 2010 prisoner swap, was left in critical condition after exposure to an “unknown substance,” according to British authorities. The agent, Sergei Skripal, had served with the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, before he was caught passing information to Western intelligence that included the identities of Russian agents.
If this does turn out to be an act of vengeance and intimidation, it is certainly a brazen one. Khodorkovsky, in an email, told The Daily Beast, “I am not sure which news would upset me more at this point, that Putin cannot control the GRU, or that he is a maniac.”
In Russia, Anna Politkovskaya, an award-winning independent journalist for Novaya Gazeta, was assassinated in her apartment building a month before Litvinenko was poisoned in London. In 2015 President Putin’s most passionate critic, Boris Nemtsov, was shot four times in the back right outside of the Kremlin’s wall. His assassins are in prison but the mastermind behind his assassination has never been brought to trial.
Earlier this month the British government decided to increase scrutiny of wealthy foreigners, and Ben Wallace, minister of state for security and economic crime, expressed hopes that the BBC/AMC drama series McMafia, which shows elements of the Russian mob working closely and ruthlessly with individuals in the state security service, would increase awareness of global corruption. Khodorkovsky was even invited to give his opinion to Parliament about the series.
He told The Daily Beast he didn’t much like it. He said that after watching a few episodes, “I told dozens of U.K. members of parliament that the series missed the main point by not showing that the Kremlin—and not Russian businessmen—is the most dangerous organized crime group,” adding with evident emotion, “Nobody should forget what happened to Alexander Litvinenko, Anna Politkovskaya, Boris Nemtsov, and other Putin critics.”
Hundreds of thousands of educated Russians, including successful businessmen, flee Russia every year. According to the Atlantic Council, about 1.8 million Russian citizens emigrated in the period between 2000 and 2014. Today some exiled Russian businessmen liable to face criminal charges at home are nonetheless feeling nostalgic, hoping they could make a deal with the Kremlin.
Earlier this month President Putin’s business ombudsman, Boris Titov, spoke with about 16 rich Russians at Pushkin House in London who seemed ready to return home. Names on the list included Aleksei Bazhanov, a former deputy minister of agriculture and founder of “Masloproduct,” a factory producing oil and butter; Sergei Kapchuk, a former Sverdlovsk region deputy and owner of a ball-bearing factory; Anatoly Loktinov, former vice president of Russian oil giant Rosneft; and Mikhail Shamanov, owner of several travel companies. All of these individuals had lived in luxurious estates in London while wanted in Russia for fraud, embezzlement, laundering millions of dollars, and other crimes.
The first businessman from Titov’s London List to return to Moscow last month, Andrei Kokovkin, was detained immediately by police. Kokovkin, who traded fuel in Rostov-on-Don, was accused of financial fraud. In spite of Titov’s promises, the criminal case against him was still opened.
Khodorkovsky, who spoke with several Russian citizens from Titov’s list, said that in his opinion Titov was trying lure back a few small and middle level millionaires, who “actually do want to return home.”
“They are not crazy but they are running out of money,” said Khodorkovsky, “so they want to go back to Russia, where they know how to make money.”
Khodorkovsky said that he is convinced that opening and closing of criminal cases in Russia was pure business, like the “indulgences” offered by the church: “It has nothing to do with groveling before Putin, Titov is trying to make a new deal with exiled businessmen, assure them that their cases would be closed now, and then later they would pay the system,” Khodorkovsky told The Daily Beast.
But “when the first Russian businessman got arrested upon his arrival,” said Khodorkovsky, “it became obvious to us in London, that nobody in Russia had a huge desire to let Titov change the rules of the market [and] there are no illusions left that the criminal charges against businessmen on the list would be dropped.”