MOSCOW—Why is Mikhail Khodorkovsky still alive?
A great many critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his secret services have been murdered or died or almost died under mysterious circumstances at home and abroad. They’ve been poisoned with exotic substances, shot in the back, defenestrated, passed away from implausible illnesses—yet Khodorkovsky, without question Putin’s most important opponent in exile, remains alive and well in London.
Here in the Russian capital, among those who feel they may be targeted as well, there are two basic theories about how best to stay alive: try to stay quiet, or shout back. Khodorkovsky takes the latter approach.
It was the end of the working day at Khodorkovsky’s new office on Wimpole Street, in central London. Outside, pedestrians enjoyed the calm, balmy evening, men stood in tight groups around corner pubs, shoppers hurried to make final purchases at luxury boutiques.
It was an improbable backdrop for talk about violent plots at home in Russia, and Khodorkovsky’s ideas about how to counter them. “I have been trying to understand what’s going on through some of my multiple channels in the Russian government,” he told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview.
Khodorkovsky was once Russia’s richest man, head of the Yukos oil company, until he challenged Putin’s rising power. Accused of multiple crimes on what he says were trumped-up charges, Khodorkovsky spent a decade imprisoned in Siberia. When, finally, he was released, he went into exile and became the leader of the Open Russia organization, positioning himself as as one of Putin’s strongest and most persistent critics, while drawing on what he calls “channels in Russian power” to warn him of plots and conspiracies.
More than 10,000 officers and bureaucrats work in hundreds of rooms in the maze of the Kremlin administration and law enforcement ministries in Moscow, Khodorkovsky points out, and not all of them agree with the impunity of the secret services, the unlawful violence, and the assassinations of opposition activists and leaders in Russia and abroad.
“I received information recently about an assassination attempt ordered against me. When my channels in Moscow informed me about the special operation being plotted, I sent messages back, saying: ‘This one, too, will not be left unnoticed’ So that is how we’ve been fighting an information war with the Kremlin.”
The former oligarch did not provide The Daily Beast with any evidence of the threat against him. But amid the charges and counter-charges and sometimes ludicrous denials in the Kremlin-controlled media, there’s a growing, cumulative backlash against Russia for the hits allegedly orchestrated by Putin’s services.
Even Putin-friendly U.S. President Donald Trump has had to embrace sanctions and diplomatic actions. Were Khodorkovsky to be murdered, the repercussions could be more dramatic still. But that does not mean he’s safe.
A significant part of Putin’s game is the strategic use of information about the murders to intimidate his enemies, including and especially those who think they might be targeted next. Typically, it appears Putin wants to be able to deny explicit complicity while he takes credit implicitly. On at least two occasions his alleged agents have used poisons that not only were very rare, but when discovered and analyzed pointed straight back toward the Russian secret services.
In the first case, former Russian agent and defector Alexander Litvinenko, a vocal critic of Putin, was killed in London in 2006 with the very rare radioactive isotope polonium 210 produced by the Russian nuclear industry. Earlier this year, another former Russian agent and defector living quietly in the English town of Salisbury, Sergei Skripal, almost died after exposure to the poison known as novichok, which was developed as a sophisticated chemical weapon by the former Soviet Union—and only by the Soviet Union.
The British have identified two Russians they claim were responsible for the attempt on Skripal, which also led to the hospitalization of his daughter and a bystander, and the death of a woman who picked up the Nina Ricci perfume bottle that had contained the nerve agent.
The Kremlin’s media have tried to say the Russians were innocent tourists, but one was identified by the private investigative news site Bellingcat as an officer in the GRU, Russian military intelligence. Subsequently the Russian newspaper Kommersant confirmed the ID.
A different murder fraught with symbolism was the assassination of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, gunned down right outside the Kremlin walls in 2015. And there are many other examples.
None of these operations ever was traced directly to Putin, but all of them served to heighten fears among his enemies and critics. Khodorkovsky has no doubt that in his case, Putin was aware of the alleged assassination plot against him, and whoever leaked the information about it may have meant to grate on the former oil magnate’s nerves.
Is Khodorkovsky getting paranoid, given the modus operandi of his very real enemy? He says no. And Khodorkovsky is not new to the world of threats.
In April 2006, while he was imprisoned in a Siberian prison camp thousands of miles from Moscow, another inmate slashed his face while he slept. Khodorkovsky woke up covered in blood. The wound was not life-threatening, but was taken as a warning.
These days, he says, “reliable channels of information” provide him and his international team with important hints about what Putin and his closest circle are up to. “There are many people in Moscow who feel responsible about preventing my assassination,” Khodorkovsky told The Daily Beast. “They realize that the decision-makers in power have gone crazy; the law enforcement agencies don’t need to kill me, as I am not somebody related to their operation. But the control of the opposition is their job, so they are obliged to fulfill the president’s orders.”
Indeed, Khodorkovsky is neither a former intelligence agent, like the two spies, Skripal and Litvinenko, poisoned in the U.K.; nor was he a former Kremlin team member, like Mikhail Lesin, Putin’s adviser and founder of Russia Today TV channel, who died mysteriously in Washington.
”They [sources] tell me that Putin is not aware of this order to kill me, while I am convinced Putin is well-informed,” he said.
From the first days of the novichok crisis, Khodorkovsky has blamed Putin for Skripal’s poisoning: “To me it is obvious that either Putin ordered the poisoning attack on Skripal or his secret services have gotten out of control, which is also his fault.”
Animosity between Khodorkovsky and Putin goes back years. Many in Russia are convinced that back in 2003, Putin personally ordered Russia’s richest man locked up behind bars. The arrest happened shortly after Khodorkovsky was abrupt and confrontational at a meeting with Putin in front of the country’s leading businessmen and television cameras.
“To change the system of criminal capitalism, it is necessary to change your bureaucracy,” Khodorkovsky told Putin that day. “Your bureaucrats take and demand bribes.” Putin promised to check if Khodorkovsky’s own company, Yukos, had its tax payments in order. Shortly after that meeting, Khodorkovsky was arrested for tax evasion and was sent to the prison camps.
As soon as Putin freed him in 2013, Khodorkovsky left Russia and was granted residency in Switzerland. He had managed to save about $600 million in accounts abroad. Then, two years later, when Khodorkovsky refused to lie low, a Moscow court charged him with murder.
Over time, the threats against Putin’s opponents have served to harden the resistance. Hundreds of Putin’s new critics emerge to replace the victims.
Russia’s leading investigative journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, famous for pinning down the crimes committed by state officials in Chechnya, was murdered at age 48, on President Putin’s birthday, in October 2006, after receiving multiple threats. But today Russian online news publications and social media are bursting with articles and posts—more reporters emerge every year, devoting themselves to investigating President Putin and his allies’ illegal actions.
The tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died of heart failure while in police custody as a result of state officials denying him medical treatment as he investigated fraud. He was 37. But hundreds of thousands of activists have joined Alexey Navalny’s anti-corruption movement that investigates similar corruption schemes.
In 2015, before Nemtsov, opposition leader and former vice prime minister, was shot dead in view of the Kremlin’s walls he had lived for years under a constant shower of threats. Navalny has continued Nemtsov’s activism, and continues to be a magnet for menac.
In January 2014, a few weeks after Khodorkovsky left prison, Nemtsov visited him in Switzerland. They had previously met in the Kremlin, when Nemtsov was in power. And now the two leading opponents of Putin discussed Khodorkovsky’s future. The ex-oligarch had plans to build a philanthropic empire and develop a strategy for a future democratic Russia.
After that trip, Nemtsov told friends and supporters about Khodorkovsky’s thoughts about reforming Russia's political system, removing the power over Russia from the hands of one man.
“After Nemtsov was killed, somebody called me and said that there were four people on the list for assassination and that I was one of them,” Khodorkovsky told The Daily Beast. “They also said that out of the assigned 24 million ruble budget, the group had spent only 17 million."
Today, Khodorkovsky and his Open Russia group are running dozens of media, educational and human rights divisions across Russia; their employees organize seminars and conferences, defend arrested opposition activists and help NGOs and civic groups around the region.
“I have lots of projects in Russia, none of them are commercial and philanthropy means losses,” Khodorkovsky said with a big smile. To feel comfortable about pouring money into Russian civil society, Khodorkovsky and his life-long business partners invested in real estate and other business enterprises in the United States and Europe.
In Russian liberal circles, Khodorkovsky is often criticized for being naïve and detached from reality, especially when it comes to controlling the work of his own employees.
“It often happens that one of his media groups does not know what the others are doing; his employees spend a lot of his money without achieving much; I sometimes wonder how he became a billionaire,” says Yelena Panfilova, senior manager of Transparency International. Panfilova added that Khodorkovsky often became enamored of new people and fresh ideas.
Recently, one of Khodorkovsky’s investigative teams known as Dossier Center turned up information that might have bearing on investigations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. They got hold of emails allegedly sent by a Texas-based Russian-American businessman named Simon Kukes—who donated $283,000 to the Trump Victor PAC—to Vyacheslav Pavlovsky, a former Russian ambassador to Norway and now the vice president of Russian Railways.
“I have been actively involved in Trump’s election campaign, and am part of the group on strategy development,” Kukes wrote. “I will be in Switzerland July 20th  till August 2nd. Let me know how you are doing, and whether you want to meet.”
Both The Guardian and NBC News picked up the initial story. Kukes would not be interviewed but responded by email that “that he thought his donations would help him make contacts in Houston, but that he regrets having made them in light of the press coverage they generated.” The Guardian reported that they began two weeks after a now-infamous July 2016 meeting between Russian representatives and members of the Trump campaign—including Donald J. Trump Jr.—in Trump Tower.
As Kukes put it in one email to Pavlovsky after attending a fundraiser for the candidate, he thought Trump’s chances were “very good.” In fact, many rich Russians naturalized as Americans apparently shared that opinion, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars, and in one case even $1 million, to political action committees supporting Trump.
But what was Khodorkovsky’s interest in all this?
In fact, Kukes used to work for Khodorkovsky. In the spring of 2003, Kukes became vice president of Khodorkovsky’s giant oil company, Yukos; and a few months later, on Oct. 25, Khodorkovsky was arrested.
“It is strange that Khodorkovsky is investigating his former partner Kukes,” says Alexey Kandaurov, former head of Yukos’ analytical department. “I don’t think anybody ever took Kukes seriously in the Kremlin and it is unlikely that Trump listened to Kukes’ pitiful donation for the campaign, ” Kandaurov told The Daily Beast.
Another of Khodorkovsky’s reporting projects had fatal results for the journalists involved, and while he wants to discover the truth about the activities of Putin, the Russian secret services, and the oligarchs who serve both, he also wants to find better ways to protect those who investigate them in the public interest.
Earlier this month the philanthropist created a new foundation, Justice for Journalists, after three Russian freelance journalists were murdered while investigating Russian private military contractors in the Central African Republic.
“The effort he makes to protect journalists around the world is noble and rare, I will do everything to help Khodorkovsky create the system of prevention, to defend reporters from assassinations,” says Panfilova of Transparency International.
As we talked about the murders in Africa there on Wimpole Street in London, Khodorkovsky was furious, offering some critical details that have come out of his inquiries.
“According to the working version of the murder investigation that we have now, they were Russian killers,” Khodorkovsky told The Daily Beast. “They first shot one of the three journalists and then received an order to finish the others.”
It appears that anyone investigating the murder may be in danger. Pyotr Verzilov, an activist with Pussy Riot, allegedly was poisoned right before he was supposed to publish his investigative report about the three murdered journalists.
In another case a reporter from Khodorkovsky’s team of investigative journalists, Sergey Kanev, had to escape from Russia after a serious threat: Russian law enforcement agencies tried to accuse the journalist of preparing a terrorist attack on President Putin. Shortly prior the accusations, Kanev was investigating Skripal suspects, the alleged Russian GRU officers.
On Sunday, journalist Matvey Ganapolsky summed up the situation for Kanv in an interview on Echo of Moscow. “This would be my diagnosis: authorities are not even trying to make up something more sophisticated, they simply make up a terrorism story about Kanev, an investigative journalist with 30 years of experience.”
Much like the three journalists killed in Africa, Kanev had worked for Investigation Control Center, another investigative group funded by Khodorkovsky.
Echo of Moscow conducted its own social study on Sunday: the majority of the radio’s listeners, 64 percent, said that Kanev was right to be investigating the poisoning attack on Sergei Skripal.
Dozens of Russian independent journalists have been killed in the past two decades of Putin’s rule. But the new Khodorkovsky organization will also look at violence against journalists more broadly. More than 700 reporters were killed in the course of their work around the world in the past two decades.
At a time when there is no hope that state institutions will protect people from the abuses of the powerful, Khodorkovsky said, “Journalists are the last non-military defense left for the civil society in its fight against authoritarian regimes.”
With additional reporting by Christopher Dickey