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Khodorkovsky stands his ground

Roman Goncharenko / nsDecember 20, 2013

Once the richest man in Russia, Mikhail Khodorkovsky became the country's most prominent prisoner over 10 years ago. He is now in Berlin after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his pardon.

Image: Reuters

One picture shows a manager in a dark tailored suit. His hair is grey, and he looks serious in his rimless glasses. In another photo, the same man is wearing a black prison jacket and only his glasses and his facial expression have remained the same. The man's name is Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Over a decade has passed between these two pictures. The first photo was taken in June 2003 at the Moscow headquarters of the Yukos oil company. Khodorkovsky, the firm's CEO, was 40 years old and was Russia's richest man. His wealth was estimated at $8 billion. The second photo was taken in August 2013 in a penal colony.

Mikhail Khordorkovsky
Mikhail Khordorkovsky is now writing books and gives interviews from behind barsImage: Maxim Marmur/AFP/Getty Images

Ten years ago, on October 25, 2003, Khodorkovsky was arrested. After a pair of trials, the oil tycoon was convicted to 11 years in prison on charges including tax fraud and stealing oil from his own company. During and after his trials, Yukos' stock plummeted, erasing much of Khodorkovsky's wealth and bankrupting the company. Rights group Amnesty International declared him a "prisoner of conscience."

Khodorkovsky's presidential pardon was announced on Friday (12.20.2013). Khodorkovsky left the prison colony in the northwestern Russian region of Karelia, and boarded an aircraft headed for Berlin, where he spent his first night in freedom in ten years at the exclusive Hotel Adlon, a few meters from the Brandenburg Gate.

"Guided by humanitarian principles, I decree that Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky... should be pardoned and freed from any further punishment in the form of imprisonment. This decree comes into force from the day of its signing," said the decree signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and published by the Kremlin.

An oligarch of the Yeltsin era

Khodorkovsky is remembered as "the quietest and calmest" of all the so-called Russian oligarchs, who held sway over Russia's political and economic establishment, said Matthias Schepp, head of the Moscow office for the German newsmagazine "Der Spiegel."

"Back then, he did not show any political ambitions to me," said Schepp, who has known Khodorkovsky since the mid-1990s.

But the business man did not keep himself out of politics. He and other oligarchs helped former President Boris Yeltsin win re-election in 1996, at a time when Yeltsin was quite unpopular in Russia, Schepp told DW. "In return, the government gave the best pieces of the Russian industry to him for little money," he added.

Within a few years, Khodorkovsky built Yukos into the largest oil company in Russia. There were even rumors he would politically challenge Vladimir Putin. Khodorkovsky denied that he harbored political ambitions, but he did finance the liberal opposition. Putin publicly accused Khodorkovsky of corruption at a public meeting in the beginning of 2003. A tense exchange of words followed and a few months later the Yukos executive was arrested.

Sewing mittens and folding paper behind bars

Initially, Khodorkovsky was held in custody in Moscow, he was then later moved to a Siberian penal colony, where the former billionaire sewed mittens. He was then moved to a prison camp in the small town of Segezha in the Karelia region, some 1,200 kilometers north of Moscow, where he sewed mittens together as his prison job, and from which he was finally freed.

Pavel Khordorkovsky
Pavel Khordorkovsky, Mikhail Khordorkovsky's son, sees his father as a 'moral leader'Image: DW/N.Jolver

Khodorkovsky, who turned 50 this year, has spent one-fifth of his life behind bars. Writing has been one way of getting though each day. Khodorkovsky writes analysis of the Russian domestic politics and even takes a look into the future of mankind.

No petition to be pardoned

"It is clear to me that imprisonment has changed him," said Schepp, who has corresponded with Khodorkovsky by mail since 2011. Schepp said Khodorkovsky's "determination or stubbornness" remains unchanged and he described the ex-oligarch as someone with a very strong view and who is unwilling to give in. "It says a lot about him that over the last 10 years he turned down any deal with the Kremlin."

According to press reports, Khodorkovsky is said to have had the opportunity to plead guilty and be released to emigrate abroad.

"Clash of the Titans"

The Russian opposition was joined by human-rights groups and Western countries in describing his conviction as politically motivated. His second trial came under particular international criticism. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg did not find enough evidence in the lawsuit against Khodorkovsky to classify the prosecution as politically motivated, but said the trial was unfair and that Khodorkovsky's punishment was disproportionate.

The Khodorkovsky case continues to split Russia until today. Some see him as a crook, while to others he is a martyr. Some Russians hope the former top manager will enter politics upon his release.

"My father is seen as a moral leader," Pavel Khodorkovsky said, adding that his father would not aspire the role of an opposition leader. Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks against it in his books.

Khodorkovsky's sentence was recently reduced by two months and his release was scheduled for August 2014. His pardon was announced by Putin on Thursday.