Former Russian oligarch, then celebrity political prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky addressed international media here Sunday from a cramped room at a museum dedicated to those who tried, and often died while failing, to escape the old authoritarian rule that many believe is evident once again today in Russia.
Khodorkovsky, the former owner of oil-giant Yukos (Russia’s second largest business), repeatedly said he had only had 36 hours to reacquaint with this family after a decade of jail and therefore had not had time to make any detailed plans. He did say however that his goals for the future do not necessarily contain a return to Russia, that he will stay out of politics and the world of power, and even that he didn’t expect to return to the business world.
“My financial situation doesn’t require me to work just to earn some more money,” he said at the press conference, which began about 1:30 p.m at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum in Berlin. In other media reports, he stated that as many of his old assets were seized he did not know exactly how much wealth he had retained through his decade in prison. Before being jailed, he was Russia’s wealthiest man, worth an estimated $15 billion. “The time that is left to me is time I would like to devote to paying back the debts I have to those who have a right to expect me to repay those debts.”
He said those included the many political prisoners and wrongly imprisoned still in Russia.
Khodorkovsky, now 50, was famously jailed by the Russian government of President Vladimir Putin in 2003 on charges ranging from tax evasion to embezzlement. The conventional wisdom, then and still, was that Putin’s government created the charges because Khodorkovsky was becoming a pro-democracy advocate and a political threat to the president.
Still, and with the winter Olympics coming up in February, Putin on Friday released his old rival (and before that partner) as part of a recent prison clear out of controversial international symbols of Russian injustice (two members of the Pussy Riot were also released, as were members of the Greenpeace anti-whaling protesters called the Arctic 30).
Putin’s move in releasing high profile political prisoners is seen as an attempt to head off negative press about Russia when the eyes of the world focus on the nation during the Olympics. By making the moves now, the strategy appears to be to diminish the news value of the prisoners by the time the games begin.
Khodokovsky has been hailed as reformer in recent years, and some in the audience at Checkpoint Charlie Museum applauded when he entered the press conference.
But, as the BBC noted “he was never a popular figure with the Russian public, who identified him with the country's chaotic move to a market economy in the 1990s, when tens of millions were left impoverished.”
He built his empire by buying former Soviet assets, which technically belonged to Soviet citizens during the privatization of the former socialist economy. Critics maintain he only had access to buy the Yukos oil company and others (at cut-rate prices) because of his position in the communist party, a position he used to found what would become one of Russia’s first private banks, Menatep. He said he had achieved all he could have wanted in the business world, and would not return to it.
He also said he learned of his release from a prison camp near the Finnish border at 2 a.m., and said during the press conference Sunday that when he was told to gather his things that he had no idea where he was heading.
“I had no choice,” he said when asked why he immediately came to Berlin. “When the question of my release came up it was 2 a.m. and the commandant of my camp woke me and told me I was going home. After that I learned that this trip was to end in Berlin.”
In Berlin, his footsteps and reunions with family have been dogged and recorded by reporters from around the world. He is staying at a luxury hotel that is famous in the United States as the place from which Michael Jackson once dangled his infant, directly between the U.S. and British Embassies, and also a block from the Russian embassy. His mother arrived Saturday, and is reportedly being treated at a German hospital only blocks from the hotel, as well.
Still, he began the press conference for thanking the media for what he called the important role they had played in keeping the pressure on Putin to finally allow his release. In fact, he thanked many, from the operators of the museum to German politicians Angela Merkel (whom he said worked behind the scenes) and the legendary former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher (who led German reunification talks with the Soviet Union).
At the press conference, during his introduction, the list of those officially thanked also included Putin. And while he laughed as the name was read, he later noted that he appreciated the fact that Putin had always left his family out of the matter, despite the fact that “the games people play are really tough games.”
And, when asked if he had any advice for politicians around the world who still must deal with Putin, he noted: “It would probably be somewhat arrogant on my part to give advice to experienced politicians on how to deal with someone as difficult as the president of my country.”
But he did add to that statement: “I hope they should be aware that I am not the last political prisoner.”