The Kremlin's Specter Will Oligarch Khodorkovsky Be Released?

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man and Putin's strongest adversary, could soon be released from prison. Can the polarizing oil tycoon reinvigorate a beleagered opposition?
Russia's most famous prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, at a courtroom in Moscow in 2011.

Russia's most famous prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, at a courtroom in Moscow in 2011.

Foto: Alexey SAZONOV/ AFP

Standing in the midst of wool socks from Armenia and hats from Turkey, Anna, the street market vendor, lowers her voice. At the onset of winter, the heat remained off for many weeks in the city's apartments -- the fault, she says, of "this oligarch who has fallen upon us like a meteorite from the sky."

Anna hates Mikhail Khodorkovsky . Before his arrest he was Russia's richest man, while she still remains so poor that she has to supplement her meager monthly pension of less than €100 ($130) by selling cheap clothing.

Her market stall is on the outskirts of Segezha, a cheerless town of 30,000 inhabitants in a desolate part of the country. Moscow is 900 km (600 miles) away, and the Finnish border is nearby. In the 1930s, Stalin sent criminals and political enemies to this remote corner of the country, where over 100,000 of them died.

A gravel road lined with fir trees leads to Correctional Camp Seven. The buses of line number 4 are mired in slush and mud, as they are every spring. At the last bus stop, there are walls with barbed wire, watchtowers and a sign warning visitors: "No photos allowed." A total of 1,300 prisoners live here, including the most prominent inmate, Khodorkovsky, who has been incarcerated at the camp for nearly two years now. Is it possible that he will no longer be among them soon?

There has been a flurry of speculation recently that Moscow may order Khodorkovsky's release. Russia's Supreme Court has sent for the files from the first two trials against the oligarch. Due to evident procedural errors, his 11-year prison sentence could be further reduced and the magnate could soon be a free man again.

A Threat to the Power Structure

On the other hand, the centrist daily newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes that the Kremlin is currently preparing a third criminal case against Khodorkovsky -- one that could put him behind bars again for two decades, this time for alleged contract killings. Indeed, if Khodorkovsky were freed, he would again pose a threat to President Vladimir Putin's power structure. He could demand the return of his oil empire, which was broken up by Putin's friends, and become a figurehead for the faltering opposition.  Its most popular leader, blogger Alexei Navalny , was put on trial just last week. State prosecutors accuse him of embezzlement. Navalny alleges that the indictment was initiated by the Kremlin, which wants to see him disappear behind bars for years just like Khodorkovsky.

It has been nine-and-a-half years since Putin had the billionaire arrested on charges of tax evasion, and later had his oil company, Yukos, dismantled and sold off. Today, Khodorkovsky is significantly more famous than at the height of his power, when he financed opposition parties, accused Putin's closest friends of corruption and considered selling a stake in his firm to American oil companies.

For the West, the Khodorkovsky case is an indication of where Russia  is headed: Will he be released in a bid to polish up the country's tarnished image in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games and counter the emerging economic slowdown?

In a sense, Khodorkovsky serves as a projection screen for the Russians, who still haven't found their footing 20 years after the traumatic collapse of the Soviet Union. Some hate him, while others admire him.

One of the few individuals in Segezha who harbors sympathies for him is the principal of the town's School Number 6. Years ago, she attended a computer seminar financed by Khodorkovsky's Open Russia Foundation. When she wanted to discuss the issue of "social justice and oligarchs like Khodorkovsky" with her class of high school seniors, the school board prohibited her from doing so.

A Specter that Haunts the Kremlin

The entrepreneur hovers over Segezha like a ghost, and since there is a dearth of information about him, rumors are rampant. Some say that to take revenge on the city he orchestrated an epidemic of swine fever, while others maintain that he lives like a king behind the barbed wire.

But Khodorkovsky is also a specter that haunts the Kremlin. Putin against Khodorkovsky -- it's a battle of two titans. Putin can hit the hated oligarch with the full force of his state apparatus. Likewise, the magnate's well-oiled PR machine ensures that books that take a sympathetic view of him get published and a symphony composed in his honor attracts worldwide attention. During the mass demonstrations in Moscow, calls for Khodorkovsky's release were among the main demands made by the opposition.

Putin's popularity in the country is waning, even in Segezha. This has little to do with Khodorkovsky, and much to do with a lack of prospects. Over the past five years, one seventh of the population has fled the city. The locals hold the Russian president and his regime responsible for their economic plight -- and they have elected a mayor who was supported by communists and nationalists. During the election in March 2012, Putin garnered 16 percent fewer votes here than in 2004: only 56 percent, a poor result by Russian standards.

Not even Segezha's most attractive politician could avert this election washout. Liana Vaguzenkova, with her flowing blonde mane of hair, campaigned for Putin. The 31-year-old represents the district in which Khodorkovsky's prison camp is located. She managed to have hot water pipes installed in her impoverished constituency, and stopped the only bus line from being discontinued.

The single mother operates the municipal movie theater, the only one in town. She had a net hung directly under the ceiling to prevent spectators from being injured by falling plaster. Nevertheless, she says: "Putin guarantees the stability of our country."

She wasn't allowed to show the documentary film "Khodorkovsky," by German director Cyril Tuschi, so she watched it online. She said she liked the film because Tuschi "shows Khodorkovsky as a courageous human being and not just as a criminal, as he's portrayed here on television."

'Putin Made My Life Boring'

Russian journalist Alexei Yakovlev despises Putin and his propaganda television. "Putin has put us back in the chains that we shook off under Gorbachev," he says. Yakovlev works for private broadcaster Nika Plus. He is proud of the fact that he has won two court cases against the town's mayor. One could say that he's the city's watchdog. He is sitting at his desk, dressed in a blue coat and a scarf to ward off the perpetual chill in his office.

"Putin made my life boring. Things were more interesting under Gorbachev," he says. When communist hard-liners mounted a coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, Yakovlev pasted posters that read "The putsch won't succeed" at the bus stops in Segezha.

Once a week, he surveys people on the street and gives his fellow citizens an opportunity to complain about the poor quality of the hospitals and the polluted lakeshore. This is his way of attempting to revive the euphoric mood of those transitional years. But Yakovlev hasn't asked any questions about Khodorkovsky. "I like him just as little as the other nouveaux riches," he says. He also doesn't think much of the many oligarchs in Segezha, the most respectable of whom he says is Andrei Markov. But then he adds that Markov only managed to amass his millions thanks to his good connections to the district governor at the time.

'Nothing is Going to Change'

In the foyer of Markov's villa on the outskirts of town, two stuffed wolves and a brown bear with bared teeth await visitors. Markov hunted them himself. In the 1990s, he rose from being an ambulance driver to the richest man in the city. He owned 17 supermarkets, four bakeries and a filling station. He was something akin to a small Khodorkovsky in Segezha.

Markov survived an attempt on his life and an attempt by a mafia group from St. Petersburg to take over his company. Two of his employees were shot to death. The entrepreneur has just returned from the nearby reservoir. "When I take trips like this, I'm always reminded of what a monster Stalin was," he says. "He had dozens of villages flooded, including the one where my grandparents lived." Today, however, after too many troublesome years dealing with drunken employees and corrupt bureaucrats, he thinks that "Russia probably needs a new, little Stalin to keep people from stealing the way they now do under Putin."

He has sold off part of his company, and he wants to send his 10-year-old grandson to London. "Nothing is going to change in Russia," he says, "and as long as Putin is in power, Khodorkovsky won't go free."

An old woman is standing in front of Correctional Camp Seven, her elegant hat revealing that she is not a local. The pensioner traveled for 14 hours on the train from St. Petersburg. In her bag, she always carries a photo of Khodorkovsky. "He's going to save Russia," she says with conviction. Her husband is waiting at the bus stop. "My wife has always been a dreamer," he says.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
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