SPIEGEL Interview with Mikhail Khodorkovsky 'I Had No Interest in Being an Enemy of the Kremlin or a Martyr'

In a SPIEGEL interview, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, 47, the former Russian oil magnate and head of the Yukos Oil Company, discusses his path to becoming one of the country's richest men, his transformation into a dissident, his seven years in prison and the policies of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.


During the free-for-all years under Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Khodorkovsky emerged as the posterboy for fledgling capitalism in post-Soviet Russia. But he has spent the past seven years in Siberian labor camps and Moscow prisons. The son of a Jewish father, Khodorkovsky was born in Moscow in 1963. In 1987, during the era of Gorbachev's reforms, he used his connections as an official with Komsomol, the Communist Union of Youth, to found one of the country's first private firms. It imported and sold computers, alcohol and other goods. Using his profits, he invested in the expansion of one of Russia's first private banks.

Soon after, he acquired 78 percent of the shares in the oil firm Yukos. Khodorkovsky developed the company into an empire, with 100,000 employees and over $11 billion in revenues in 2002. In 2003, Forbes magazine ranked him as the world's 26th richest man, estimating his private assets at $8 billion.

Khodorkovsky used his name recognition to openly criticize Vladmir Putin, despite the fact that Putin, then president, had called on the country's oligarchs to hold back and exercise political reserve. On Oct. 25, 2003, the Russian secret service arrested Khodorkovsky at the airport in Novosibirsk. He was then prosecuted on charges of tax evasion and fraud and sentenced to eight years in a labor camp.

Putin's advisors even admitted that "an example" was being set with Khodorkovsky. Currently, a second trial is taking place against the oil magnate, with a verdict expected by the end of the year. This time, Khodorkovsky stands accused of embezzling 350 million tons of oil worth approximately $25 billion. If convicted, he could face an additional 15 years in prison.

Over the course of several weeks, Khodorkovsky answered questions posed by SPIEGEL editors through a complicated exchange of letters.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Khodorkovsky, you have been behind bars in Russia for a long time now, and you are as familiar with Siberian prison camps as you are with detention centers in Moscow. What has been your experience of the Russian prison system?

Khodorkovsky: The penal system in our country does not emphasize reeducation, providing help for those convicted or protecting society from crime. Instead, it merely emphasizes the punishment -- often a brutal and degrading punishment, which is designed to break a person.

SPIEGEL: What does your day look like?

Khodorkovsky: I'm not an ordinary prisoner. In almost seven years of imprisonment, I spent only one year and two months in the prison camp to which the court sentenced me. I've spent the rest of the time in various detention centers, where I was almost always involved in preparations for the trial and court hearings. I've been in Moscow for the past year and a half, in the Sailor's Silence (Matrosskaya Tishina) Prison. My days are shaped by the trial and the prison regime. I am in court on business days, except for one day a week, when I work with my attorneys.

SPIEGEL: How often do you see your family?

Khodorkovsky: Sometimes I see my family members on that one day in the week, and then we spend an hour or an hour and a half talking through a telephone, because we're separated by a thick pane of glass. Of course, guards are always there, too. It's been like this for almost seven years now.

SPIEGEL: Why didn't you take advantage of the opportunity to emigrate in 2003, when it was becoming clear that you were going to be arrested -- like media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky, who fled to Spain, and oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who now lives in London?

Khodorkovsky: I felt that I had no choice at the time. Emigrating would have meant betrayal. My honor was more important to me. I still feel this way today.

SPIEGEL: Were there attempts to negotiate a deal for your release at the time? For example, in which you would declare yourself guilty and be allowed to go abroad in return?

Khodorkovsky: No. As far as I know there were never any such talks.

SPIEGEL: And how likely is a pardon by President Dmitry Medvedev?

Khodorkovsky: Under the constitution, the president has the right to pardon anyone who has been convicted of a crime. There are no restrictions. But you'd have to ask President Medvedev about that.

SPIEGEL: Two members of the government, the former economics minister and the current industry minister, recently testified in court that they were not aware of any violations of the law by Yukos. Is this a positive sign for your next verdict?

Khodorkovsky: That would be drawing a rather optimistic conclusion from their testimony. The statements are more indicative of the personal integrity and professionalism of these people.

SPIEGEL: For outsiders, there are two things that are still very difficult to fathom: Your fairytale path to becoming one of Russia's richest men and your transformation from a loyal citizen to a dissident. You studied at an institute for arms research in the 1980s, and you worked with the KGB. Why did you suddenly change your views about Russia's leadership?

Khodorkovsky: I have always defended my convictions and what I believed to be the truth. When it became clear to me that we were all being deceived during the Soviet era, I took to the barricades. Since then, the demand for free speech has been my most important concern. The break-up of the (last independent) television network NTV in 2000, in particular, forced me to take a more critical approach toward the Kremlin.

As far as my successes as a businessman are concerned, you have to go back to 1987. At the time, a handful of people like me decided to gamble a future guaranteed by the state in return for an uncertain career as an entrepreneur. And in 1996, an equally small number of people decided to invest all of their hard-earned money in a semi-defunct company, which Yukos was at the time, and to do so six months before an election that everyone expected the communists to win. I took that gamble -- and won.


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BTraven 08/10/2010
I have to admit that I do not like the oligarchs but I think it would perhaps be better for Russia had Yukos survived under Khordorkovsky's leadership because he seems to belong to the few super rich people whose horizon does not end at the borders of their wealth.
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