I’m only 15 minutes into a conversation with Mikhail Khodorkovsky when I stutter out what is perhaps the stupidest question I’ve ever asked. So dumb, in fact, that Khodorkovsky, upon hearing it, bursts out laughing.
The 56-year-old Khodorkovsky is, in the nicest way, intimidating. A former oligarch who was once the richest man in Russia (he was valued at $15 billion), Khodorkovsky survived the murderous Wild West years of Russian gangster capitalism and served nearly a decade in a Siberian prison (on trumped-up tax-evasion charges).
He is built like a rugby player, has a vice-like handshake, is seemingly impervious to physical threats and, as revealed in the new and gripping documentary Citizen K (from the Oscar-winner Alex Gibney), has been charged with murder in Russia while, from his adopted home in London, becoming an outspoken critic of the Kremlin and, thus, Vladimir Putin’s “public enemy number one in exile”.
He is built like a rugby player, has a vice-like handshake, and is seemingly impervious to physical threats.
We’re sitting in an impressive meeting room (huge fireplace, rich leather furniture), in a plush central London building that’s hidden behind an anonymous front door. There are no bodyguards in sight, no food testers, and, indeed, Khodorkovsky will later dismiss any suggestions that, after the Skripal and Litvinenko poisonings, he should be fearful for his life (“Just leaving your house can be dangerous,” he says, casually, adding that a brick could fall on your head from a building site).
He speaks through an interpretor, who is beside him on the couch, although, when he wants to, he can also talk in English. As depicted in the documentary, he is strikingly handsome, with the constant suggestion of a twinkle in the eye.
After some formulaic opening questions about how the movie project came about (his assistant suggested it) and how long he spent on camera (nine days of interviews), I try to put him at his ease by mining the subject of his handsomeness. In the documentary we see video footage of Khodorkovsky in court, five years into his ten-year prison sentence, and he’s positively beaming, the picture of health. So, I ask, was the prison, also known as Siberian labour camp YaG-14/10 (near the Sino-Russian border), a nice prison?
The interpretor translates. Khodorkovsky hoots, flinging his head back with delight. He eventually snorts back to calmness, fixes me with a steely grin and begins. “I’m going to tell you two stories,” he says. “There was an inflammation in my leg, as a result of spending so much time in the cell without any natural daylight. I went to the prison doctor and he said, ‘We need to operate, but without any anaesthetic.’ I said, ‘Go ahead!’
“And when he was cutting me up it actually wasn’t that painful. But when he put the catheter into the wound, to drain it, that’s when the pain started. Because it wasn’t a real catheter. It was DIY. He just grabbed some Teflon packaging, curled it into a tube and shoved it into the wound. And I’d say I was lucky, compared to what others got.”
And the second story? “One of the other prisoners decided that he needed to be moved to another prison, and that he needed to do something to get moved. So he decided to stab me in the eye. I was asleep when he did it. He came up to my bunk and stuck the knife into my eye. But luckily I was sleeping on my side, and so the handle of the knife glanced off my nose and he missed the eyeball. But there was a lot of blood. And the only medical person who was available at the time was a dentist, who stitched me up.” He starts to chuckle again. “So, yes, you could say that the prison was really nice!”
Khodorkovsky is like this in the film too. Smiley, charming, often on the verge of laughter. Gibney says that it’s a Russian thing. “He’s got that dark humour that’s common to a lot of great Russian writers,” he says the next day in a hotel lobby a stone’s throw from Khodorkovsky’s office (Gibney’s in town for the film’s UK premiere at the London Film Festival). “He’s got enough sense of himself and the world to laugh rather than to cry.”
Nonetheless, the film is not only a biographical portrait of Khodorkovsky, from teenage Komsomol (Communist Youth League) enthusiast to rampant hyper-capitalist, private bank owner and head of the Russian oil giant Yukos. It also uses Khodorkovsky as a prism through which it views the emergence of modern Russia, from Yeltsin to Putin, and the kleptocratic scams that made it all possible. By manipulating, for example, a simplistic state-backed “voucher system” (employees were given company shares that could be exchanged for cash), and later by lending money to the near-bankrupt government (the infamous “loans for shares” scandal) Khodorkovsky and the oligarchs became inconceivably wealthy (the documentary states that, at the height of their powers, at the turn of the millennium, 7 oligarchs owned 50 per cent of the Russian economy).
From teenage Komsomol (Communist Youth League) enthusiast to rampant hyper-capitalist.
Being in charge of an oil company, however, and worth $15 billion, didn’t look like much fun in the film. Khodorkovsky lived in a 50-acre compound outside of Moscow called Apple Orchard, surrounded by live-in company executives, while the streets outside, it seemed, seethed with threats. I tell him that it appeared, in some ways, like a different version of prison. “My wealth amounted to my stake in the company,” he says, “but the company itself, yes, you could say that it was, to a certain extent, a prison. It wasn’t just about managing my money but the money belonging to a large number of people.”
Khodorkovsky’s fate was sealed, perhaps inevitably, when Putin came to power in 2000. Casting himself as the great reformer, and the man to finally tame the oligarchs, the new premier orchestrated in February 2003 a live TV corruption debate involving the country’s top businessmen and broadcast live from the Kremlin (it’s included in the documentary).
Khodorkovsky and Putin: Compelling Antagonists
It features Khodorkovsky sitting across the table from Putin. The pair make for compelling antagonists. One is physically small, with nervous, narrowed eyes and a suspicious mien, while the other is tall, genial and seemingly ingenuous (we have learnt since about how much Putin frets over his appearance — Khodorkovsky’s very existence, as the smooth-eyed poster boy, must have been an affront to his vanity). Khodorkovsky turned the tables on Putin during that debate and implied that Putin’s officials were accepting bribes. He was arrested within eight months and in a Siberian prison within two years.
“What you see under the surface with Mikhail is a burning anger towards Putin,” Gibney says. “And this shouldn’t be surprising.” When I mention Putin to Khodorkovsky, and how much of a cartoon villain the Russian president seems to have become, he instantly corrects me, listing facts and figures about the different groups and political parties in Europe that have, through polls and surveys, expressed support, and indeed admiration, for Putin.
“All these people would be happy with Putin as their president,” he says. “Until, that is, they discovered that they can’t buy their favourite cheese in the shops, or until they find the police at their doorstep because they ‘liked’ something they shouldn’t have on Facebook. I think it’s very important to tell people about this.”
Khodorkovsky has plans, of course, to return to Russia at the head of a political movement (by the most recent estimate, he is valued at $500 million, having safely squirrelled away some of his wealth before his prison sentence began).
He suspects that roughly 15 per cent of the population (especially the young) feel the same way that he does (they are unhappy with Putin and their standard of living and want more freedoms), but what about Putin himself? It doesn’t look as if he’s going anywhere soon.
Khodorkovsky smiles, a big broad grin, then pauses, sighs, and finally says, “The average lifespan for a man in Russia is 66. Putin is 67.” He laughs, and paraphrases Bulgakov, saying that planning is impossible if you’re suddenly, unexpectedly mortal.
In the meantime, of course, there’s the matter of a murder charge to overcome. In 2015 Khodorkovsky was formally charged, in absentia, with the 1998 murder of the mayor of Nefteyugansk, a small Siberian town and former Yukos headquarters.
Khodorkovsky smiles, a big broad grin, then pauses, sighs, and finally says, “The average lifespan for a man in Russia is 66. Putin is 67.”
The mayor had frequently clashed with the company over job cuts. His unexplained death was seen as convenient for Yukos, yet the murder charge, Khodorkovsky says, is politically motivated and flimsy. “Putin says that there is blood on my hands,” he says. “And yet there were 150 people investigating me, as part of the case against me, for several years. Had he found a modicum of proof that I was party to a murder he would have used it. It’s just part of Putin’s propaganda.”
Khodorkovsky says that even the inclusion of the murder charge in the documentary (it features heavily) is a sign of how well Putin’s propaganda machine has worked. Gibney disagrees and says that it’s about showing the grey areas in a story that’s frequently told in black and white.
“I don’t believe that Mikhail ordered the hit,” Gibney says. “That being said, is it possible that somebody in the Yukos organisation may have done it? Hoping to please the boss? I think it’s possible.” He adds that Khodorkovsky nonetheless appears to like the film.
And he certainly appreciated the six-minute standing ovation that he received at the Venice Film Festival, where it premiered, last month. “The audience seemed to be saying, ‘OK, he was an oligarch. OK, he was ruthless. OK, he exploited people. But he’s also the guy who punched back. Against Putin.’ There was a great respect shown to him for that.”
Khodorkovsky ends with reflections on his apparent positivity, and how he can laugh and joke after losing a decade of life to a Siberian hell-hole. “I never dwell on it, or think, ‘Those ten years of my life, I wish I had spent them in better conditions!’ ” he says. “Because, by the end of the 1980s in Russia, a lot of the people I knew had been killed. And yet, I’m alive.
“The same goes for 1991, when friends died during an attempted coup. And yet, I’m alive. And then in 1993, I was at a huge demonstration where snipers started firing at us, from the top of a building. Dozens of people were shot in the crowd. But, still, I’m alive.” He then smiles (of course he does) and adds, twinkling to the end, “So, you could say that I’ve been very lucky.”