The Entrepreneur – Communist turned Capitalist
A multi-billionaire and Russia’s richest man before he was forty, Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a true maverick. His life has been one of transformation, both financially and idealistically.
The son of chemical engineers, by the time he graduated from Medeleyev Chemistry Institute in Moscow, he was already on the road to success. As a budding young communist, he collaborated with the party’s youth movement to establish a computer software business. Yet, Khodorkovsky had a keen eye on the capitalist market, and when the opportunity arose he wasn’t slow to embrace its principles. Making full use of the radical domestic reforms during the mid-1980s, he established Russia’s first private investment bank – four years before the fall of the USSR. However, it was the controversial purchase of Yukos in 1995, which confirmed Khodorkovsky as a leading businessman. With his energy and vision the company became one of the world’s largest non-state oil companies, producing 20% of Russian oil – about 2% of world production.
The Political Threat – A Liberal Supporter
An unspoken political agreement was widely understood between the oligarchs (Russia’s super rich elite) and the all-powerful President Vladimir Putin in the 1990s; the amassing of extortionate wealth by only a handful of men would be tolerated as long as politics was left to the Kremlin.
While it can be said that Khodorkovsky initially toed the line, his business tactics soon began to reveal a more liberal attitude. He adopted Western standards of practise, hiring a Washington lobbyist and establishing a non-profit human rights charity. He began operating a transparent business model, a far cry from the veil of mystery cloaking the proceedings of his peers. But it was his direct challenges, and financial support to liberal opposition parties that made him a political threat to the President.
Khodorkovsky with Vladimir Putin
The Political Prisoner – Defender Of Democracy
It wasn’t long before Khodorkovsky was in the firing line; in 2003 he was arrested on tax fraud charges. Such was the extent of the case brought against him and his colleague, PlatonLebedev, their oil company became bankrupt and the pair were sentenced to 8 years in a Siberian Gulag.
In 2009, they faced their second trial – this time on charges of embezzlement for stealing their own oil. The defence argued the absurdity of the case, stating the total oil tonnage ‘stolen’ exceeded the amount Yukos produced. However, rumours abound that the Kremlin was orchestrating the trial to ensure Khodorkovsky would not be around during the 2012 presidential elections, to whip up liberal support.
Khodorkovsky and Lebedev with guard escorts
It was at this time that Khodorkovsky, as the defender of democracy, came to the fore. Addressing the court he stated he wasn’t the only one on trial, it was all of Russia and her people. If his sentiments held any truth it would appear unfortunate as Khodorkovsky was sentenced to further imprisonment.
The results of the trial didn’t sway Khodorkovsky’s democratic values: he commented that he is ready to die in jail if it comes to it - “I am not an ideal man, but I have ideals.”
Today, Khodorkovsky is Russia’s most famous prisoner, managing to sustain intrigue and interest from a population numbed from a series of political scandals. The former oil tycoon now strongly divides public opinion. On the one hand, his democratic beliefs embody the direction many Russians wish their country to take. On the other, some cannot forgive the wealth he attained in the 1990s when so many were living in poverty.