Khodorkovsky – who was Russia’s richest man before he was arrested in 2003 and imprisoned for 10 years as his oil company Yukos was taken over by the Russian state – was referring in particular to high-level Russian oligarchs Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven from Alfa Group. They were once his comrades among the top seven Russian oligarchs of the 1990s, who then controlled much of the country’s economy. Fridman and Aven left Russia immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine only to face sanctions by Britain and the European Union over alleged close ties to Putin’s regime.
Khodorkovsky was also referring to Anatoly Chubais, the Kremlin’s special envoy whose departure from Russia late last month made him the most senior official to step down and leave the country since the invasion. Chubais had overseen the state-owned enterprise privatizations of the 1990s, which were the source of the fabulous wealth of Khodorkovsky, Fridman and Aven.
They are part of the Russian urban elite who left the country following the invasion.
While Chubais has made no public comment since his departure, both Fridman and Aven have given interviews in which they complained about the impact of the sanctions on their daily lives. They said the sanctions reflect a Western misunderstanding that Russians like them could have any influence on Putin’s policy.
Both have refrained from directly criticizing Putin for his invasion of Ukraine, although Fridman, who grew up in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, told reporters after the imposition of the sanctions of the EU that the war was “a huge tragedy” which “should be stopped as soon as possible”. as soon as possible.” Fridman said he did not want to speak directly against Putin because it would have no impact on political decision-making in Russia, while endangering the hundreds of thousands of his employees who remain in Russia. .
Khodorkovsky said he agreed it was naive to think Fridman or Aven could influence Putin to end the war. Putin has completely overturned the workings of power in Russia since the 1990s, when Russia’s wealthiest oligarchs were able to influence President Boris Yeltsin’s government.
But Khodorkovsky said if any of those billionaires wanted the sanctions against him lifted, they had to demonstrate their independence from Putin. He urged them to say they regret having had anything to do with Putin and will never do it again. The suggestion that Putin could arrest the employees they left behind in Russia if they spoke out against the president, Khodorkovsky said, was nothing more than a “cover up”.
“It’s ridiculous to even hear. It means Putin has some kind of hold on you,” he said. “And if there is a hold on you, it means your resources are dangerous during war.” Suspicions would remain that they could carry out Kremlin orders, such as “paying for supplies,” including officially embargoed goods. He said tycoons could order their associates to make such payments, and he warned that these individuals could also seek to influence European decision-makers on Putin’s behalf.
Khodorkovsky’s comments could strike a nerve with Russian billionaires under sanctions who have tried to deny ties to Putin. Khodorkovsky has long been seen by wealthier Russians as an outsider who paid a high price for his political ambitions at a time when Putin, at the start of his presidency, sought to stamp out any dissent.
While Khodorkovsky languished in a Siberian prison camp, others – including Fridman, Aven and Chubais – adapted to Putin’s regime, then benefited from it. Fridman and Aven were keen to stay out of politics at a time when Russian billionaires were becoming increasingly beholden to the Kremlin.
Khodorkovsky said these men and others should let go of their fear and speak out, even if it means putting their own lives at risk. “It’s a real war. People are dying every day,” he said. “The regime you worked for is killing people. Your personal fate in relation to that doesn’t mean much. Take the risk.”
He said that the Russian oligarchs have a responsibility not to do more “to stop the war criminal” and that they now have to pay by taking that risk.
Khodorkovsky blamed Putin’s mistaken decision to invade Ukraine on the president’s growing isolation and said a small number of people who had access to him may have “distorted his view of reality”. As a result, Khodorkovsky predicted that Putin would eventually face a widespread backlash and it might finally be his turn to pay.
“It was a mistake for him, because I don’t know how long he could have stayed in power if he had behaved more calmly, but now it will be much more difficult for him,” he said. .