Let us make an analogy like this: Napoleon was once a conqueror, and in his deathbed, he became a by-product of his own political ideals.
The nearly same thing applies, at least, for the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky: once Russia’s richest man, once a frequenter of Davos meetings and other first-class economic summits either in Moscow or abroad, once a close ally of Vladimir Putin, once an owner of Russia’s largest oil empire, Yukos, a terrific conqueror of the country’s abundant oil reserves worth hundred billion dollars, and also once one of Russia’s most feared oligarchs, now he is mostly a man of ‘nothing’. Charged with attempts to challenge Kremlin, during Putin’s rule, he now lost his golden seat (also a side effect of his own political ideals), and is now incarcerated in a below-freezing Siberian prison, possibly for decades.
Financial Times journalist, Neil Buckley, goes in-depth to reveal to us more about Khodorkovsky’s new life in prison, and how it has tremendously changed his life.
Personal suggestion: tune in to Coldplay’s Viva La Vida to increase your understanding of this article.
Has ever a businessman experienced such a dizzying ascent to fortune, then such a headlong plunge from grace?
Khodorkovsky used money from setting up a small business in Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika era to found a bank, Menatep, which benefited from big deposits of Russian government budget funds. The profits helped buy a stake in Yukos in the infamous “loans-for-shares” privatisations of 1995, when the businessmen who would become oligarchs loaned money to a near-bankrupt government and were allowed to buy state assets at knock-down prices. Within years, the couple of hundred million dollars he spent gaining control of Yukos had become billions.
Khodorkovsky was the first oligarch to realise the way to real wealth was not by simply selling oil but by adopting western governance standards to boost the Yukos share price. He was the first, too, to reinvent himself, like the US robber barons a century earlier, as a philanthropist, launching the non-profit Open Russia Foundation to run educational projects.
His fallout with Putin had many causes. Khodorkovsky dared to confront the president with a thinly veiled allegation of top-level corruption in a televised meeting in February 2003. He tried to build a private oil pipeline to China, contravening state policy. He engaged in aggressive lobbying against increases in oil taxes. He negotiated to sell a stake in Yukos to America’s ExxonMobil. He was simply too independent. He refused to take his place in the matrix of competing interests and clans, of state and private oligarchs, held in check not by rule of law but, as Russians say, po ponyatiyam, “by understandings” – with Putin as arbiter.