Khodorkovsky meets with Putin in 2002. Photo: Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

LONDON — There aren’t many people who could have stood between Vladimir Putin and the Russian presidency two decades ago. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was one of them.

The big picture: Once Russia’s richest man, Khodorkovsky and a handful of other powerful oligarchs loomed large in the chaotic decade that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. His imprisonment in 2003 shocked the world, and it was the moment many gave up on the illusion of Putin as a Westward-looking modernizer.

  • Russia’s most-famous dissident-in-exile since being freed six years ago, Khodorkovsky tells Axios his mission is now to prepare Russia for life after Putin.

“I could have made it more complicated for him to reach power,” Khodorkovsky acknowledges with a slight shrug, glancing up at the high ceiling of the London townhouse from which he runs his Open Russia foundation. “But this would mean giving up everything else and just doing this job of making obstacles for him.”

  • Besides, Khodorkovsky says, he trusted then-President Boris Yeltsin, and Yeltsin had great faith in his hand-picked successor.

Like nearly all of those interviewed for our "20 Years of Putin" special report, Khodorkovsky saw something in Putin 20 years ago that was either never there or has long since evaporated.

  • “Of course, I was aware of Putin being from the KGB, and I was aware of his business in St. Petersburg,” Khodorkovsky continues, referring to Putin’s time working for Mayor Anatoly Sobchak. "That did not inspire me at all.”
  • But when Khodorkovsky met Putin, he became convinced this was “a very, very, democratic person,” intent on reform and Westernization.

Between the lines: Khodorkovsky says he hadn't realized what a "talented recruiter" Putin was. "He’s able to be in your eyes what you want him to be," he continues. "It’s unfortunate, but the only thing I can say in my defense is that I wasn’t the only person who was deceived by him.”

“I had some suspicions, but when we don’t want to believe in something, we can deceive ourselves easily.”
— Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Flashback: Khodorkovsky ran afoul of Putin when, as CEO of oil giant Yukos, he pushed for greater transparency in Russian business. At first, he saw Putin as a potential ally.

  • “I had the impression at that time that the president is not taking any bribes,” he says. “People under him can take money, but he doesn’t need to. I was mistaken.”

Putin's entire governing architecture is based on corruption, Khodorkovsky says.

  • Everyone in the chain of command "must steal," with the full knowledge of their superiors, who can then use that information to control them. Step out of line and find yourself in prison — for stealing.
  • Putin saw Khodorkovsky as "one of the leaders of the alternative path," he says. "He decided to use me as an example to frighten everyone else. And he succeeded.”
  • Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow at the time, tells Axios that Khodorkovsky's sudden arrest — officially for tax evasion — was the moment it became clear that Putin's Russia was heading in a new, more hostile direction.

Khodorkovsky says Putin initially wanted to be “part of the West,” but on his terms.

  • He was genuinely convinced that all the talk of Western openness and democracy was a facade.
  • “There are politicians and there are some very powerful people behind their backs,” Khodorkovsky says of Putin’s worldview. “They control everything, and everything else is just windows in a shop.”

Flash forward: Since being released in 2013, Khodorkovsky has lived the perilous life of a prominent Putin critic.

  • He's less optimistic about the recent protests in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia than I’d anticipated.
  • Putin has shown in stages that he's willing to ruin livelihoods, beat up, imprison and even shoot those who challenge him, he says.
  • "Some people are lost in the first stage, some people come off in the second stage, very few are left to go through the third — and no need to shoot at the moment.”

Still, he says, Putin’s regime is more fragile than it once was. One disaster, one major blunder, and it could fall.

  • He defines his task not as taking down Putin, but as increasing the likelihood that when Putin goes, democracy follows.
  • The core challenge is that Russians have little trust in institutions beyond the president, the army and the church. Many can't "imagine what it is to live in a democratic country," he says.

The bottom line: Khodorkovsky waves away a question about having become a symbol of Putin’s brutality. He says the real symbols are statistics — poverty, ill health, schools without toilets.

  • After nearly 1.5 hours of shifting between wry humor, cheerfulness and occasional annoyance, Khodorkovsky grows emotional describing an impoverished girl in a rural village, whose daily struggle leaves no time for play.
  • “She is the symbol of this regime,” he says, gathering himself. “And I am a symbol of the fight.”

Our special report on “20 Years of Putin” arrives this week and next in inboxes of subscribers to the Axios World newsletter. Sign up.

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