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 was the moment many gave up on the illusion of Putin as a Westward-looking modernizer.
- Since being freed six years ago, Russia’s most-famous dissident-in-exile 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 this 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.”
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 saw Khodorkovsky as "one of the leaders of the alternative path," he says. "So he decided to use me as an example to frighten everyone else. And he succeeded.”
Go deeper: Khodorkovsky on Putin's cunning, brutality and paranoia