BACKGROUND: Oil billionaire who defied Putin given long prison sentences
The man inside a glass cage in the Moscow courtroom is smiling. It is 2010 and former oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky has served seven years in prison for fraud and tax evasion.
The court soon finds him guilty of embezzlement and money laundering. The familiar smile fades. The decision means that he will remain in prison at least through 2016.
Opinion about Khodorkovsky is sharply divided in Russia. Opposition activists raise glasses in his honour at their evening gatherings, but many see him as a crook who deserved what he got.
The young Misha was born in Moscow in 1963 engineer parents. He studied at the Mendeleyev Chemistry Institute.
A leading position in the Soviet youth organisation Komsomol was a stepping stone for the boy, in spite of his Jewish background.
The oil company Yukos, which Khodorkovsky acquired for small change in the mid-1990s, became the core of his business activities. Similar arrangements were instituted by the other so-called oligarchs – billionaires who got rich after the fall of the Soviet Union by acquiring state property at a ridiculously low price.
In the late 1990s Khodorkovsky started to initiate reforms at Yukos. The oil company eventually was seen as Russia’s most transparent.
He started having more children. With his wife Inna, Khodorkovsky has a daughter Anastasia, 20, and 12-year-old twin sons Ilya and Gleb. From his first marriage he has a son Pavel, who is 26 years old.
Khodorkovsky also became increasingly involved in politics. He contributed money to the United Russia party, as well as liberal opposition groups such as Yakoblo and the Union of Right Forces.
Khodorkovsky’s speech held in the Kremlin in February 2003 was seen as a turning point in relations between him and Vladimir Putin. Khodorkovsky accused the state-owned Rosneft of shady corporate dealings.
In his response, Putin insinuated that Yukos had tax problems.
In October 2003 Forbes magazine wrote that Khodorkovsky was Russia’s richest man. He flew by private plane to speak in Russia’s large cities about merging Yukos and the oil company Sibneft. He also spoke about politics.
It was on this tour that he was arrested in Novosibirsk, and he remains incarcerated. Rosneft took over the business activities of Yukos.
Putin has later denied that he had pressured the courts in the Khodorkovsky case.
After the trial Russia’s oligarchs have carefully stayed away from politics. An exception to this is Mikhail Prokhorov whose intentions are commented on by Khodorkovsky in his interview with Helsingin Sanomat.
Last year Amnesty International declared Khodorkovsky a prisoner of conscience.
Khodorkovsky has become a symbol of sorts for Putin’s Russia. After the December street demonstrations that followed the elections, both Prokhorov and Yabloko candidate Grigori Yavlinski have promised to free Khodorkovsky if they are elected.
More on this subject:
HS interviews imprisoned Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky