Vladimir Putin Says He'll Free The Jailed Oil Tycoon Who Criticized Him

Dec 19, 2013
Originally published on December 19, 2013 4:42 pm
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The imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khordorkovsky, who will apparently be pardoned by Putin, has spent the last decade in Siberian prison camps, gulag light, he calls it, but the conditions are brutal. Susan Glasser covered Khordorkovsky in Moscow for the Washington Post at the height of his power and later corresponded with him, while he was in prison, for a lengthy profile in Foreign Policy magazine several years ago.

Susan, welcome to the program.

SUSAN GLASSER: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: And Susan, the title of your piece points to a really odd contradiction of who this man is or who he was. It's called "The Billionaire Dissident."

GLASSER: Well, that's exactly right. It was such a striking case when it occurred and it has continued to be really probably the foremost case of sort of political justice in Putin's Russia. Imagine the richest man in Russia at the absolute height of his power. He's not only the wealthiest man in Russia, he runs Russia's largest and most successful oil company.

He's a major figure in emerging philanthropy in Russia. It's really a remarkable transformation from that into writing letters appealing to Russia's conscience from his Siberian gulag.

BLOCK: Let's talk about just how powerful he was. He was really the king of the Russian oligarchs. What did he control before his downfall?

GLASSER: Well, he put together the Yukos Oil Company out of the ashes and shards of various state-run oil companies. He was almost a symbolic figure of the anything-goes capitalism in Russia in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He got bargain basement prices that became the nucleus of this company. He did all the dirty questionable things that all of these oligarchs did in building up these new vast personal fortunes and these new companies out of the ashes of Soviet Communism.

He was an insider. He leveraged that to get his first start in business. He was accused of doing many wrongful things, although in the end the court cases against him had nothing much to do with those activities of how he became rich and wealthy. Some of the charges against him were really almost farcical in the end, which is not to say this wasn't a guy who didn't do anything wrong, but in the end it was a case that told us an awful lot about politics in Putin's Russia.

And the message to big business was stay out of it unless you're doing what I tell you to do.

BLOCK: Well, explain that a bit. I mean just how did Mikhail Khordorkovsky run afoul of Vladimir Putin?

GLASSER: Well, you know, to this day there remain many different theories about what actually transpired. What we know transpired was that he publicly challenged Putin at a meeting in the Kremlin when the oligarchs were gathered and he complained about a state company that was muscling in on oil territory, and basically he was trying to say, no, the rules of capitalism should be abided by and, you know, we don't want this interference from the state-run company.

Putin took umbrage at that. All the oligarchs were aware that this is something that really offended the president. At the same time, there were elections taking place for the Russian parliament. Khordorkovsky, along with the other oligarchs, was openly financing multiple political parties and candidates in those elections, and so one of the stated reasons was that he was too nakedly trying to pursue political ambitions without directly doing the bidding of the Kremlin.

BLOCK: As you communicated with Mikhail Khordorkovsky as he was in prison, how did he describe the conditions at the prison camps in Siberia where he was being held?

GLASSER: Well, look, this is not Stalin's gulag anymore, but at the same time, there's just absolutely no question that conditions in Russian prison camps are absolutely horrendous, as bad as you can imagine. They sent Khordorkovsky as far away from Moscow as they possibly could. He faced violence from the other prisoners. He faced informants. In Siberia, and I've been there, it can be negative 40 degrees. It is unbelievably, horrendously cold. It is broiling hot in the summer. These are primitive work camps in the middle of the Siberian taiga.

BLOCK: Susan, what do you think Khordorkovsky will do once he is released from prison? What's his future in Russia?

GLASSER: You know, it's a fascinating question. One striking thing is that in order to receive a pardon in the Russian system, as in many systems, it requires at least an implicit if not an explicit acknowledgement of guilt. That was something that Khodorkovksy was very resistant to doing. This time, he's changed his mind. It required him to write a letter to Putin seeking his clemency. Does that mean that when he emerges that he will just quietly perhaps come to live here in the West to join his son? The resources, considerable financial resources that Khodorkovksy still has have been devoted to financing a real vocal opposition to Putin here in the United States and elsewhere in the West. And it will be very interesting to see if he picks up the mantle.

He became a very articulate social and political critic of the regime from his perch in prison camp. Will he choose to continue with that political mantle, or just live a little bit of the life that he was denied for the last 10 years? We don't really know yet.

BLOCK: Susan Glasser, thanks very much.

GLASSER: Thank you.

BLOCK: Susan Glasser, former Moscow bureau chief for The Washington Post. She is now editor of Politico magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.