Khodorkovsky launched his first civic project in 1994, founding the Podmoskovny Lyceum on the outskirts of Moscow. The lyceum’s mission is to provide a rigorous education to underprivileged children – in particular orphans, victims of terrorism, and children of military servicemen. Run by highly qualified staff dedicated to creating a caring atmosphere, and to providing the best opportunities for each child, the goal of the lyceum is to ensure that by the end of their time there, the children are ready and able to qualify for a state grant to attend higher education in Russia.

From the first, for Khodorkovsky, philanthropy had always been about the improvement of people’s lives. But the experience of the 1998 crisis had profoundly changed Khodorkovsky’s outlook. As a successful business leader and patriot (he had been an enthusiastic member of the Komsomol in his youth), he came to believe that he had a responsibility to help develop Russian society at a more fundamental level. After 1998, he thus expanded his own philanthropic activities, and also Yukos’s corporate social responsibility programmes. Indeed, Yukos became Russia’s leader in the field, with a particular focus on supporting schools, hospitals, and libraries in communities where the company operated. Yukos helped to fund employee mortgages and offered generous resettlement grants. In 2002, Yukos was recognised by the Russian government as the “Best Company for Compensation and Social Payments Programmes” and for “Implementation of Social Programmes at Enterprises and Organisations.”

As part of Khodorkovsky’s commitment to developing Russia’s global links, in 2001, Yukos also funded the United States Library of Congress with a grant of $1 million, earmarked for a Russian rule of law programme called Open World, to offer fellowships for Russian scholars and students with leadership potential.

And in 2001, Khodorkovsky and Yukos shareholders also created the Yukos-funded Open Russia Foundation, with a view towards sustainably building and strengthening civil society in Russia. Funds were disbursed through philanthropic programmes and competitive grant programmes in a wide variety of educational, cultural, and social spheres. Programmes included the Federation for Internet Education, establishing training centres across the country to teach schoolteachers to use computers and access the Internet; a programme in partnership with the Ministry of Culture and Mass Communications, and professional library associations, to support the modernisation of rural libraries through computers, Internet access and training; a “New Civilisation” programme aimed at young people, based on the values and practices of democracy, civil society, and market economics; and funding for a “Russian Booker Prize” for literature. In addition to such programmes, Open Russia was amongst the few domestically-funded organisations that made grants to human rights organisations.

In 2003, Yukos pledged $100 million in support, over the course of a decade, for the Moscow State Humanities University. In the same year, Khodorkovsky also provided a major endowment to support the Khodorkovsky Foundation, a UK-registered charity that provides scholarships for higher education, and makes donations to educational establishments. The Khodorkovsky Foundation’s endowment ranks it amongst the largest of such charities operating in Russia, and today it continues to provide support for Russia’s students and educational establishments. The Foundation also supports the Oxford-Russia Fund, which has provided financial support and scholarships for Russian students to study at the University of Oxford.

Following Khodorkovsky’s arrest in 2003, the Russian authorities launched a concerted campaign against his philanthropic legacy. Open Russia, by then, one of Russia’s largest foundations, donating approximately $15 million per year to a wide variety of civic and charitable groups and institutions, was closed down by the authorities in 2006. And in order to discourage enrolment at the Podmoskovny Lyceum, Russian authorities targeted the guardians of students with large tax assessments based on the value of schooling received; and also harassed the Lyceum’s administration.