Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “It’s a Barbaric PR Stunt”

March 8, 2017

About a week ago the apartment of Open Russia journalist Zoya Svetova was raided. Svetova’s son, RBC journalist Timofey Dzyadko, met with Mikhail Khodorkovsky in London, where they spoke about the raid, freedom, and Open Russia’s funding. 

Timofey Dzyadko: On February 28, an eleven-hour raid took place of Open Russia journalist Zoya Svetova’s apartment. What do you think it was connected to? Is it revenge for your political activities? 

 Mikhail Khodorkovsky: There are two versions. The first version which everyone has been talking about is that the raid was connected with Open Russia’s activities; that it’s a warning. The other version, as we heard from Zoya Svetova herself, is that it was revenge for her involvement in the Public Oversight Commission (an independent prison watchdog—ed.). I think there are grounds to believe both versions.

TD: This isn’t the first time that an Open Russia employee has been raided, is it?

MBK: It’s neither the first raid on an Open Russia employee, nor is it the first time a human rights activist has been harassed. I think that in any case [the reasons for the search in] both versions are just formalities, because if we look at the date the search warrant was issued, it’s the 18th of January—more than a month prior to the raid. It’s obvious that the investigators, agents of the FSB and the Investigative Committee, who arrived to conduct the search didn’t really know [whose apartment] they were searching.

TD: Why didn’t they know?

MBK: They did not anticipate such a reaction from the press and such active public interest. The operatives didn’t know [who Svetova is], but the people who issued the warrant would surely have googled her. It’s blatantly obvious that here, as in countless other cases, the Investigative Committee was used [by the Kremlin]. What was it used for? Well, we can play at guesses, but the simplest explanation is that the current government sees this [development] as a way of creating “balance” in society—between “thaw” and “freeze.”

TD: Who could benefit from such a “balance”?

MBK: What we’re dealing with is PR, the presidential administration’s PR. It’s a sort of barbaric PR stunt.

TD: What do you expect to come of the investigation? Should we wait for the interrogation of Zoya Svetova or other Open Russia employees? [The investigators] spoke about that during the raid. 

MBK: I believe that Open Russia and other opposition structures, any structures independent from the state, are targets for this kind of malign PR. The power elite may not fear the opposition, but it does fear public self-organization, including even kitten-lovers. Any such movement makes the government feel as though it does not have control.

The raid on the Open Russia offices, April 15, 2015. Photo: Veronika Kutsyllo / Open Russia

TD: From a legal perspective, the court decision to instigate a search was taken in connection with the 2003 Yukos case on the legalization of stolen funds. So how is Open Russia funded? Is it really funded on stolen money? 

MBK: I never conceal any information on the sources of my funds. I have funds which were acquired through the sale of Yukos shares, as well as through dividends. The latest court case in Russia that concerned me did not use the term “criminally acquired.”

I’d draw your attention to two important points: firstly, the ruling of the Russian court that as a result of the liquidation of Yukos all claims are settled, particularly those concerning taxes; secondly, the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights that this part of the verdict was void.

TD: The financial part?

MBK: Yes, if someone today is looking for the Yukos shareholders’ money, then look no further than [Rosneft CEO Igor] Sechin and [Finance Minister Anton] Siluanov.

Photo: Open Russia

TD: How much are you spending on Open Russia and other media projects annually? Could you give us some rough figures?

MBK: I cannot say how much I spend on each media project because I am currently supporting a significant quantity of projects of various types. Overall, on projects both here and in Russia I spend a few million dollars per year.

I want to emphasize that the recipients of these funds are fully aware that they are legal. If anyone says otherwise, it’s a lie.

TD: Do these funds not strain your assets?   

MBK: I can tell you that so long as I am not running a business, then I don’t mind whether my assets are increasing or decreasing. In contrast to Vladimir Putin, I do not plan to live eternally, and I do not believe that my children should be heirs to a gigantic fortune. Therefore, I will spend my funds on what I consider to be the right things—not yachts or dachas, but in support of civil society. I am a citizen of the Russian Federation, and today, thank God, our president does not forbid Russian citizens from supporting civil society.

TD: At opposition meetings you often hear the phrase “Russia will be free.” When will this be? And will Russia be free?

MBK: In 1990, or even in 1988, when we could just about taste freedom, we thought that in five years Russia would be free. Our older friends, in particular Andrei Sakharov, would tell us, “Guys, don’t get ahead of yourselves. Three thousand years ago Moses wandered for 40 years through the desert to escape slavery. In order for Russia to become free we also need 40 years.” Therefore, if we take 1991 as our starting point, we’ll [get to our destination] by 2031. And if we start from 1985, then it’ll be 2025. The older I get, the more I realize that freedom takes time.

The English translation of this interview was abridged and edited for clarity.

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