Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the man with a plan to topple Putin

September 13, 2023

Formerly Russia’s richest man, Khodorkovsky spent ten years in jail after criticising his country’s corrupt leader. Now exiled in London, he is finally sensing cracks in the Kremlin. What’s his next move?

Interview by Peter Conradi

Photo: Mark Chilvers

In an anonymous white stucco-fronted townhouse in central London, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, is plotting the downfall of Vladimir Putin and what should come next. It is 20 years since the erstwhile oligarch, whose wealth was once put at $15 billion, was arrested on the orders of the Kremlin leader and almost ten years since his unexpected release. Living in exile in London for much of the time since, he has long devoted his energies to how to bring about regime change in his homeland.

For the past decade, the very idea looked little more than wishful thinking. But the situation has been transformed by the disastrous invasion of Ukraine in February last year followed by the armed rebellion on June 24 by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the late and little lamented head of the Wagner mercenary group. “There is one thing about Russia that is difficult to understand for westerners, except perhaps for Italians,” says Khodorkovsky, 60, his hair cropped and dressed in a short-sleeved shirt when we meet at his London headquarters. “Putin is not a statesman, he is a mafia boss. Russia is a dictatorship but it is based on a mafia structure which is riding roughshod over the state.”

Indeed, the extraordinary events that have been playing out in Russia are reminiscent of scenes from The Godfather. Prigozhin, a loyal servant of Putin for decades, had dared to defy him by ordering his mercenaries to march on Moscow, before backing down. This left the boss with a problem: do nothing and he would look weak, but put his wayward henchman in jail and he would start talking and reveal the extent of his backing within the army and security services. He would have to be silenced: it was just a question of how and when.

So when a plane that the Kremlin said was carrying the Wagner chief crashed on August 23, Khodorkovsky was not surprised. Putin’s mafia group “has its origins in the St Petersburg of the 1990s, famous as a Russian version of Chicago during the prohibition era”, he says. “Assassinations of associates who ‘transgressed’ were commonplace there. Refusal to execute Prigozhin could have caused incomprehension among Putin’s entourage.”

The reason for our meeting is Khodorkovsky’s latest book, How to Slay a Dragon, which sets out, in highly detailed terms, a blueprint for regime change. The first and most obvious point, he says, is that Putin is not going to give up power voluntarily — not least because he could never receive a satisfactory guarantee that a successor would not one day go after him. A peaceful retirement in his absurdly luxurious mansion on the Black Sea coast is not on the cards. “Putin has got nowhere to go,” Khodorkovsky says. “Which means he simply needs to try and hang on as long as he can until he dies. I don’t see any alternative for him.”

Nor does Khodorkovsky give much credence to rumours about the health of the Russian leader, who was variously reported last year to be suffering from a variety of debilitating diseases, including terminal cancer. He fears Russia will be “left for some time to come with a mafioso who has taken over a world nuclear power but still retains the mentality of a provincial gangster”. Yet the clock is undoubtedly ticking: at 70, Khodorkovsky notes, Putin is only four years younger than Stalin was when he died suddenly, unleashing dramatic change in the Soviet Union. “No one predicted it,” he says, adding with relish: “He ended up dying in a puddle of his own vomit.”

All of which leaves the question of how to speed Putin on his way. Surprisingly, perhaps, Khodorkovsky, a calm character who speaks slowly and in a low voice, suggests the only way to do this is by using violence — or at least the threat of violence. This was shown all too clearly by the failure of the huge but determinedly peaceful protests three years ago in Belarus against Putin’s ally Aleksander Lukashenko, after he rigged the presidential election to give himself a sixth term. “Only the threat of violence can force the authorities to give up dictatorial power or make any kind of compromise,” he says. “If this threat does not exist, then the revolution will lose. If Putin’s survival depends on it, he will not hesitate to shoot.”

Success, even of an armed uprising, depends on the reaction of those around Putin, whom Khodorkovsky divides into three groups. Those closest to Putin, many of them friends from his childhood or early career in St Petersburg, will stay loyal to the end because they are too deeply implicated in his crimes and know things. “It would not end well for them” if Putin goes. The same is true, he believes, of a second concentric ring, which includes Mikhail Mishustin, the technocratic prime minister who made his name as head of the Russian equivalent of HMRC, and Sergei Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow.

Khodorkovsky believes it is the third circle, encompassing senior figures in the army and the FSB, Russia’s intelligence service, that may one day rise up against Putin. “That will happen if Ukraine wins the war or there is the feeling that Ukraine is winning,” he says. Most likely there would then be a split within their ranks, which would provide the opposition with their best choice of ousting Putin.

Such a split was clearly evident, he believes, when Prigozhin embarked on his moment of midsummer madness, with the apparent tacit backing of a number of such senior figures. It was this that prompted Khodorkovsky to issue what may have seemed a surprising appeal on social media that day to ordinary Russians to help the Wagner forces on their way to Moscow — even though he considered their leader a “war criminal” who had put out a contract on his own life. If sufficient forces had come over to Prigozhin’s side, the resulting chaos and breakdown in law and order could have provided a chance for the “democratic and opposition forces to seize power”, he believes. But to his dismay the mutiny was over within just 24 hours.

Khodorkovsky knows from personal experience what it is like to fall foul of the Kremlin — and to fear for your own life. Yet there are no obvious signs of security at his headquarters. When Khodorkovsky joins me at the conference table for our interview, he is not flanked by security guards. Does he feel safe? He looks at me with disbelief: “No, of course not. I understand that if Putin gives the order, it will be very difficult for me to survive,” he replies, speaking in Russian, as he does for most of the interview. “But all in all I lead a normal life. When I got out of prison I had two options: to be obsessed with personal safety or live a normal life. I decided that ten years in prison was enough. I don’t want to continue living in another kind of prison as a free man. I shall live as long as I am fated to. If my luck runs out, well, so be it.”

That life, as far as I can tell, seems to consist almost entirely of his political work: keeping abreast of events in Russia from afar requires at least ten hours a day reading, discussing and analysing, he has said, leaving precious little time for anything else. Even back in the 1990s when he was making his fortune, Khodorkovsky was never into the partying and ostentatious displays of wealth for which many of his fellow oligarchs were notorious. When I ask what he does in his free time, an aide, sitting beside him, laughs as if the concept is absurd.

Khodorkovsky is a very private person and my attempts to find out more glean little information. Do he and Inna, 54, his wife since 1991, go to the theatre, concerts or the opera? “I don’t like opera,” comes the reply. What about restaurants? “Yes.” Does he have to look over his shoulder while eating? “No.” The father of four grown-up children, he takes two holidays a year with extended family — most recently Marbella. In the winter they go to Switzerland or Finland, though he doesn’t ski.

What about socialising with other members of London’s diminished — if still significant — Russian community? Does he perhaps know the Evening Standard owner, Baron Lebedev (Evgeny Lebedev as he was known before he was ennobled by Boris Johnson)? “I know his father” — Aleksander Lebedev, the former KGB officer. And what does he think of Lebedev Jr’s elevation to the House of Lords? “I’m a guest here in Britain,” he says diplomatically. “Some things look very odd to me, but that does not mean I am going to comment on what my hosts do.”

It is all a far cry from Khodorkovsky’s childhood in Moscow in what was then the Soviet Union. Born to parents who were both engineers at a factory making measuring instruments, he studied chemical engineering at university. Graduating in 1986 with top grades, he could have landed a job in the state bureaucracy but was more interested in business. He began by opening a café in Moscow and went on to trade computers before setting up a bank he called Menatep.

He hit the big time when Menatep obtained control of Yukos, a state energy conglomerate with huge oilfields in Siberia at a knockdown price. He did so by taking advantage of a scheme to secure Boris Yeltsin’s election for a second term in 1996, in which the oligarchy — a new breed of influence-wielding businessmen — lent Yeltsin money for his campaign secured against shares in state enterprises. When, to no one’s surprise, the loans were not repaid, they got to keep the shares. It made Khodorkovsky a very rich man with a ringside seat on the Kremlin.

Khodorkovsky’s life changed dramatically in 2001, the year after Putin came to power, when he set up Open Russia, an organisation to “build and strengthen civil society”, and began to dabble in politics. He was, he says, “one of the very few people who has actually told Vladimir Putin to his face what I think about corruption at the highest level of government”. Worse, he did so in front of fellow oligarchs and the media. Several months later, in October 2003, Putin gave him his response: he was arrested at Novosibirsk airport in Siberia, taken to Moscow and charged with fraud, tax evasion and other economic crimes.

A decade of trials and incarceration in jails and labour camps followed, during which Khodorkovsky survived a near-fatal attack by a fellow inmate, Aleksander Kuchma, who in 2006 slashed his face with a knife. Kuchma later claimed he had been ordered to carry out the attack by officials who had beaten and threatened him. With typical understatement Khodorkovsky has described the incident as one of the “unpleasant moments” he suffered in jail.

Western leaders repeatedly called for his release, and in December 2013 Putin obliged — apparently in order to ingratiate himself with the West on the eve of the Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi. Khodorkovsky moved first to Switzerland and has lived in Britain since 2015. The previous September he had relaunched Open Russia with the aim of “bringing together citizens living both inside and outside of Russia, who share the European values of a strong, dynamic, and forward-looking state founded upon effective democratic institutions and the rule of law”.

By then he had lost a huge part of his fortune: he had ceded his controlling interest in Menatep to a business partner and Yukos had been broken up and nationalised. But he is not exactly on the breadline these days. More than a decade ago Forbes estimated his wealth at about $500 million, but has not attempted to do so since. “I’m not going to contradict Forbes,” he says. “But for me money is just a weapon in the struggle, so it’s a matter of how many weapons I have.”

He believes the West is misguided in thinking that sanctions can be used to persuade the current class of oligarchs to put pressure on Putin to end the war in Ukraine, let alone step down. Even the term oligarch is a misnomer, he says, given these people have no real political influence on what is becoming a totalitarian regime. “They aren’t oligarchs,” he says. “They are proxies, Putin’s agents.”

So who ultimately should replace Putin? For many, especially in America and Europe, the best outcome would be for his place in the Kremlin to be taken by a pro-western democrat. Russia, so the argument goes, needs a “tsar”; it should just be a “good” one. Such a leader — in fact any leader — would undoubtedly pursue the goal of ending the war in Ukraine.

“Everyone but Putin thinks the war was a mistake,” Khodorkovsky says. “Even if the whole of Ukraine is occupied, it would not be an asset for Russia — rather, it would be a territory whose reconstruction would bleed Russia dry of money and resources and half the country will continue to fight.”

Doing a deal to end the conflict will be vital, since raising Russians’ living standards, badly hit since the start of the conflict, will be the only way for anyone who succeeds Putin to win popularity and stay in power. Yet this would still leave what Khodorkovsky sees as Russia’s fundamental problem: the nature of its political system, which concentrates far too much power in the hands of the president. Any “good” tsar, Khodorkovsky fears, would quickly turn into one just as bad as all his predecessors. The dragon he wants to slay is not Putin himself, but rather the system — which he considers “cursed”.

The solution, Khodorkovsky argues, is instead to spread power more widely, both by giving much more autonomy to Russia’s far-flung regions and by replacing the presidential system with one based on parliament and a prime minister who must work through a cabinet. Achieving this will be a long and complicated process: rebuilding and democratising Russia’s various political, judicial and governmental institutions will take at least two years. It will also be easier to achieve if the opposition is broad-based and not a single conspiratorial group, such as the small band of Bolsheviks that Lenin led to power in 1917 after the fall of the tsar. “A coalition should take power, not just one person supported by the revolutionary party. Because if this is the model, we will end up in the same place, we will find ourselves in an authoritarian regime again,” he says.

It is partly a disagreement over what should happen next that has damaged his relationship with Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader. Navalny, 47, has been in jail since January 2021, when he returned home from Germany, where he had undergone medical treatment after being poisoned on a plane in Siberia. Already serving an 11½-year term on trumped-up charges, he was found guilty last month of “founding and funding an extremist organisation” and had his term extended to 19 years.

United by their hatred of Putin and jail time, the two men should be allies. But relations between their camps are bad. The initial disagreement was over policy: Navalny, who sprung to fame in 2011 by leading mass protests against the regime, clearly saw himself as a potential “good tsar” who could take Putin’s place. In the meantime he has had a change of mind and, in an essay smuggled out of jail and published in the Washington Post last autumn, he threw his weight behind Khodorkovsky’s own vision.

Yet tensions have remained. When Khodorkovsky and other members of the opposition met in June in Brussels, Navalny’s supporters stayed away. At another recent closed-door forum in Lithuania attended by both camps, a close ally of Khodorkovsky’s reportedly railed loudly against Navalny’s right-hand man, Leonid Volkov, until the moderator took away his microphone. Navalny’s people, Khodorkovsky argues, want to “define themselves as a radical team, but also radical in relation to the rest of the democratic opposition”. Things can often degenerate into mud-slinging. “If a person says they hate you, it’s very difficult to consolidate with them,” he says.

Does he think that Navalny made a mistake in going back to Russia, given the inevitably of being jailed? Would it have been better if he had tried to rally opposition from abroad? “For now it seems he did,” he says. “Navalny appears to have been making a bet that would have given him a significant advantage if Putin left power within the next two or three years. But it won’t be so great for him if Putin hangs on for another five or even ten years.”

Whenever and however Putin finally goes, Khodorkovsky doesn’t expect to be in the thick of the fighting if things turn violent. “Yes, I’m willing to risk my life but only when there’s a point. It’s not my job to grab a machinegun and start shooting everywhere. I’m not a sniper.”

He sees his own role as that of an adviser rather than an elected leader. “The situation in Russia requires a younger prime minister; we should look for someone in their forties,” he says. “If I need to do something during the transition period, then I’m ready to do it. But I have never stood for election in my life and have no desire to do so.” For that reason he says there will never be a direct election battle between him and Navalny.

He insists that what drives him now is not the pursuit of power or self-aggrandisement but what is better for Russia, and I am inclined to believe him.

“It so happened that I have been fighting for democracy in Russia in one way or another almost all my life,” he says. “It wasn’t my intention. It just happened like that. But all the same I want to win this struggle. To see Russia become a democratic country and develop in this direction. It’s simply my ambition.”

The article was originally published in The Sunday Times