Russia’s democratic opposition should use opportunities like Prigozhin’s mutiny to devise the elites and destabilise Putin’s regime

July 17, 2023
Photo: Frank Bauer

By Ann-Dorit Boy

The democratic opposition must take up arms to depose Vladimir Putin, says Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, he argues that an autocrat with little regard for human life cannot be defeated through peaceful means.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, 60, was once the richest person in Russia. But President Vladimir Putin made an example of him in 2003, after he began taking an interest in politics and criticized corruption. He spent 10 years in Russian prison camps, and the government broke up his oil company, Yukos. After receiving a pardon, Khodorkovsky settled in London and became one of the most contentious voices of the Russian opposition. The Dossier Center, which he finances, regularly publishes investigative research on corruption and abuses of power in Russia. DER SPIEGEL’s Ann-Dorit Boy conducted a video interview with Khodorkovsky in England.

DER SPIEGEL: Mikhail Borisovich, three weeks ago you called on Russians to support Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny. You wrote that one should even support the devil if he turns against Putin’s regime. Would you actually ally yourself with Prigozhin?

Khodorkovsky: My appeal was not about supporting Prigozhin personally, but his rebellion, helping him to get to Moscow. I do not claim that Prigozhin is better than Putin, but he also isn’t any worse. The chaos and uncertainty during his mutiny could have been used to bring down the government and Putin. Putin and a large part of his entourage immediately fled Moscow. If the democratic forces in Russia had been better prepared, they could have taken power at that time. That’s what I had in mind.

DER SPIEGEL: You see the episode as a wasted opportunity for regime change?

Khodorkovsky: Yes, this mutiny presented not only a danger, but also an opportunity. That’s exactly what I’m trying to convince my colleagues in the democratic opposition of right now. To my great regret, the rebellion ended quickly. But I believe there will be more events like this, and we need to make better use of them.

DER SPIEGEL: You said on the messenger service Telegram and in interviews that even liberal opponents of Putin should arm themselves.

Khodorkovsky: I don’t mean that civilians should engage in combat with security forces. But in the event of a rebellion or in the event of Putin’s death, we could end up in a situation where the military and security forces do not actively participate because they are distracted or unwilling. If 10,000 or 15,000 of the peaceful demonstrators were then prepared to take up simple weapons to occupy state buildings and communication centers, this could lead to success. It would be an uprising that would not have to result in any bloodshed at all, or very little.

DER SPIEGEL: That is a very optimistic scenario: a relatively bloodless uprising by a small group that ends with Russia becoming a true democracy?
Khodorkovsky: I remember in 1991, when we, when I was on Boris Yeltsin’s side. I was at the White House …

DER SPIEGEL: … in what is now the government building of the Russian Federation in Moscow, where the Supreme Soviet sat at the time …

Khodorkovsky: … we had a very violent confrontation. We handed out machine guns and were ready for a possible raid by the FSB special forces. For us, it felt like a civil war was happening. At the same time, three kilometers away in Moscow’s residential districts, people were walking with baby carriages, and everything was fine. I don’t know how it is in other countries, but in Russia, coups and revolutions take place in a very small circle of active parts of society.

DER SPIEGEL: At that time, the putschists wanted to save the Soviet Union. You, on the other hand, wanted to prevent that. Wouldn’t a majority of society that supports a regime change be needed in the first place today?

Khodorkovsky: What we are dealing with is a very apathetic society. That’s why we talk about disputes between minorities. In my opinion, a maximum of 10 to 20 percent of society on one side, and 10 to 20 percent of society on the other side will be opposed to each other.

DER SPIEGEL: The active part of the democratic opposition is mostly in exile, like you, or in prison. So far, this opposition has strictly rejected violence. The only exception is former Duma member Ilya Ponomaryov, who is supporting the partisan struggle from exile. Who are the people who would be occupying buildings today?

Khodorkovsky: At the moment, the most active group in Russia is the national-patriotic opposition, which was disappointed when Prigozhin broke off his mutiny. But there are also people in the democratic opposition who are thinking about how to achieve change. That is the group we are talking to. For these people, who have rejected violence for years, this realization is difficult: There is no other option but to take up arms.

DER SPIEGEL: Is there really nothing more that can be achieved through peaceful means in Russia?

Khodorkovsky: Peaceful demonstrations can achieve nothing under a regime that is prepared to shoot. Ten years ago, I would have answered differently. At the time, I assumed that if Putin knew he had a choice between shooting people or resigning, he would choose to resign. Provided he would get a guarantee that he would be let off without punishment. But since the annexation of Crimea, the fighting in the Donbas and, at the latest, after the beginning of the large-scale aggression, it became absolutely clear that for Putin, one human life, 100 human lives, 10,000 human lives mean nothing compared to his power. The tactics of the fight against him have changed accordingly.

DER SPIEGEL: Actions like the ones you are proposing would likely result in casualties. Some colleagues in the opposition have criticized you for this.
Khodorkovsky: This is what I say to them: Listen, are there no victims right now? The regime kills 1,000 people a day, Russians and Ukrainians. If another 100 people had to die in the streets of Moscow to topple this regime, I would feel very sorry for the victims, especially if I were among them myself. But it would still be an acceptable number of casualties to end this nightmare of a war.

DER SPIEGEL: Those are radical statements. Do you fear for your safety?

Khodorkovsky: I’m not a fool. I understand that I am painting a target on my forehead when I say these things. And London doesn’t offer 100 percent safety.

DER SPIEGEL: That’s in contrast to Prigozhin. He doesn’t seem to have a target on his forehead, and instead walks around freely through Moscow and calmly talks to Putin in the Kremlin.

Khodorkovsky: That only seems strange to people who still consider Putin to be a statesman. But he isn’t. He’s a thug, and if you want to understand how he thinks, you shouldn’t be asking diplomats. You should be asking a police commissioner in a disadvantaged neighborhood how bandits think. Putin and Prigozhin, they’re a gang. One bandit wanted to demonstrate his power to the other. Putin wouldn’t have negotiated with him if Prigozhin had been weak, but because he showed strength, they negotiated. In the end, Prigozhin probably said something like: “As long as you’re the boss, I am willing to carry out your orders. But you know I’m strong, so give me an appropriate share of the spoils.” Sometimes gang wars like that lead to the destruction of the whole gang. If that happens, then we need to exploit it.

DER SPIEGEL: How do you envision Russia’s future if it actually succeeds in wresting the country from this gang?

Khodorkovsky: Under no circumstances should we set ourselves the goal of breaking up the country. Many rightly fear that their situation would worsen if they no longer lived under the umbrella of the Russian Federation. If we now say our goal is to smash Russia, then we will rally a large majority of people around Putin. I do not exclude that some national republics could vote for secession from Russia at some point later, but for that to happen, they must have the possibility of holding democratic referendums.

DER SPIEGEL: What needs to change in the political system?

Khodorkovsky: Russia must abolish its czar – regardless of whether he is good or evil. We need the separation of powers, a strengthening of parliament, federalization and local self-administration. Russia should be decentralized, but not disintegrated. At the moment, Moscow is pushing the centralization of power further and further with the claim that it has an external enemy.


DER SPIEGEL: It has become difficult to assess the mood among the Russian population. Meaningful polls are barely possible anymore. How do you know what Russian society is thinking today?

Khodorkovsky: I have managed a number of large companies. Yukos was active in all regions of Russia. I am used to communicating with people from a distance, I talk all day with people in Russia and with Russians abroad. I also get a feel for them through the screen. In Russia’s major cities, a majority is convinced that the war with Ukraine was a mistake. At the same time, many believe that now that the war has been started, it must be finished and won. Many fear that they themselves would be worse off if Russia lost.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you also have a sense of how people in Russia now view you? As an oligarch who enriched himself like others in the 1990s, as a political prisoner or as an opposition politician?

Khodorkovsky: I think I continue to be a devil to some people. But I am a devil who is a professional alternative to a government that has angered many.

DER SPIEGEL: After your imprisonment, you did not return to the business world and instead became involved in politics. Do you want to enter politics in a Russia of the future?

Khodorkovsky: I would like to play an active role. But Russia is an ancient tractor without an automatic transmission – it requires power to operate each lever. I can’t be that kind of tractor driver at 70. That’s a job for younger people.

DER SPIEGEL: Wait a minute, you just turned 60. Are you assuming that Putin will still stay in power for another 10 years?

Khodorkovsky: If we don’t do anything, if we don’t take advantage of the crises that are coming, then that’s very possible.

The article was originally published in DER SPIEGEL