Mikhail Khodorkovsky is the former CEO of Russian oil company Yukos, a company that was seriously in debt when he took over in 1997. He transformed Yukos into the country’s second-largest oil producer, and by 2003 he was the richest man in the country.
Later that year he was jailed by the Russian government and imprisoned for 10 years after publicly criticizing endemic corruption. He was confined to a Russian labor camp until German president Angela Merkel intervened with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Putin gambled that in releasing Khodorkovsky, the former oil oligarch would disappear quietly.
It didn’t quite turn out that way.
Here is Mikhail Khodorkovsky on Putin’s failed leadership and the stark choices that lie ahead for Russia.
For the complete interview, click here.
Jeff Cunningham: Do you agree with Garry Kasparov, the chess Grand Master, who said, “The Russian word for fake news is news.”
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Well, I know why he said what he said. The actual situation is more subtle than that. If you talk to Russian people, you’ll find they know what’s going on. The news is not hidden. Sometimes news is distorted or the order in which stories are presented isn’t necessarily in the order of importance.
But what Putin’s propaganda machine is doing is to make people believe in presumptions. For example, you and I can see this brick wall here. We may have our own impressions about whether this is a pretty wall or not, but if I take ten people, and I say, “Look at how ugly this wall is,” eight of those people are going to be under the presumption that the wall is ugly. This is what Putin’s propaganda does. This is what we’re trying to fight.
JC: American media points to Russia’s 120 Facebook accounts (of a total of 2 billion) as a sign Russia tried to hack our election. Is this true or false, and what was the strategy?
MK: There was no strategy and the American reaction may be overstated, but I understand why they are in a huff. If I intentionally step on your toes, it’s not all that relevant whether your toe got hurt or not. You will still be angry at me.
“I assure you, the Russians aren’t even thinking about the American elections.”
JC: Do you believe Vladimir Putin was behind this?
MK: There are two very important points that need to be understood on this subject. When you hear a phrase like, “Russia wants to influence the American elections,” I assure you, the Russians aren’t even thinking about the American elections.
It’s a small, tiny group of random people, some of them sitting in the Kremlin, who for some reason have set themselves this task. The second point, and one which still surprises me that Americans do not understand, is that Putin doesn’t run all of Russia.
He doesn’t even run his inner circle, entirely. Generally speaking, he’s someone who doesn’t like to spend too much time working, and neither is he a great organizer. What he wants to be is someone who can make everything look like it’s humming along nicely without him having to work at it.
“Putin is someone who doesn’t like to spend too much time working, and neither is he a great organizer.”
JC: To Americans, Russia seems very determined to do things detrimental to us?
MK: What America sometimes sees as a straight policy line is very often just ordinary chaos. Yes, somebody there may have actually wanted to influence the American elections. What country doesn’t?
But the main reason for Putin’s interest in the U.S. election, in my opinion, has nothing to do with America. What Putin wanted to show the Russian people is that American elections are corrupt. So the attempts were not to hack the election but mainly to make it look back home like the votes were being falsified in Clinton’s favor.
JC: So what was the real motive?
MK: Putin needed to evoke outrage from Trump supporters to support this thesis. Not to accomplish any objective in America, but rather to show Russia, “See, there are no honest elections anywhere in the world.” The point Putin was making was subliminal: “When I falsify elections in Russia, that’s perfectly normal. Everybody does it.” I personally see this as Putin’s main objective vis-à-vis the American election.
“Putin mirrors you, so you see in him what you want to see in him.”
JC: What is Putin like?
MK: When there was a plan to appoint Putin president of Russia, I did not support him, but I didn’t state that publicly. The reason I didn’t is because I felt that’s none of my business. I felt that Boris Yeltsin, a man I greatly respected, knows better than I do. If he thinks that Putin’s the right guy, well, that’s his business.
Then, for a while, I actually thought that Putin may have been a good choice. Putin’s a very talented person in establishing communications. He mirrors you, so you see in him what you want to see in him. Then, the situation changed. They started doing things that very obviously went totally against the grain of what I believed in.
JC: How did that change your thinking?
MK: I took a step back and tried to minimize any interaction with him entirely. I worked with the chairman of the government, and for those occasions when you had to show up someplace personally with Putin (in fact, at that period, there were lots of occasions like that), I had my colleagues go to those events.
At one point, I realized there were two choices being made about the direction that the country would be taking. The first is an open type of economy, transparent and slowly being built along western standards. The second model is our traditional corrupt system.
At this point, I already understood that if that path is chosen, a lot of doors get closed for us. I didn’t want that and many of my colleagues didn’t want that either. That’s why I went on the attack and put Putin in the position where he had to make a choice between the two directions. What I didn’t know at the time, he had already made his choice.
JC: In Russia, the Beslan school terror attack in Chechnya, in which hundreds of schoolchildren were killed, is thought of as 9/11 in the United States. Did this turn Putin into an authoritarian?
MK: To be blunt, no. In fact, Putin cynically used that attack as an excuse to take away the regions’ right to choose their own governors. That had nothing to do with the attack. I should mention that I am not an expert on counterterrorism operations, so I do not know if there would’ve been more or fewer losses of life with another rescue scenario. But it’s absolutely clear that the decisions that were made with respect to Beslan were, first of all, a decision to lie about the number of hostages, to lie about the situation in general, and secondly, I think the decision to attack was cynically made by Putin because he did not want to give his opponents an opportunity to get there first and play the role of peacemakers.
JC: You were in prison during the attack. How did you know what was happening?
MK: You are right, I was in jail at the time. We had a very restricted ability to make phone calls to relatives. My parents told me that a large number of the school children after the attack were now in a hospital in Moscow. My parents said “We want to help these children once they get out of the hospital to find them places to live because many of these children had lost their entire families” They were all alone now.
“This man, Putin, does not have a heart. He may have something else there, but it’s not a heart.”
JC: What did you tell your parents?
MK: I told my parents that that would never happen because these kids are now in the spotlight and the government’s going to be right there to make sure that it’s the one that gets the credit for helping them.
In the end, though, a few of those children, if my parents hadn’t gone to their aid, would’ve had nobody there to meet them when they were released from the hospital. I just can’t believe it.
When you’re the head of the country, and a tragedy has taken place and a month later, you’ve forgotten about these kids that are being released from the hospital, something is very wrong.
You asked for my opinion of Putin? This man, Putin, does not have a heart. He may have something else there, but it’s not a heart.
JC: 55 percent of the Russians expect Putin to return Russia to the status of a great and respected country. Tell us why?
MK: For the older generation, the memories of the old Soviet Union’s place in the world are very important. What’s interesting is that the younger generation has divided into two parts. One half wants to be part of the new global world. The other half wants to be in a Russia that the world respects and fears. By the way, for many Russians, “respects” and “fears” actually mean one and the same thing.
JC: Do you find interesting parallels between Russia and America?
MK: In general, I think Russia and America are very similar. Both Russia and America are big, inward-looking countries. The overwhelming majority of Russians have never been outside the country. The majority of Americans have never been outside the country either, except maybe a quick trip down to Mexico or across the border to Canada. From this point of view, neither Russians or Americans are all that interested in what’s going on in the rest of the world.
Yes, we are similar.
JC: Are Russians still believers in Communism?
MK: In the economic sphere, Americans, much more than Russians, think their personal, economic future depends on them alone — on them personally. In Russia, Siberians are like that. Central Russia is very much dependent on the state. America also has a segment of the population heavily dependent on the state, and unfortunately, this segment is growing.
JC: Why did Putin go anti-American?
MK: The reason is simple. Things aren’t going all that well in Russia. Putin needs to have some way of explaining it to the people. Can they blame the opposition? No, because the image is that the great Putin has dealt decisively with the opposition. So there can be no opposition in the country. Now China, that can get a little scary, so China’s of no use here.
“People can believe that the Americans are capable of doing all kinds of nasty things.”
JC: What is it about America that makes us a target?
MK: Look at America, it’s great, it’s big. People can believe that the Americans are capable of doing all kinds of nasty things. America’s a very convenient enemy that can be blamed for all of Russia’s ills. It’s located ‘who the devil knows where’ meaning not near Russia, and doesn’t represent a direct threat to Putin.
JC: Now that you’re free what do you plan to do with your life?
MK: I’m firmly convinced that my country needs to do more than just replace Putin. I have seen in my life, and I am convinced that any person who’s put in Putin’s place will become another Putin. We need to remake our state into a parliamentary republic. We need for this parliamentary republic to be based on a real federalism. What I’m talking about is something similar to what took place when the United States was founded.
I think this works for Russia because in this regard, Russia is a country like America. For this to happen, we need to have young leaders.
“If I live to see the day that Russia gets a new political system, I will feel that this part of my life, too, has been a success.”
JC: Tell us about your civic movement, Open Russia.
MK: What I’m trying to do with Open Russia today is to help develop these young leaders. The work that we do is political education, participation in elections, and providing legal support and information to society. Our organization is currently represented in 25 regions. There are a thousand people who are official participants in Open Russia. Despite all the pressure that the authorities are exerting, they continue their work.
If I live to see the day that Russia gets a new political system, I will feel that this part of my life, too, has been a success. For anyone wanting to learn more about our activities, please visit the Open Russia website online.