Plotting Putin’s Downfall

11 minute read

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was once the wealthiest man in Russia, but he arrives for our interview in the back of a regular Berlin yellow cab. No bodyguards accompany him, and the dapper suits he wore at the peak of his power in 2003, when his opposition to the Kremlin first landed him in prison, have been replaced with a baggy blue shirt and a jacket too big in the shoulders. A decade behind bars seems to have humbled him a little. What hasn’t changed, however, is his determination to bring an end to the rule of Russia’s authoritarian President, Vladimir Putin. And now that he’s a free man, he’s begun fighting again to make that a reality.

On Sept. 20, nine months after his release from prison, Khodorkovsky, who is 51, announced the creation of Open Russia, an online platform that would help Russian pro-democracy activists and dissidents work together. It’s too early to say if Open Russia will have any success, but Khodorkovsky says he is prepared to spend “in the single-digit millions of dollars annually” on fomenting political change in Russia. (Forbes magazine estimates his current wealth at $175 million—a fraction of the $15 billion he once had.) He also intends to assemble a kind of government-in-waiting, which would be ready to sweep in and take over after Putin falls. That moment could come in two years or two decades, says Khodorkovsky, who is visiting Berlin to promote his project. “But sooner or later, every authoritarian regime meets its end. We need to be ready.”

His more immediate task will be to pick up the pieces of Russia’s opposition movement. Over the past year, while the world’s attention has been turned toward Russia’s military incursions in Ukraine, the Kremlin has been cracking down on political dissent at home. The government has shut down critical online news outlets or purged them of their best reporters. New legislation has tightened the state’s control over the Internet. The unofficial leader of the opposition, Alexei Navalny, who led a wave of massive street protests against Putin in 2011 and 2012, was convicted this summer of embezzlement—a trumped-up charge, he says—and put under house arrest. “Right now there is no opposition movement,” says his friend and fellow activist Leonid Volkov, who ran Navalny’s campaign to become the mayor of Moscow in 2013. “There are only scattered groups of people who act on their own.”

Those are the forces Khodorkovsky is hoping to unite through Open Russia while also harnessing newly emerging signs of discontent. Putin’s military actions in Ukraine have sent his approval ratings surging to more than 85% on the tide of nationalist fervor. But Russia’s involvement in Ukraine has also inspired a nascent anti­war movement: in September its march for peace through Moscow drew about 30,000 people. At the same time, the West’s push to sanction Russia for its incursions in Ukraine has put strains on the economy, making issues like inflation and pension payments another catalyst for dissent.

Even from his exile in Europe—he lives with his family in the Swiss region of St. Gallen—Khodorkovsky is the only opposition figure who has financial resources and a relatively reliable political constituency. “He has substantial authority among the progressive part of the population, the urban and educated part of society,” says Lev Gudkov, a leading sociologist. This minority, which Gudkov estimates at about a quarter of the nation, would hardly be enough to beat Putin at the polls. In a survey conducted last summer, Gudkov’s polling agency found only 11% of respondents willing to vote for him as their President. But that’s still a lot of people—and with Khodorkovsky’s money and experience backing them, they could begin to organize against Putin. That might just be enough to unsettle the Kremlin.

Man of the People?

Khodorkovsky, however, comes with some baggage. Many Russians still associate him with the oligarchs, who are widely reviled in Russia for enriching themselves after the fall of the Soviet Union. In the early 1990s, Khodorkovsky belonged to the clique of capitalists who used their connections to buy up state assets at a fraction of their worth. Khodorkovsky turned his company, Yukos, into one of the biggest oil producers in the world. That makes it difficult for him to position himself as a man of the people.

The power of the oligarchs did not sit well with Putin when he became President in 2000. Early in his tenure, he invited the wealthiest among them to a meeting at his private residence outside Moscow. “He laid out his terms,” Khodorkovsky recalls. While the billionaires were free to keep the fortunes they had built, they had to accept the state’s authority as standing above their own. “We listened to this, said O.K. and carried on with our business.”

Khodorkovsky was among the few who failed to fall in line. As his oil empire expanded to other countries, he began to build partnerships with Western energy firms, planning pipelines that could have threatened the state’s effective monopoly on the export of oil. Sensing the turn toward authoritarianism in Russia, he ­started funding opposition parties, criticizing Putin’s policies and hinting at a run for the presidency. All of that made him an early target for Putin’s ensuing purge of the few oligarchs who dared to defy him. Yukos “was chosen to start with,” Igor Shuvalov, an adviser to Putin, recalled at a business conference in Chicago in 2011. “Anyone could have been chosen.”

In October 2003, commandos stormed Khodorkovsky’s private jet on the tarmac of a Siberian airport and arrested him at gunpoint. The state seized most of his company’s assets and sold them off to state-backed firms. Many in Putin’s conservative base cheered the prosecution of the country’s richest man; it seemed to mark a symbolic end to the era of the oligarchs. But it also added weight to the claims of human-rights groups that the legal system in Russia serves as a tool of the Kremlin and that Putin was willing to use it to settle political scores. In 2010, when Khodorkovsky was nearing the end of his first term in prison for fraud and tax evasion, prosecutors put him on trial again, this time for embezzlement and money laundering, adding another four years to his sentence.

Pride prevented him from requesting a pardon until December of last year, about nine months before his scheduled release, when he learned that his mother had only a few months to live. In order to see her before she died, he wrote Putin a letter asking for an amnesty. Putin obliged.

Khodorkovsky’s unexpected release, coming less than two months before Putin was to host the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, showed just how secure the Russian President felt in power at the time. He was allowing his political nemesis to walk free as long as he took a flight immediately out of the country. Khodorkovsky wound up in Berlin, by his mother’s bedside, and only after she passed away in early August did he turn his focus back to politics.


By then Putin’s regime had begun to look shakier than it had on the day he let Khodorkovsky out of his grasp. Days after the closing ceremony in Sochi, a violent revolution in neighboring Ukraine brought down its Kremlin-backed leader, Viktor Yanukovych. The revolt was a devastating blow to Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe, and Putin responded by taking the greatest gamble of his tenure. Against the passionate objections of the West, he invaded and annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea.

The land grab, though hugely popular in Russia, provoked a series of sanctions from the U.S. and the European Union intended to isolate the Russian economy. Inflation has spiked, foreign investors have fled the country in droves, and the economy now stands on the verge of recession. The price of oil, Russia’s most lucrative export, has meanwhile declined to about $90 per barrel, well below the price Russia needs to balance its federal budget.

Khodorkovsky watched these events unfold and decided they offered him an opportunity. His calculation is simple: the more Russians blame Putin for the slump in their economic welfare, the easier it becomes for the opposition to widen its appeal. Their leaders have mostly welcomed Khodorkovsky’s efforts. “His release got a lot of enthusiasm going among my friends,” says Volkov.

Khodorkovsky’s fame, Volkov says, has brought renewed attention to the dissident cause, and his money can drive it forward. The best-funded campaigns of the opposition, like the ones monitoring elections or exposing evidence of graft, survive on annual budgets of about $60,000. So the millions that Khodorkovsky plans to invest each year could make an enormous difference, Volkov says.

But even some of Khodorkovsky’s allies say the former oligarch may be too optimistic when he says it’s only a matter of time before Putin’s regime collapses. No genuinely threatening move to overthrow Putin would likely last long, because Russia’s security services would immediately act to “neutralize them,” says Stanislav Belkovsky, a prominent political consultant who has been working with Khodorkovsky and sympathizes with his cause. “We can’t put forward any kind of plan to overthrow Putin. All we can do is pray for an act of God, like a brick falling on his head,” he says.

Khodorkovsky accepts as much. The next big chance for the opposition to lead mass street protests will come in 2016, during the next parliamentary ballot. “The state is most vulnerable during elections,” says Khodorkovsky. But the wave of pro-democracy demonstrations that followed the last election cycle in 2011 did little to loosen Putin’s grip. “We cannot threaten the regime, not yet,” Khodorkovsky says. “The people are not ready to storm the Kremlin, but the Kremlin is prepared to open fire.”

Putin’s government has shown it will do what it needs to stay in power. The day before Khodorkovsky launched Open Russia, via an online video conference with his supporters, the Kremlin announced a plan to cut Russia off from the Internet in case of an online threat. “We need to defend ourselves from the U.S. and Europe,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, told reporters in explaining the initiative. “This is not about isolating ourselves—­it’s about getting ready for possible cutoffs as countries that regulate the web may act unpredictably.”

The measure was extreme, echoing similar moves in China, Syria and Iran, and it showed just how paranoid Putin has grown in his efforts to extinguish any spark of revolution. In some ways his fear is justified: the massive street protests that swept Moscow and other Russian cities in 2012 could easily have spiraled into an all-out insurrection. This winter’s revolt in Ukraine—uncomfortably close to home for Putin—was the second one to oust the ruling government in Kiev in the course of a decade. And in spite of what many view as Putin’s iron grip on power, the Ukraine protests cemented Khodorkovsky’s belief that a similar revolt in Russia is imminent. “When it happens, we won’t have much time,” he says excitedly. “Our regimes have always changed quickly, from a couple of weeks to a month.” If it takes a little longer than that, Khodorkovsky will just wait—something he learned to do well in Putin’s prisons.

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