On October 25, 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, head of the Yukos oil company and chairman of the Open Russia Foundation, was arrested at the Novosibirsk airport. A decade later, he remains Russia’s most prominent political prisoner. IMR Senior Policy Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza considers that day to have been the turning point in the modern history of Russia, and the Khodorkovsky case to be the most vivid symbol of the country’s authoritarian regime.
Many Russians vividly remember where they were and what they were doing on October 25, 2003, at the moment when the news of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s arrest first appeared in the headlines. That day was, without doubt, a turning point in the history of modern Russia. While the regime’s authoritarian leanings were already well known—suffice to recall its reinstatement of the Stalinist national anthem and the closure between 2001 and 2003 of three independent nationwide television channels—in brazenly arresting an influential and prominent Kremlin critic and sponsor of opposition parties in the middle of a heated State Duma election campaign, the authorities crossed the line between “soft authoritarianism” and political repression.
I received a phone call with the news in the middle of a town hall meeting with voters (at the time, I was a candidate for the Russian Parliament in Moscow’s Chertanovsky district). When I told those present about the security services’ early dawn operation at Novosibirsk’s Tolmachevo Airport, the room fell silent. Even in the fourth year of Vladimir Putin’s rule, few could believe that the regime would take such a step.
The initial voices of protest from the Russian elite—including Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov’s statement about the inappropriateness of the arrest, and Anatoly Chubais’s strongly worded interview on Rossiya television channel—were quickly cut short by Putin’s famous directive to “stop the hysterics.” Kasyanov was soon dismissed; the others duly “stopped the hysterics” and, more importantly, heeded the Kremlin’s message. After the arrest of Khodorkovsky—who chaired the Open Russia Foundation, sponsored the pro-democracy Yabloko and SPS parties, and founded the School of Public Politics, the Club of Regional Journalism, and the Federation of Internet Education—Russia’s large corporations steered clear of expressing anything even resembling support for the opposition or civil society groups disliked by the regime, and refrained from any public criticism of government corruption. Khodorkovsky’s public spat with Putin in the Kremlin on February 19, 2003, was well remembered by Russia’s “oligarchs.”
“History… has decided that the liberation of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, and therefore of all Yukos prisoners, will also mean the liberation of the country from a regime that, like a drunken coachman, is driving Russia into an abyss.”
In the Khodorkovsky case, the Russian regime has revealed itself in full. The case signaled the suppression of dissent and independence, and the submission of big business to the Kremlin’s rules of the game. It has signaled the degradation of Russia’s judicial system, which has turned into an obedient instrument of the Kremlin’s political will (notably, the now-famous term “Basmanny justice”—meaning politically motivated “telephone justice”—originated in October 2003 and took its name from Moscow’s Basmanny District Court, which authorized Khodorkovsky’s arrest). It has also signaled the creation of Putin’s corrupt “oligarchic capitalism”: the vast majority of the assets seized from Yukos have ended up in Rosneft, which was then chaired, and is now managed, by close Putin confidant Igor Sechin. The auction for Yukos’ most prized asset, Yuganskneftegaz, was “won” by an unknown shell company registered at a café in the town of Tver—only to later officially revert to Sechin’s empire.
The Yukos case also resulted in several other broken lives: Platon Lebedev, who was arrested in his hospital bed; Svetlana Bakhmina, a mother of three (the youngest was born during her incarceration); Vladimir Pereverzin and Vladimir Malakhovsky, who served more than seven years in prison camps; and Alexei Pichugin, who was sent to the infamous “Black Dolphin Prison.” From all of them, the authorities demanded—but did not get—false testimony against Khodorkovsky. They also failed to get it from Vasily Alexanyan, who—terminally ill and almost blind—was held in custody despite three injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights, and was eventually released on a 50 million ruble ($1.6 million) bail to die at home. He died two month before his fortieth birthday.
The image of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in a courtroom cage symbolizes the current regime no less than the image of Putin in the Kremlin’s St. Andrew Hall. “History, the one with the capital ‘H,’ has decided that the liberation of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, and therefore of all Yukos prisoners, will also mean the liberation of the country from a regime that, like a drunken coachman, is driving Russia into an abyss,” wrote Elena Bonner, chair of the Sakharov Foundation and the widow of Andrei Sakharov, shortly after the patently absurd verdict in the “second Yukos case.” We can only hope that this liberation will not be long in coming.