20 years under Putin: a timeline

On September 20, Mikhail Khodorkovsky launched his Open Russia project, and later that day he participated in a talk at a three-day festival held by French newspaper Le Monde in Paris in honor of its seventieth anniversary. Paris-based journalist Elena Servettaz here provides a selection of Khodorkovsky’s key statements.


At his talk at the Opéra Bastille Mikhail Khodorkovsky noted that the “European choice” signifies very simple things for Russia: the rule of law and the regular transition of power through elections. Photo: Getty Images.


Tickets for a talk by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s most prominent ex–political prisoner, sold out almost instantly after being made available. French politicians, including former education minister Jack Lang and European Parliament member Daniel Cohn-Bendit, journalists, experts on Russia, political analysts, students, and admirers of Russian culture all came together to listen to Khodorkovsky.

The talk by the former head of Yukos was held at the Opéra Bastille as part of a three-day festival organized by Le Monde in honor of its seventieth anniversary. Le Monde international correspondent Piotr Smolar moderated the conversation with Khodorkovsky, which lasted for about an hour.

In his speech, Khodorkovsky touched upon many topics, including Kremlin politics, the Ukraine crisis, and Western sanctions against Russia; he also outlined his plans for Open Russia and spoke on the meaning of the “European choice” for Russia.

Below are the key points of his speech.


On the “Rules of the Game”

I had no contact with anyone [from the current government during my time in prison]. It was quite clear [to them] that there was nothing to discuss with me behind closed doors. I, though, spoke publicly about the matters that I thought were worth discussing. Of course, Putin kept the situation contained within certain boundaries. For example, my family has never been abused by law enforcement, which is not typical. As we have seen in Alexei Navalny’s case, Russia’s law enforcement system usually puts pressure on the family in order to influence the defendant. In my case, it was clear that [leaving my family out of the case] was a direct order from Putin. . . . This [method of] communication . . . allowed us then, as it does now, to see Putin and some members of his entourage not as enemies, but as political opponents. This has been a more normal situation than it could have been.


On Money and Politics

I thought and still think that money is not worth the time [spent making it]. Time is more expensive. I said that I was not interested in engaging in politics. Important point: I never promised anyone that I would not be involved in politics. And now I can still say that I am not interested in engaging in politics; I do not have the inner desire and longing to obtain a position of power. But as I said then and as I say right now, I’ll engage in any activity that is public. And if someone thinks that political, I have no objection. I do not care how they view this activity.


On Ukraine 

The Ukrainian events caught me off guard, as they did most of the people present here. I had this urge to explain my position on certain issues. I didn’t consider it possible to take a general stance [on Ukraine], and I have always believed that in order to speak out, I need to obtain information firsthand. I travelled to Kiev, . . . went to the Maidan, talked to people, and came to the conclusion that their attitudes toward Russians, Muscovites, those who speak only Russian, are absolutely normal. At that moment, there was no anti-Russian sentiment there,just as there is [no anti-Russian sentiment] there now. Moreover, when I spoke in the Maidan, all those 20,000 people chanted: “Russia, stand up!” I promised those people that I would hold a congress between members of the Russian and the Ukrainian intelligentsia, that people would not lose contact, even in such a difficult time.


On the Annexation of Crimea

I am convinced that the joining of Crimea with Russia is final. But I also believe that the legitimation of the violations of international law [that have occurred] would send the wrong signal, which would lead to many problems for many [nations], including Russia.


On Sanctions and Western Values

Today I held an online conference with members of activist groups [from different] Russian cities. [Former president of the New Economic School Sergei] Guriev spoke there and gave his assessment of the international sanctions. His opinion is that they are certainly effective in the long term. But I would like to give my opinion on the political aspect of the sanctions: the way in which they have been imposed is a mistake, because they were introduced as sanctions against Russia and the Russian people. As a result, they consolidated the public around Putin. And in this case, the West—I mean the collective West—is behaving as it has for the last decade: pragmatically. This is [the form] its pragmatism [takes]: you did wrong, and now we are punishing you. But they are forgetting that the West was stronger than the Soviet Union because of its values.

Western values have always been attractive to Russians. It is these values that make us admire and appreciate the West. And the West had to refer to these values when it considered [taking action] against Russian officials. If the West had said: “Dear citizens of Russia, your bureaucracy robs you; we have been turning a blind eye to it for a long time, but now we don’t want to do so any longer. [Your bureaucracy] steals your money, brings it to the West, buys real estate here, and so on. We do not want to deal with these people anymore; we don’t want them to hide their stolen money in the West”—this would have been a clear moral stance that could have received the support of the Russian public. When the West says, [however,] “We will punish Russia,” 140 million Russians become ready to suffer through much greater difficulties than [those imposed by] these sanctions.


On Open Russia and the Opposition

As I already said, personally, I am not interested in holding any positions of power. And I have said the same thing to the people who are getting ready to participate in the Open Russia movement. At the moment, for example, we will not be able to bring our supporters to the State Duma. In other words, we are not fighting for power; we are fighting [for] the power to be different—more involved with the public life. If a decent man is elected to the State Duma, even if he is a member of the United Russia Party, we will support him. If a man who calls himself a member of the opposition comes to power but at the same time is not a decent man, we will not support him. [Open Russia] is a movement directed at influencing state power, at helping the pro-European part of [Russian] society to self-organize.


On “European Choice”

For us, the “European choice” signifies very simple things that [the West] stopped thinking about long ago: first, the rule of law, justice, and honest law enforcement; second, the regular transition of power through elections. At the moment, that is all that we would describe [Russia’s] European choice as. In the future, if we follow the European path, we will encounter forks in this road. Let’s hope that by that time, [the West] will not be making [so many] mistakes, and it will be easier for us to choose.



After Khodorkovsky’s talk, several French publications and news agencies reported that he had announced his desire to become president of Russia. As it turned out later, reporters rushing to break the news had taken Khodorkovsky’s phrase out of context. In reality, while answering Smolar’s last question, Khodorkovsky said the following: “I would not be interested in becoming the president of the Russian Federation when the country is developing normally. If the necessity arises to overcome the crisis and conduct a constitutional reform that would have as its central part the redistribution of presidential power in favor of the judiciary, parliament, and civil society, I would be ready to take on this part of the task.”


This statement was followed by applause, in the midst of which Khodorkovsky stood up and silently left the room.