20 years under Putin: a timeline

On December 20, 2013, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was released after 10 years in jail. In the months that followed, Russia annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine, passed a series of restrictive legislation, imposed a ban on the importation of foreign food, went through a currency crisis, and entered economic recession. On the anniversary of his release, Khodorkovsky made the following statement to the Russian public.


On December 22, 2013 in Berlin Mikhail Khodorkovsky gave his first press-conference after his release from prison. Photo: Adam Berry / Stringer


A year ago I was freed from the confinement where I ended up by the will of those in power. I was developing business, doing charity work, and engaged in developing civil society to the extent that I could. But the people in power thought that I was a threat to them.

Inside, I was ready for the arrest, but I was sure that truth was on my side, allowing me to defend my innocence. As you know, I failed. I spent 10 years in prison.

I lost everything. I went through perplexity, despair, powerlessness. I rarely saw my family. I was cut off from my friends and my loved ones. When I heard about the second Yukos case, I mentally prepared myself to spend the rest of my life in prison. But last year, on December 20, I gained my freedom again.

I could hug my mother. I was happy to see my grown children, meet my friends, feel their support and warmth again. I was glad that there were no walls surrounding me, that no one was controlling my life.

It turned out that freedom heals you very fast. You start feeling that the future depends on you again. And you stop thinking about how much you lost.

But I can’t call myself a fully free person yet—because I can’t go back home to the country where I was born and raised, where most of my friends and colleagues live. Why is that?

In a matter of 10 years, our country rejected freedom, allegedly in favor of personal welfare. According to the slogans, no one needed freedom. There is no real freedom anywhere. Ordinary people are not ready for it. Freedom was exchanged for a “strong hand” in the hope that this “strong hand” would feed, not strangle, us.

Under the pretext of guaranteeing stability and threats of a return to the ’90s, the authorities were stripping people of their basic rights, bit by bit. At first, the authorities told them to stay away from politics—or they would end up like Khodorkovsky.

Then they said: Do business—but it shouldn’t be too big, because big business is only for the president’s friends. [Then they said that people can] take to the streets [as one-person picket only]. And now they are interfering with people’s private lives, [almost getting into their] beds.

The biggest problem in prison is not the living conditions or the prison food, but the fact that you can’t communicate with the people you want. In a sense, the Russian authorities remind me of prison guards. They want to decide whom the citizens can have business with, whom they can receive funds for civil activities from, who is a friend, and who is a foe. “What do you need freedom for? What would you do with it? You’ll get lost!” That is what the Kremlin ideologists have been constantly repeating to us.

I realized that freedom is a value in itself. To me, personally, it’s the highest value. But freedom has a practical application too. Producing wealth and achieving prosperity are only possible when people cooperate freely. Even in Russia, the people and their free cooperation are the source of welfare—not natural resources or territories, and certainly not the state.

By the beginning of 2014, the current regime had started to realize that it had brought the country to a dead end. That even super-high oil prices couldn’t provide economic growth. That the business community doesn’t trust [the regime]. Nor do people in the sciences and arts, the intellectual elite.

According to Vladimir Putin, the list of Russia’s enemies becomes longer every day. But regardless of who’s caught the eye of the state propaganda machine at the moment, the key enemy of the current regime has always been freedom itself.

And they found a means by which everything could be swept under the rug—war. I still can’t believe that I pronounce this word today, that this is our grim reality. Armed conflict in the territory of a neighboring state, with people we have recently considered brothers—it is a tragedy. This war will cost a lot, in every sense. It already has. We have suffered colossal losses: lives, money, trust, connections, possibilities. All of these are merged into one price that we can call “the price of Crimea.” Today, Russian citizens are paying for Crimea, for Donbass, for the government’s mistakes, for the exorbitant corruption that the regime is trying to veil with military actions and patriotic rhetoric.

Yes, oil prices are falling. But standards of living in Russia are decreasing catastrophically for a different reason. In Norway or even Nigeria—countries that depend on oil like Russia—the value of their currency dropped by only 12 to 15 percent. Their citizens haven’t lost two-thirds of their savings and income. There is no panic at the stock exchange; [their central bank’s key] rate has not been increased up to 17 percent.

The problem is somewhere else. No one trusts [the Russian] government anymore—either inside the country, or outside it. Even those who defiantly proclaim their wholehearted support for Putin are rushing to the currency exchange offices until [they know that] the rate of exchange for the ruble to the dollar won’t be hiked further. 

People are losing their money. But that’s not the worst thing. The concept that “Russia is surrounded by a circle of enemies” means that we are being cut off from the knowledge, technologies, cooperation of the most developed countries. What for?

According to Vladimir Putin, the list of Russia’s enemies becomes longer every day. But regardless of who’s caught the eye of the state propaganda machine at the moment—the Maidan, gay people in Europe, Angela Merkel, or currency profiteers—the key enemy of the current regime has always been freedom itself, because freedom leads to changeability of power.

Europe—which the regime has been using as something to scare us—realized this long ago. European countries long fought each other constantly—for territories, spheres of influence, resources. Strong states attacked weak ones. This all resulted in fascism and the bloodiest war in human history. At some point, Europeans understood that war leads only to poverty and oppression, that it is a traumatic experience that impedes development. Look at Europe today. No borders, a common currency, high living standards, a social security system. [Russian authorities] like to tell us about the allegedly poor Greece. But the minimum pension in Greece equals 450 euros. Compare this to 60 euros in Russia—7.5 times less. A children’s allowance that equals 3 euros per month would be unthinkable in any EU country. Europe doesn’t have such [a high] death rate, or as many orphans [as Russia does].

Europe has learned one important lesson from its past. Any person, even the best one, once he’s endowed with limitless authority, eventually crosses the line. He will incarcerate a political opponent, subdue the judicial system, start a war. That is why it is important for Russia to create a system in which all power cannot be concentrated in the hands of one person. I’ll never get tired of speaking about constitutional reform as one of the first and most necessary steps toward the country’s freedom and welfare.

It is not just the president who can have limitless power; it can also be a governor, an attorney, or even a police officer in some distant Department of Internal Affairs. Our aim is to make every person feel that rule of law of the state will always protect him.

[In that case,] however worrisome the present would be, we would always have a chance for a better future. I would like to take a glimpse over the event horizon. Today, like 10 years ago, many of you feel fear, despair, powerlessness. You feel like nothing can be changed, that you are not the masters of your lives.

Regardless of what [the authorities] are telling you, this is not so. It’s you, not oil, who is the source of public welfare. It’s you, not Putin, who is the source of power. You, not the officials, are the masters of our country. You, not the United Russia deputies, are to decide what is allowed and what is not. We will achieve freedom—through elections or without them. And when it comes, it will soon heal the wounds caused by today’s losses.

Russia under Putin

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