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Noirin Hegarty: The spectre of Khodorkovsky haunts Putin despite the limits of his Siberian prison cell


Mikail Khodorkovsky

Mikail Khodorkovsky

Kino Lorber

Mikail Khodorkovsky

HE has tried hard to show his human face – most recently his tears in Red Square as he delivered his victory speech on his election for a third term.

But the real face of Russia’s controversial President Vladamir Putin is better revealed, many believe, in a seminal moment in Cyril Tuschi documentary Khodorkovsky.

The billionaire, currently serving jail time in a remote Siberian prison, is regarded by his supporters as the true leader of the opposition and a future President himself.

The former boss of Yukos Oil, one of the oligarchs who benefitted from the privatisation of Russian assets, confronted Putin in the Kremlin over corruption in a televised address.

The juxtaposition of Mikail Khodorkovsky’s somewhat arrogant and public attack and Putin’s ill-concealed disgust at being called out on camera, is chilling.

Privately Putin is reported to have told BP boss Lord John Browne: “I have eaten more dirt than I need from that man.”

Observers cite that moment as sealing the fate of Khodorkovsky, a once unsympathetic captain of industry who has become the poster boy for democracy in Russia.

The fall-out from that historic Kremlin encounter and subsequent events are examined in stunning detail in German film maker Tuschi’s documentary recently released in Ireland. It was mysteriously stolen twice before he got to premiere it.

It’s not a simple story. Khodorkovsky’s close relationship with the communist youth movement rather than his science degree, put him in a perfect position to benefit from Gorbachov’s Glasnost in the 1990s.

He is a man of many contradictions – Russia’s richest man before the age of 40 who refused to flee to London like his fellow oligarchs when he fell out of favour with Putin, serene and philosophical about the injustices inflicted on him from behind bars.

There is evidence that he was well warned that the authorities were moving in on him before he was arrested on tax evasion charges in 2003. He was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in prison in May 2005.

On the day he was taken into custody eight other oligarchs fled Moscow never to return.

Along with his business partner Platon Lebedev, Khodorkovsky was convicted of embezzlement and money laundering in December 2010 and sentenced to a further six years.

There is the unresolved issue of a Siberian Mayor who opposed Yukos development in his town who was mysteriously assassinated on Khodorkovsky’s birthday and a myriad of other murky details in relation to immoral business dealings.

In another mysterious twist the former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko was hired to investigate the mayor’s murder, but was himself famously poisoned by radioactive polonium-210 in London after opposing Putin and accusing him of state sponsored murder.

As Putin now begins another term in power, Khodorkovsky works on his appeals from a remote Siberian prison.

After nine years of incarceration, he has been transformed from a businessman into a political martyr and human rights activist.

And his access to power has increased through his writings, his legal appeals and his battle for democracy in Russia.

Outgoing President Demitry Medvedev yesterday ordered a review of Khodorkovsky’s sentence, as Putin stepped up for another four years.

Tuschi is suspicious of his motives. In an interview with The Guardian he said: “It's certainly interesting, but we're looking at tea leaves. Is it a good cop/bad cop act? Or is it a genuine offer and is this Medvedev's last chance to leave office with dignity. That's the positive interpretation.”

What is certain is that rise of Khodorkovsky has mirrored the growing dissent in Russia and increasing unease about Putin and his suspected electoral violations.

Putin’s reign will continue to be haunted by Khodorovsky whether he languishes in a Siberian prison cell or is released to run for election in four years.

* Khodorkovsky is now showing at the Irish Film Institute in Temple Bar or the Lighthouse Cinema, Smithfield, Dublin.