Meet Mikhail Khodorkovsky: The Oil Oligarch Who Is Now A Political Prisoner

mikhail khodorkovsky

Photo: EU Russia Centre

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was, at one time, Russia’s richest man. He was the head of Yukos Oil, which was the country’s biggest oil exporter before it went bankrupt in 2003.Now he’s set to spend another decade or is in jail after a Moscow judge convicted him for stealing crude oil from Yukos.

The trial is engulfed in controversy because it is likely a kangaroo court. Khodorkovsky and his lawyers claim he’s the victim of political revenge for publicly opposing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and speaking crudely about rampant corruption in Russia’s political and economic spheres.

And reportedly witnesses have been tortured and blackmailed to testify against him.

Government officials outside corroborate the story; “by all accounts the rule of law in the conduct of this trial has been abandoned,” the chairman of the U.K’s  Foreign Affairs Select Committee told Bloomberg. And in Germany, a government official said “adherence to the rule of law” in Russia is at stake in the trial.

After he was found guilty, Khodorkovsky’s lawyers told Bloomberg, “the trial was a charade of justice, the charges were absolutely false, but I fear the sentencing will be very real.” 

Their client is no stranger to a jail cell though – he’s already spent eight years in prison for tax evasion after Yukos collapsed, and was meant to be freed in October of 2011, according to Bloomberg. That time already served will be deducted from whatever sentence he receives in the New Year (opposition lawyers are pushing for 14 years).

Khodorkovsky grew up in Moscow and was the son of two factory workers. He became involved in the communist party at a young age: he became deputy head of the Communist Youth League at his university, the Mendeleev Moscow Institute of Chemistry and Technology, where he earned a degree in chemical engineering in ’86.

When Gorbachev’s program of Glasnost Perestroika began, Khodorkovsky communist connections helped him with a series of business successes as the Russian markets opened up. First he ran computer import business in the 1980s; then he launched Menatep bank – one of Russia’s first privately owned banks – in 1987; he bought fertiliser giant Apatit in ’94; he bought 90% of then state-owned Yukos in ’96.

In its heyday, Yukos was worth more than $20bn according to the BBC and pumped one in every five barrels of petroleum the country produced.

Other fun facts:

  • He used to own Chelsea football club
  • As deputy head of the youth communist movement, Komsomol, he was in charge of making sure other students came to Party meetings and of excluding them if they had a bad attitude, which sometimes meant kicking them out of university for good.
  • He once said: “I realise now that my parents hated the Soviet government, but they shielded me from this, thinking that to do otherwise would be to ruin my life.”
  • When Khodorkovsky was first arrested, Moscow’s stock market was closed for the first time ever for an hour to make sure stable trading prices collapsed.
  • An Estonian composer wrote a symphony and dedicated it to an imprisoned Khodorkovsky. The symphony premiered in 2009 in L.A.

For more on the trial go to Bloomberg >

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