Exiled Russian Ex-Tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky Recasts Himself as Advocate for Political Prisoners

Associated Press
Mikhail Khodorkovsky

"We simply need do everything so that there are no more political prisoners in Russia, and other countries as well," Khodorkovsky said at a news conference in Berlin.

BERLIN – Mikhail Khodorkovsky spoke at a Berlin news conference only 36 hours removed from his release from prison in Russia on Friday after accepting a presidential pardon after ten years behind bars. 

"Don’t consider me a symbol signifying that there are no political prisoners anymore, but rather as a symbol of civil society securing the freedom of prisoners thought to be impossible to release," the fifty-year-old ex-tycoon, dressed in a dark blue suit, stated. "We simply need do everything so that there are no more political prisoners in Russia, and other countries as well. I will do everything within my power in this regard."

With a sigh and a faltering voice, Khodorkovsky mentioned his fellow former Yukos executive and "comrade in misfortune" Platon Lebedev, who remains in prison in Russia on oil-theft charges. Khodorkovsky added that he had information from unnamed Russian security officials that continued legal action against various persons in the Yukos affair is still on the table.

The specific ways that Khodorkovsky’s activism would manifest itself are unclear. Nevertheless, he hinted at using media and most likely social media as well.  Since 2011, he has contributed columns on prison life to the Russian-language publication The New Times. Khodorkovsky said that his main goal for the press conference was to express gratitude to all advocates for his release.

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He thanked journalists in general, adding that media attention had played a key role in securing his release. Khodorkovsky also thanked German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying that he learned of the full extent of her efforts for his release from social media.

"I had the chance to use information sources that are absolutely ordinary for most of you," he said. "They’re all new to me – Facebook, Twitter – when I went to prison, there was none of that."

He came to Berlin on the invitation of Germany's former foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, 86, who made arrangements to charter a jet as soon as he heard that Putin planned to pardon Khodorkovsky. Genscher also used his foreign-ministry clout to fast-track Khodorkovsky’s Schengen visa, which allows Khodorkovsky to stay in Germany and other European countries for a total of one year. Khodorkovsky was joined in Berlin by his mother Marina, who flew in from Russia, and his son Pavel, who came from New York.

Wall Museum director Alexandra Hildebrandt moderated the press conference, and in her introduction she thanked Khodorkovsky’s mother, Genscher, Merkel, former Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Russian President Vladimir Putin for facilitating Khodorkovsky’s release. The mention of Putin, which came last, elicited a wave of boos from the assembled journalists.

Khodorkovsky confirmed that he will no longer be directly involved in politics or business. He avoided directly criticizing Putin and called on people not to politicize the upcoming Olympic Games. He said that he opposed any boycott of the Games.

Khodorkovsky also said that he has not had a chance to make specific future plans.

“I was freed only 36 hours ago and I don’t think I’m capable of planning yet. The main thing that cuts a prisoner down is when hope is dashed at the last minute,” he said. “I will still have to think and consult with my friends on what to do next.”