The the night-time release and swift transfer to Germany of Russia's best-known political prisoner, former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky are being compared by some to the ex-Soviet Union's treatment of dissidents such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Bukovsky.
After 10 years behind bars, Khodorkovsky's further activities will probably be similar to theirs too: less than earth-shaking for the ruling regime. He says he doesn't plan to enter politics, go back to business or even live in Russia.
At the time of his arrest in 2003, Forbes magazine ranked Khodorkovsky as the world's 26th richest man, with an $8 billion fortune. He served an 8-year sentence for tax evasion, grand larceny and embezzlement and had 10 months left to serve of a second prison term, which was imposed for the preposterous charge of stealing oil from the subsidiaries of his holding company, Yukos. Then, President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly pardoned him.
The chain of events leading to Khodorkovsky's release has become reasonably clear from the press conferences he gave in Berlin and the comments of German-Russian political scientist Alexander Rahr, who appears to have played a role in the ex-oligarch's liberation.
Khodorkovsky owes his freedom to Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who served as foreign minister under Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the architect of German reunification. Genscher says he met twice with Putin, a Germanophile, to broker Khodorkovsky's release to Germany, where the prisoner's mother was at the time undergoing medical treatment, before returning more recently to Moscow.
"Khodorkovsky's release was achieved by German secret diplomacy," Rahr told RTVi. "Thank God Germany still has covert or semi-covert channels with Russia that other European nations and America probably no longer have, and in such situations they can work." Genscher said his interest in Khodorkovsky, whom he had met before his imprisonment, was purely humanitarian.
On Nov. 12, lawyers passed a message from Genscher to Khodorkovsky: He could now petition Putin for a pardon without admitting to guilt. This was important to the former oilman. Previously, he had been told that to secure a pardon he had to confess, something he refused to do. "Confessing of nonexistent crimes would have meant playing on the side of those who said the 100,000 employees of Yukos were an over-sized criminal group," he said at a press conference.
Relieved that he would no longer be called on to confess, Khodorkovsky penned two letters to Putin. One was a short formal application for a pardon, the other a longer personal message saying that he wanted to take care of his ailing mother and would not go into politics. On Dec. 19, Putin confirmed receipt of the letters and announced his decision to grant the pardon on humanitarian grounds. In the early hours of Dec. 20, the warden of the Karelian penal colony, where Khodorkovsky was serving his sentence, told the inmate to pack for a trip abroad.
Khodorkovsky was then driven to the regional capital of Petrozavodsk with two bags of paperwork and flown to St. Petersburg. There his escort, a penal system official, replaced his prisoner's coat with an airport worker's jacket. Still wearing prison-issue trousers, he boarded a private plane sent for him by Genscher and landed in Berlin two hours later. Genscher was waiting to take him to the luxurious Hotel Adlon, overlooking the Brandenburg Gate.
Khodorkovsky issued a brief statement on arrival saying that he was happy to be free and intended, above all, to "repay debts" to his family. On Dec. 21, he went shopping with his son Pavel and embraced his parents, who had flown back from Moscow to meet him.
"This is the Solzhenitsyn option," historian and journalist Nikolai Svanidze told Echo Moskvy radio, recalling the Nobel prizewinning author's 1974 forced exile to West Germany. "Freedom in exchange for leaving the country and in exchange for the public relations coup that naturally occurs for the Kremlin, for Putin, with the pardon."
On social networks, many also recalled the 1976 release of dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who was exchanged for the Chilean Communist leader Luis Corvalan after spending 12 years in Soviet prison camps and psychiatric hospitals. Once freed to Switzerland, Bukovsky settled in the U.K., where he remains.
Khodorkovsky's stated desire is to return to Russia, as Solzhenitsyn did in 1994. He said, however, that it wasn't practical to go back now. "Unfortunately, I have no guarantee that I will be able to leave again and go where I need to go on one kind of business or another, and family affairs are now a priority," he told a press conference on Dec. 21.
The former tycoon confirmed that he wasn't interested in business, because he had already been at the top at Yukos, or in politics: "Fighting for power is not my thing," he added. Khodorkovsky also said he wasn't sure how much money he still had, except that it was enough to live on without working. And he stressed that he wouldn't bankroll any opposition movements in Russia. "I do not have such resources and even if I did," he said, "I understand better than they do how dangerous it would be for them."
The 50 year-old's description of what he intends to do with the rest of his life sounded deliberately vague. "I would like to devote the active time that remains to me to repaying debts to those who are doing worse than I am, that is those who are still in jail, and to society, our Russian society, for which it is very important to change a bit so we in Russia could live better," he said. "Give me a bit more time than 36 hours to think over the specifics."
The apparently self-imposed restrictions that Khodorkovsky has assumed – no big business, no political activity, no return to Russia and no funding the opposition – were augmented by his polite remarks about Putin, whom he said he did not hate. Khodorkovsky also said discouraged any boycott of Putin's pet project, the winter Olympics in Sochi, because it was a "sports festival for millions of people." The ex-oligarch is definitely no Andrei Sakharov, whose call for an international boycott of the 1980 Olympics was heeded by more than 60 countries, led by the U.S..
"Putin realized that Khodorkovsky is no revolutionary and his priority goal for the rest of his life is to never go back to where he spent the last 10 years," political commentator Stanislav Belkovsky told Slon.ru. "Putin is sure Khodorkovsky has no intention of toppling Putin's regime or doing it any serious damage in the West."
Putin's allies even felt safe to mock Khodorkovsky. Igor Sechin, a longtime Putin friend who is now chief executive of Rosneft, the state-owned company that swallowed up most Yukos assets, told reporters he was willing to find Khodorkovsky a job at Rosneft -- although "all the top management positions are occupied." Khodorkovsky responded benignly in an interview with TV Rain: "I think he was joking."
Putin has clearly achieved his tactical goals. It was clear to anybody in, or watching, the media circus around Khodorkovsky's release that he wasn't eager to go into battle. Putin's benevolent gesture, and the involvement of a European elder statesman, will improve the Russian president's international standing ahead of the Winter Olympics, which some world leaders have recently declined to attend.
"Putin does not want the Olympics to be attended only by North Koreans and American gays," according to Anti-Putin activist Olga Romanova, referring to the pointed inclusion of lesbian and gay athletes in the U.S. official delegation. "It looks as though he does not like such company."
In terms of substance, however, the Khodorkovsky pardon changes nothing. The rules in Russian business and what remains of politics are the same as they were before his release. Putin's close associates will continue to get fat government contracts, while others remain subject to the arbitrary justice applied to Khodorkovsky in 2003, and the arbitrary mercy he received in 2013.
"Putin's government system is not doomed because Khodorkovsky may someday crush it," columnist Oleg Kashin wrote on Slon.ru. "It is doomed above all because the rules by which it lives are known to a too-small group of people, maybe only to Putin itself. And when too few players know the rules, the game may end at any moment."
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View.)