This morning, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil tycoon who was once Russia’s richest man and who, for the past ten years, has been Vladimir Putin’s most famous, most irksome, and most ironic political prisoner, woke up in Segezha, a former Soviet gulag in Russia’s bleak northern stretches. He cleaned up the metal shavings on the floor of his section of the penal colony’s workshop where he spent his days making metal file binders. Then he had lunch: noodles. Then, at 2:20 pm, he was checked out of the penal colony, loaded onto a helicopter and flown, apparently, to St. Petersburg, though it later turned out he was on his way to Germany, where his mother is receiving cancer treatment.
It did not escape people’s notice, that almost exactly forty years ago, the same thing had happened with dissident and writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who, in February 1974, was arrested and dumped in Frankfurt. Nor that his freedom came on the Day of the Chekist, which celebrates the Soviet and Russian security agency once knows as the Cheka and, later, the KGB.
It was also the final twist in a nail-biting and wholly unexpected finale of a saga that has kept Moscow’s liberals and business community riveted for two days. Over the decade that Khodorkovsky has spent in prison, his children grew and the world moved on—his wife spoke of his wonder on seeing an iPhone for the first time—and a consensus set in: as long as Vladimir Putin is in the Kremlin, Mikhail Khodorkovsky will be in prison. The fact that the Kremlin manufactured not one, but two cases against him, and that there was official talk of it preparing a third; the fact that the mere mention of Khodorkovsky’s name infuriated Putin—and given the paralyzing pall his 2003 tarmac arrest sent through the Russian business community, it came up a lot—and led him to say things like “a thief must sit in jail”; the fact that Khodorkovsky underwent a profound and, through myriad op-eds, a very public transformation from robber baron to the conscience of a country, he had become the issue that never went away, the thorn in Putin’s side all added up to a grinding, hopeless inertia that touched even the seemingly unbreakable Khodorkovsky himself. In a recent interview, Khodorkovsky, who famously stayed in Russia even when he knew his arrest was imminent, even said that had he known how it would all go down, he would have committed suicide.
And then, yesterday, the bombshell: at the end of a four-hour press conference, Putin announced that, as part of a broad amnesty project to free some 3,500 prisoners to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Russia’s constitution, he would be freeing his arch-nemesis, Khodorkovsky, because his mother was ill.
The announcement was so shocking that it completely obscured that the two members of Pussy Riot who were still in jail were also being freed, as were four people wrapped up in the politically fraught case of opposition protests that turned violent in May 2012.
The announcement was so unexpected that even Khodorkovsky’s family and lawyers were stunned to hear that he had appealed to Putin for clemency. When the announcement came late yesterday afternoon, I found myself standing with Vadim Klyuvgant, Khodorkovsky’s longtime lawyer, who had just come out of a Moscow courtroom where one of his clients, on house arrest for his role in the May protests, was given amnesty. He barely had time to savor the victory because his Blackberry was exploding with the grander news of his much bigger client.
“All I know is I’m going to Segezha tonight, though I don’t know if it will be worth it,” he said, smiling. When I asked what, exactly, was going on, he burst out, “I don’t know what’s going on! Someone told me that Putin said something.”
And that, in the end, is how it’s done in Russia: Putin says something. “He is demonstrating the principle that ‘I can put to death and I can dispense mercy as I please,’” says Masha Lipman, a political analyst at Moscow’s Carnegie Center.
Putin, in other words, giveth, and Putin taketh away.
Putin works in mysterious ways. In all of the excitement, there are scores of unanswered questions. To get a presidential pardon in Russia, you have to admit your guilt, which Khodorkovsky has insisted for years he would not do. Did something just change? Why is Putin doing this now? Why is Khodorkovsky? How did it go down? What conditions were set, and who set them? What about the third case? What happens to Platon Lebedev, Khodorkovsky’s co-defendant? What happens now? Will Khodorkovsky challenge Putin for political power.
So far, Khodorkovsky has answered only two questions. In a short statement released shortly after he landed in Berlin, Khodorkovsky said he had appealed for clemency back on November 12. He also said that the question of his guilt was not at issue.
The rest remains shrouded in mystery and rumor. There is talk that Angela Merkel interceded on Khodorkovsky’s behalf, but why would that be the tie-breaker when so many other heads of state had pleaded his case with Putin? (Obama is said to have raised the issue with then-president Dmitry Medvedev at a summit in Asia. Medvedev said he’d love to let Khodorkovsky go, but that his boss—Putin—wouldn’t let him.)
There is speculation that this is Putin’s attempt to burnish his tarnished image ahead of the Olympics. “But given all the things that are working against his image and image of Sochi,” says Lipman, “it seems that it’s no longer a priority for him. It seems he has higher priorities right now.”
When it comes to certain core things, especially things on which the West pressures him, Putin will demonstrably, theatrically not give a fuck. He will insist on his country’s sovereignty and his own. Putin does not do anyone’s bidding but his own.
And so, in classic Putin fashion, he did the least expected thing at the most unexpected time, to show that he is the decider, and that he decides not under pressure, and not when someone asks him, but whenever he damn well pleases.
And he chose to do it at a moment when the press about him was, says Lipman, “maximally negative” when it comes to human rights and democracy. “He check-mates those who wrote about it in those terms, and the coverage has been especially thick recently,” she says. Now Putin can add the mercy he showed to Khodorkovsky, specifically mentioning his dying mother, to his string of coups in 2013: Snowden, Syria, Ukraine.
But what happened on Khodorkovsky’s side? How did this unfold? There was brief mention in the Russian press that, according to anonymous sources, the deal was hammered out when Khodorkovsky was visited in the gulag by people from Russia’s security services, and that it was hammered out without lawyers present.
Why did Khodorkovsky relent, after years of saying that he would not appeal for clemency? Knowing his mother was dying surely played a role, as did the talk of a third case. “A person living in a Russian prison lives in such conditions, under such pressure, it is a person who lives knowing that they don’t want to let him out. Ever,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who served for many years as Putin’s close advisor. “And then comes the news about a third case, and it changes things. Psychologically, when you get a second term, you can hope that you’ll wait it out, but a third—you can’t. In Soviet times, dissidents asked for clemency when they faced a third case, because a third sentence was effectively a life sentence.”
The method is classically Soviet, and classically Putin: The secret negotiations, the swift deportation, the fact that Khodorkovsky’s co-defendant remains in jail as a sort of hostage for his good behavior, “the fact that it happened without his lawyers, well, it’s always like this,” says Pavlovsky. “These kinds of negotiations happen tête-à-tête, at the initiative of the dominant side. They won’t say some things in the presence of a third party.”
“It’s absolutely Putin’s style,” says Lipman. “It was done absolutely suddenly, in absolute secrecy,” thereby throwing everyone off. Nor did it seem to bother him that the federal prosecutor’s office recently issued a statement that the third case has “very good prospects in court.” “Putin is not shy about putting people in an awkward position,” says Lipman, “even those who work at the core of the system that he himself built.”
Today’s events are not about clemency or mercy, and they are definitely not about justice. Khodorkovsky says he looks forward to celebrating the holidays with his loved ones, but his life has been broken, as has that of his family. Many of his colleagues are still in jail; one of them died there. Pussy Riot is free as are four people in the case of the May 2012 protests, but twenty more are still in jail when they really shouldn’t be. Watching the proceedings yesterday, the mother of one of the young men who wasn’t so lucky, sat and cried softly in the courtroom. “I want my son to get amnesty, too, because he’s as innocent as they are,” Stella Lutskevich told me yesterday, dabbing at her reddened eyes. “I can usually keep it together, but I just imagined what it would be like for [my son] Denis to also get amnesty and walk out of here today, and it was like a wave hit me.”
Today’s events were about reminding everyone, in case anyone doubted it, that it is Putin—and only Putin—at the wheel, and that his grip is firm.