After ten years in prison, one surreal day of release and a private jet to Berlin, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, was facing the press in the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, which houses an exhibition in his honor.
Facing a scrum of reporters, Khodorkovsky was rational and in command of his surroundings. He was modest about his suffering. In the camps, he said, “they can still demean people, put pressure on people, but the hunger, the cold that prisoners spoke about in the past, that doesn’t happen now.”
The political prisoner who comments so judiciously about the conditions of his imprisonment is rare. Even rarer is one who can make a joke. Khodorkovsky said he “won’t be buying a football team,” making a dig at fellow oil magnate Roman Abramovich’s well-known ownership of Chelsea Football Club.
Khodorkovsky’s release is likely a public relations cleanup ahead of the winter Olympic games in the Russian Black Sea region of Sochi. It could also be, as Julia Ioffe wrote in the New Republic, the display of clemency by one who reserves the right to loosen just as much as he will bind.
For the moment, Khodorkovsky retains the power to attract attention and to sway minds — at least as long as media attention will last. He has established a credible track record of concern for his country — a country that has seen little real concern for human rights, that now faces a worsening economy and that has few of the structural reforms that could raise the growth rate and living standards. With his present fame and past record, Khodorkovsky could do much for Russia. His most valuable deed could be to confront the legacy of his class.