As the winter holidays approached, the beleaguered Russian opposition had a rare occasion to celebrate: Russia’s three best-known political prisoners were unexpectedly granted their freedom. On December 20, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon whose arrest a decade ago escalated Vladimir Putin’s war on independent politics in Russia, received a presidential pardon and was flown to Germany, where his mother is undergoing cancer treatment. Three days later, the two still-imprisoned women from the Pussy Riot punk band, convicted of “hooliganism” in 2012 for a controversial anti-Putin protest in a Moscow cathedral, were freed under a hastily passed amnesty bill that covered nonviolent female offenders with small children. But the clemencies, however welcome to the prisoners, their families, and their Russian and Western champions, leave many unanswered questions in their wake.

The biggest question concerns the Kremlin’s motive—particularly in the case of Khodorkovsky, widely viewed as the target of a special vendetta for breaking Putin’s informal pact with Russia’s business oligarchs whereby he left them alone and they stayed out of politics. (Khodorkovsky, then the CEO of the now-defunct Yukos oil company, had courted trouble by financing opposition parties and seeking to strengthen his position through deals with Western corporations.) Originally convicted of tax evasion in 2005, Khodorkovsky was tried again in 2009 on theft and fraud charges, based on the premise that all the oil produced by Yukos had been “stolen” and fraudulently sold. While most experts agreed with former Russian State Bank chairman Victor Gerashchenko’s assessment of the new case as “arrant nonsense,” no one was surprised by the guilty verdict or the stiff 14-year sentence.

At that point, conventional wisdom in the Russian commentariat held that the fallen oligarch would likely stay in Siberia as long as Putin was in power. Putin did nothing to dispel that belief, with his thin-skinned, vitriolic responses to mere mentions of the Khodorkovsky case: When asked about it in one of his televised chats with the nation during the second trial, he snapped that “a thief belongs in jail” and alluded to unsubstantiated rumors of Khodorkovsky’s alleged involvement in murders. Indeed, while Khodorkovsky was scheduled for release next August (with his sentence reduced on appeal), there were ominous indications only a few months ago that the authorities were preparing a new case against him.

Then, on December 19, came Putin’s surprise announcement at the end of a four-hour press conference: Khodorkovsky had recently appealed for a pardon on “humanitarian grounds” due to his mother’s illness, and a decree on his pardon would be signed “very soon.” Hours later, Khodorkovsky told journalist Evgenia Albats of Russia’s New Times magazine, he was roused from his sleep by the penal colony warden and taken to an administrative building to meet a high-level local official—who explained that he was there as the only person authorized to remove a prisoner from the colony without a legal order. The official escorted the ex-tycoon to the airport for a flight to St. Petersburg; it was only before boarding a plane for Berlin a few hours later that he was asked to change into civilian clothes.

Khodorkovsky also disclosed that he had, in fact, petitioned for a pardon in mid-November—but the initiative for this petition came from the Kremlin, with the message conveyed through members of his legal team. Crucially, the requirement of admitting guilt, earlier stipulated as a condition for such a request, had been quietly dropped; instead, Khodorkovsky was advised to emphasize his mother’s medical condition. The Russian newspaper Kommersant reports an even more dramatic version, in which the ex-tycoon’s pardon request was preceded by not-so-subtle pressure from state security officers who visited him at the penal colony to discuss his mother’s health and his risk of a third conviction.

These circumstances highlight the lawlessness of both Khodorkovsky’s persecution and his deliverance: “In all these 10 years, every single decision in my case has been made by one man,” he told Albats—adding, just as bluntly, that if Putin had wanted him dead he would have been dead.

But why this decision, and why now? The most obvious explanation is that Putin is seeking a public relations coup in the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics—a project in which he has a strong personal and political investment—to offset the negative publicity about the human rights situation in Russia. Interestingly, Khodorkovsky himself has downplayed the Sochi factor in interviews, telling Albats that he believes Putin freed him primarily as a display of strength, to show the nation and the world that he has nothing to fear from Khodorkovsky as a rival (and, secondarily, to send a message to the overly aggressive hardliners in his entourage).

Some Russian commentators have echoed this theme: In the mostly pro-government daily Izvestia, political analyst Boris Mezhuyev writes that Khodorkovsky’s release is a sign of how secure Putin feels in his power and marks the end of elite opposition, deprived of one of its key demands—amnesty for political prisoners. The independent media tend to offer a different perspective. In his column in the English-language Moscow Times, Moscow-based writer Victor Davidoff points out that in the 1980s, the release of high-profile political prisoners such as dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov reflected the Soviet regime’s growing instability in the face of economic woes, and suggests that the same may be true today. blogger Alexander Skobov believes that Putin knew a third Khodorkovsky trial could not be won with even a minimum of international decorum and granted his opponent a “humanitarian” pardon to save face.

While the amnesties have done little to improve Putin’s image, Khodorkovsky has generally received high marks for his own conduct—even if some of his post-release statements rankled many of his supporters. Russian liberals were particularly disappointed by his comments in the New Times interview endorsing Putin’s war in Chechnya as a lesser evil than Chechnya’s secession and the likely resulting bloodshed; however, Khodorkovsky’s advocacy of a nationalism based on strong statehood rather than ethnicity may well broaden his populist appeal, similar to that of activist and blogger Alexei Navalny (of whom Khodorkovsky has spoken approvingly). Even opposition members critical of some of Khodorkovsky’s views have hailed his dignity in the face of hardship and his moral victory in refusing to admit guilt or to thank Putin.

None of the newly released political prisoners is a saint. It is likely that Khodorkovsky, like Russia’s other early capitalists of the 1990s, built his enormous fortune using at least some ethically questionable means; there was no other road to wealth in post-Communist Russia. The Pussy Riot members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, had a history of tacky and sometimes obscene political performance art, and their church protest was widely criticized as offensive to believers—though it should be noted that they at least did not disrupt a service, and their song, while vulgar, targeted church-state ties and not religion itself.

And yet, in the face of persecution, all three seem to have genuinely risen to the moral stature of prisoners of conscience. At their December 27 press conference in Moscow, Tolokonnikova and Alekhina looked poised and gracious as they made clear that they would not repeat their in-your-face antics today, while also stressing that Putin’s repressive machine made it impossible to be heard without being provocative. The women received a friendly reception from the press; in a further sign of their acceptance by the respectable opposition, they announced a joint project with Navalny—who had once criticized their cathedral protest as stupid and offensive—to work for prisoners’ rights.

Khodorkovsky—who, by most estimates, still has a significant fortune, though it’s unclear how much he will be able to access or how soon—also intends to focus on human rights and projects to strengthen Russia’s civil society. For now, he has ruled out active involvement in politics; indeed, it is unclear whether he will be able to return to Russia.

At least so far, Putin’s pardons do not signify a general thaw. While another 8 people convicted on various charges related to unsanctioned protest rallies in Moscow have also been released in the amnesty, nearly 30 more activists were arrested in a protest on Moscow’s Triumfalnaya Square on New Year’s Eve; according to the independent press, several of the detainees were badly beaten, and one of the victims has been charged with assaulting two police officers.

Nonetheless, the end-of-the-year releases in Russia come as a breath of freedom—very real for the freed prisoners themselves, and symbolic for many more. For the time being, moral victories for the Russian opposition are better than none at all.

Cathy Young is a columnist for Real Clear Politics and a contributing editor to Reason magazine.

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