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.