Mikhail Khodorkovsky may have trouble recognising Russia should he ever decide to return after a decade in prison that saw his oil empire dismantled and political ambitions smothered by arch foe Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin supremo pardoned post-Soviet Russia’s most famous inmate in an apparent bid to mute criticism of his own rights record ahead of February’s Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
Khodorkovsky’s release on Friday came only eight months ahead of schedule but still crucially saved the 50-year-old from the threat of more charges to keep him jailed through the remainder of Putin’s third term.
He flew to Germany in a cloud of secrecy and said this weekend that he would avoid his homeland for as long as a court order for him to pay $550 million in damages remained in place.
“Our authorities can honestly say that they did not send me into exile and that I asked for it,” he said in reference to an appeal for clemency in which he cited his desire to see his cancer-stricken mother in Germany.
“But knowing our realities, we can absolutely precisely understand that they wanted me out of the country.”
Should Russia’s former richest man decide to return, he would find a different country, in which Putin and his clique wield even greater power than before.
Khodorkovsky — his sights then clearly set on clipping Putin’s spreading wings — was snatched at gunpoint by state agents who stormed his corporate jet on a windswept Siberian runway in October 2003.
His demise began when he dared to break a golden rule former spy Putin established upon assuming office from the late Boris Yeltsin on New Year’s Eve 1999.
Putin then told Khodorkovsky and other “oligarchs” he had assembled for a fateful meeting that the Kremlin would let them keep the vast former Soviet industries they obtained for pennies on the dollar in the mayhem of Yeltsin’s 1990s if they only kept out of politics.
Khodorkovsky — championed by investors for turning Yukos oil into Russia’s first firm to adopt US accounting standards, and scorned by Putin’s circle for raising uncomfortable corruption allegations — would have none of it.
He first established a youth organisation aimed at generating future leaders bred on Western values and meant to replace the retired KGB colonels that Putin quickly installed at the Kremlin and the country’s “strategic” firms.
The multi-billionaire then pumped cash into opposition parties from both the left and right of the political spectrum to make sure that Russia maintained a vibrant democracy in which Putin’s ruling United Russia faction was kept at bay.
The final straw for Putin perhaps came on February 19, 2003 when at a now famous meeting inside the Kremlin Khodorkovsky had the audacity to denounce the extent of official corruption in the face of the Russian strongman.
Khodorkovsky’s arrest was followed months later by the ruling party’s victory in elections that saw it establish a grip on parliament it holds to this day.
The Yabloko faction of liberal economists Grigory Yavlinsky backed by Khodorkovsky has since effectively vanished while the Communist Party he also supported is a ghostly presence with no say on current events.
Even the Yukos-sponsored youth movement was transformed into a Kremlin-run organisation whose annual summer camps at Lake Seliger get high-profile visits from Putin during which he promotes his vision of top-down command.
And a new generation of leaders who emerged from fleeting protests that gripped Moscow in the winter of 2011-2012 now command the attention of politically-active youths who rely on social networks and have little interest in rich men who once stood in Putin’s way.
The decade without Khodorkovsky has seen the Kremlin take as commanding a grip of the economy as it has of political rule.
Yukos was slapped with a tax bill of more than $10 billion and then sold off in opaque auctions to state companies led by Rosneft. The government firm was then a bit player but today stands as the world’s largest publically traded producer of oil.
Rosneft is currently led by Putin confident Igor Sechin — a man Khodorkovsky blamed for plotting Yukos’ demise and one of a slate of ex-security agents picked to head state corporations that Western media branded as “Kremlin Inc.”
Meanwhile Khodorkovsky’s vision of forming a joint venture with ExxonMobil that could help secure his own political survival was cut short by his arrest.
In a stunning irony, the US super-major has since linked arms with Sechin’s Rosneft and is soon expected to start pumping Russia’s Arctic oil.