Saturday, December 21, 2013

Why Putin Freed Mikhail Khodorkovsky

From Julia Ioffe, at the New Republic, "The Khodorkovsky Case: Putin Giveth and Putin Taketh Away":

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...
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