Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled Russian businessman, has called on Russians still inside the country to launch a wave of “sabotage” against state structures, with the aim of derailing Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine and destabilising his government.
Khodorkovsky, who spent a decade in jail between 2003 and 2013 and now lives in London, said Putin’s invasion had completely changed the agenda for Russia’s political opposition, and claimed that “armed resistance” may play a role at some point in the future.
“We need to explain to people what they can do, persuade them that they should do it, and also help people if as a result they end up in a dangerous situation,” Khodorkovsky told the Guardian.
He said potential actions should depend on each person’s tolerance for risk, and could range from painting anti-war graffiti in the streets to sabotaging railway deliveries linked to the war or burning down conscription offices.
“But we are very clearly against terrorist methods that harm unarmed people,” he said, criticising the killing of Darya Dugina, the daughter of a Russian imperialist ideologue, last month, which was claimed without any evidence by a hitherto unknown group of Russian partisans.
Khodorkovsky was speaking in his first interview about his new book, The Russia Conundrum, which is out later this week. Part memoir and part analysis of Putin’s years in office, the book lays out a template for western states on how to deal with Moscow.
Khodorkovsky has one of the most remarkable personal stories of post-Soviet Russia, rising from economic beginnings in the Youth Communist League during Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the late 1980s to become Russia’s richest businessperson through his chairmanship of Yukos oil company.
In the book, Khodorkovsky describes his early meetings with Putin, which he left convinced that the new Russian president was an ideological ally. “His technique is to look at you and mirror what you are saying … He’s a chameleon who leaves everyone thinking he’s on their side,” he writes.
Looking back, he admits he completely misread Putin. “I wasn’t sharp enough to see it. He has that professional KGB skill of adapting to his interlocutor, but he also just has a personal talent for it … Back then, he didn’t feel stable in his position and he didn’t want to create enemies who would unite against him. Of course he never had any liberal views.”
In 2003, Khodorkovsky was arrested on charges widely seen as political, after he publicly criticised government corruption during a meeting with Putin, and promised to fund opposition parties. His arrest was seen as one of the first milestones in Putin’s gradual tightening of the screws over the past two decades.
Khodorkovsky said Putin’s decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine had shocked him anew, and completely changed his views on how best to oppose the regime.
“Of course, [the invasion] was an absolutely fundamental moment. My impressions and feelings before and after 24 February are completely different,” he said.
All four of Khodorkovsky’s grandparents were either Ukrainian or spent time living in Ukraine, and as a young child, he used to spend summers at his great-grandmother’s house near Kharkiv. Nevertheless, he always identified as Russian.
“It always felt normal, nothing to be ashamed of to be Russian. Now every time you say you’re Russian, there is an internal discomfort,” he said.
Like many Russians, Khodorkovsky has had arguments in recent months that have ended longstanding friendships. He said even among friends who supported him through his years of imprisonment, some had turned out to be fans of the Ukraine invasion.
“Imagine, you know people since you were both seven years old, and now you’re both nearly 60 and you just can’t speak to them,” he said.
However, he also said it was important for the west to focus on the many Russians who did not support Putin’s regime or the war in Ukraine. He is strongly against the policy being floated in some European capitals of a full ban on tourist visas for Russians.
“The west has ideological allies inside Russia, who think that Russia should develop on a European path,” he said.
“If Putin lives another 10 or 15 years it would really lower the number of European oriented Russians, and I don’t think this is good for anyone except Putin.”
During his decade in London, Khodorkovsky has remained an active commentator on issues inside Russia, and funded various civil society movements through his Open Russia foundation, which was ruled an “undesirable organisation” by Russian courts back in 2017 and ceased operations.
He was one of many opposition figures to address the so-called Congress of Free Russia, which took place in Lithuania last week and aimed to come up with a coordinated platform for opposition to Putin. But critics say much of the opposition is now disconnected from life inside the country. Associates of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny declined to take part in the Lithuania congress, dismissing it as a meaningless talking shop. For now, it is hard to see a mass opposition movement being possible inside Russia.
Khodorkovsky said that, sooner or later, Putin’s regime would fall. One key element in this will be Ukraine winning the war, he hopes. Then, Russia should be “reformatted” as a loose parliamentary federation. There was a path to this outcome that did not involve bloodshed, he claimed, “but it’s rather unlikely”.
The most important thing, he said, was for the west not to write Russia off completely, so that when the crunch moment did come, there would be more chance of post-Putin Russia being liberal and pro-western.
“This is a nightmare, but this nightmare does not mean that Russia and Europe have separated for ever. It’s extremely important that in this difficult emotional background, we keep a sound mind, pragmatism and a vision of the future, of a democratic, European Russia,” he said.
The Russia Conundrum: How the West Fell for Putin’s Power Gambit – and How to Fix It by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, with Martin Sixsmith, will be published on 8 September by WH Allen, £20