The Little Oligarch in Exile

mikhail khodorkovsky The Little Oligarch in Exile“I’m afraid to go back to Russia,” said Pavel Khodorkovsky. The 25-year-old is the oldest son of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oligarch whom the Kremlin had sent back to prison several days before on new charges of embezzlement.

“If anything happened to me,” he said, pausing, as if to contemplate the inscrutable darkness of the country he had left behind seven years ago, “it would break my father.”

On a Friday in late December, at Ground Support Cafe in Soho, Mr. Khodorkovsky took a sip of his coffee and looked around the crowded room. “We’re hoping for an appeal,” he told The Observer, trying to crack an upbeat smile. He wore jeans and a heavy coat with a fur collar and had just come from his apartment in Chelsea, where he lives with his wife and 1-year-old daughter. “We’re hoping it will bring some better news.”

Over the course of a two-hour interview, mixing Russian with English, Mr. Khodorkovsky discussed Vladimir Putin, the FSB and Siberian penal colonies, causing people at nearby tables to look up. “Putin is constantly trying to tie my dad to murder charges,” he said.

One of Russia’s most successful businessman-and possibly the least ruthless of a ruthless post-Soviet scrum-Mikhail Khodorkovsky was the chairman of the oil company Yukos. With a fortune of some $15 billion, he was the richest man in Russia and the 16th-wealthiest person in the world, until he challenged President Putin for political power around 2000 and Mr. Putin decided to take it all away.

In October 2003, commando troops in black masks arrested Mr. Khodorkovsky on a Siberian tarmac. The young Mr. Khodorkovsky was in his freshman year of college at Babson, in Wellesley, Mass. From there, he watched his father stand trial on tax charges in 2005, resulting in an eight-year sentence in a faraway Siberian prison. Father and son initiated a convoluted correspondence, their letters ferried through attorneys, scanned by prison officials, personal details and emotions necessarily kept to minimum.

Last month, a second trial, this time for embezzlement, resulted in another conviction. Barring appeals or parole, Mikhail Khodorkovsky will remain in prison until 2017. “The judge is just a slave,” said Pavel, reflecting broad international sentiment that the ruling was an act of political retribution. His voice clicked up in volume. “The decision was made by Putin.”

With his father as Kremlin enemy No. 1, the younger Mr. Khordokovsky has been marooned in Manhattan.

 

Mr. Khodorkovsky last saw his dad when he visited him at college. It was a month before he was arrested. After starting to recall this memory to The Observer, Mr. Khodorkovsky trailed off and went silent, his eyes scanning the room. It seemed so long ago.

The only child of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s first marriage (he has a half-sister and two half-brothers), Mr. Khodorkovsky bears a strong resemblance to his dad-that calculated, hard-faced expression he became known for as he sat in a steel cage at the front of the Moscow courtroom. And he also possesses the familial resolve-revealed in his father’s crisp, focused polemics from Siberian prison, where he has been confined for the past six years. “Honestly, I’m pretty angry,” Mr Khodorkovsky told The Observer. “But I don’t want to lose hope.”

When asked about his family’s riches, Mr. Khodorkovsky, whose manicured fingernails sometimes flashed in the overhead lights, said that he did not lead a pampered life, despite reports that his father shuffled considerable assets out of Russia-billions, maybe-before his arrest. “When I was in college, Dad helped out,” he said.

“Once I got a job, I started supporting myself. I don’t have a luxury lifestyle. I don’t drive a Ferrari. I don’t take cabs to work every day. I take the subway.” He does drive a 2006 BMW X5. But he also holds down a day job, as a project manager at New Media Internet, a tech support company owned by Vladimir Gusinsky, an exiled Russian media tycoon.

On the eve of his father’s sentencing, Pavel sent him a note. He did not bother with anything sentimental. Instead, he asked for advice regarding the way to arrange the corporate structure of his own new company, Enertiv, an energy monitoring firm. His father’s reply from the Moscow dock: Limit your personal liability.

These communiqués have been as close as the younger Mr. Khodorkovsky is prepared to venture to his homeland, fearful that he might land in prison. “A bag of coke could end up in my luggage,” he said. “There is very little recourse in Russia.”

Instead, Mr. Khodorkovsky has contributed to his father’s defense from afar, organizing rallies in Times Square, meeting with senators on Capitol Hill, forging support from anyone who may put a bug in the Kremlin’s ear. Some supporters believe, however faintly, that the current Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, a Putin protégé, would like to release Mikhail Khodorkovsky as a sign of his supposed dedication to modernization and an improved business climate.

Mr. Khodorkovsky also administered the Institute of Modern Russia, a human rights organization underwritten by the Eurasia Fund, and his father’s Open Society, which promotes democratic development in Russia. “My dad’s fight is for something above and beyond his own freedom,” he said. “I still have friends in Russia. They tell me he’s not alone. There are many similar cases. They just don’t get the media attention.”

 

After picking up a phone call from his wife, Mr. Khodorkovsky hurried home for a photo shoot, the media attention increasing on him as his father was being shuttled back to prison. At a busy corner, Mr. Khodorkovsky pleaded with an off-duty cab driver to take him, smiling broadly, then climbed into the yellow minivan. The streets were piled high with snow, and the traffic moved slowly uptown.

“I’ve grown very fond of New York,” he said, looking through the window at the winter scene as the taxi streamed up the West Side Highway. “You can still find peace. I don’t think I’ll be moving anytime soon.”

A photographer was waiting for Mr. Khodorkovsky when his wife, Olesya, a petite woman with dark hair, opened the apartment door on an upper-floor high-rise. Mr. Khodorkovsky and his wife, who is from the Russian city of Penza, south of Moscow, met through friends in New York. Photos of their 1-year-old daughter were tacked to the wall near the open kitchen. A Christmas tree was positioned in the small living room, near a white dining table. Baby toys sat on the gray modern couch, a hobby horse in the corner. Though the Khodorkovskys own the apartment, it is modest, large enough for the small family, but nothing more. With flexible positioning, one may see the Empire State Building through the bedroom window.

Propped on the couch were several placards that Mr. Khodorkovsky had constructed for his rallies. There was one each supporting his father and his father’s co-defendant, Platon Lebedev, a former Yukos official. A third placard read, “Putin, let my dad out,” in both Russian and English, the words bracketing a photo of Pavel with his father.

Olesya watched the photographer run Mr. Khodorkovsky through his paces. Soon her eyes wandered, though, toward the placards on the couch, a photo of her father-in-law behind bars, a photo of her husband. “I’m afraid to go to Russia,” she whispered.

The photo session complete, Mr. Khodorkovsky sat down on his couch. Talk turned to what he will do when his father is released, whenever that may be. “I always thought I’d fly to Moscow and wait outside the prison,” he said. “I want to be outside when he comes out.” He gestured toward a bottle of Scotch across the apartment, a bottle of Macallan 18, a present from his father to celebrate the birth of his daughter, delivered through Mr. Khodorkovsky’s grandparents. “I haven’t opened it up yet,” Mr. Khodorkovsky said. “I wa
nt to sip it together. We have a lot of catching up to do.”

editorial@observer.com

Comments

  1. Steven says:

    while Putin live, he will never let Khodorkovsky go free. Putin afraid of him. Medvedev is the same, marionetka without brain