Freedom may be the gift that keeps on giving, as former Russian oil tycoon and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky said he planned on helping to release political prisoners at a press conference in Berlin this Sunday.
Arriving at the conference in a navy suit, Khodorkovsky sauntered in like a sophisticated businessman only 36 hours after his release from a Karelia prison, where he was held on financial and political charges for ten years after challenging the authority of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The former oligarch was freed on December 20 thanks to a personal pardon signed by the president. German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher played a large role in Khodorkovskys release, having negotiated the matter with Putin over two years.
After his release, Khodorkovsky flew to Berlin to meet his family, and is currently staying at the five-star Adlon Hotel near the Brandenburg Gate. The press conference marked his first public appearance since his release.
A mountain of journalists and photographers trying to get a good shot.
It was chaotic and emotional, with journalists fighting as photographers tripped over loose cords. “Amateurs!” someone yelled, while security guards pushed back the crowd as if it were a Metallica concert. One PR guy screamed out that photos would be “in jeopardy” if people didn’t create a pathway for Khodorkovsky’s mother to get past. The director of the Berlin Wall Museum, where the conference was held and where Khodorkovsky is mentioned in an exhibition for non-violence in human rights, even threatened to kick everyone out.
Although the wifi was overloaded, reporters posted tweets that the place was a sauna. One FT reporter called it "unruly" and a correspondent from the BBC didn't mince any words and said it was "totally insane." A freelancer counted five TV crews outside, two ambulances, and some paramedics.
Clearly the only one in the room subscribed to holiday cheer two days before Christmas Eve, I wore a Santa hat. What a miserable decision. It was a complete nuisance to the photographers standing behind me, and after many complaints I took it off. Bah humbug, news world!
Khodorkovsky addresses the gathered crowd.
Once Khodorkovsky took the stage, he stood for five minutes to let people take photos. In an English translation of selected clips from the press conference, which was held in Russian and German, he gave an emotive speech, expressing gratitude between deep breaths. After thanking German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Khodorkovsky has been granted a one-year visa in Germany), he then spoke about the seriousness of freeing political prisoners. “There are friends who have been through life with me and they're still in prison,” he said. “It is something where we will all need to work in the future so that in Russia and any other countries there are no political prisoners. At the very least, I am going to do everything possible. All I can do.”
The release of Khodorkovsky came as a shock to everyone. His daughter, Anastasia, was quoted as saying she had to repeat to herself hundreds of times, "My dad is getting out of prison." His freedom comes as part of Russia’s new amnesty law, which Putin proposed in honour of the 20th anniversary of the Russian Constitution. The amnesty covers those charged with crimes such as "hooliganism," and as well as Khodorkovsky it today saw the release of Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. They spoke out to say the recent turn of events was nothing more a PR stunt ahead of the Sochi Games, which are slated to open on February 6.
Khodorkovsky in the Berlin Wall Museum, located near Checkpoint Charlie.
When asked about Putin, Khodorkovsky said, “There is no place for vengeance or hate,” and concluded, “I do not intend to be involved in political matters.” While Khodorkovsky was once Russia’s richest man, valued at $15 billion, he explained that “businesses have no right to be without a social responsibility.” Calling the Olympics “a celebration of sport,” he added, “Obviously, it should not become a great party for President Putin.” And when the museum director Alexandra Hildebrandt gave a shout out to Putin on her thank you list, there was a rumble of boos from the audience.
In awe of the iPad, Khodorkovsky garnered giggles from the audience when he said he has yet to explore Facebook and Twitter, as they weren't popular before he went behind bars in 2003. Upon his release, a statement from the former management of YUKOS Oil Company said: "We are delighted to hear of the news that our colleague Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been released and is starting a new chapter in his life following ten years of fabricated charges, unwarranted imprisonment and incarceration in Siberia.”
While previous reports suggested Khodorkovsky would return to Russia, others have stated that he plans to remain in exile—at least partly because a $550 million fine against him and a business partner on fraud and embezzlement charges hasn't yet been overturned.
As the press conference wrapped up, Khodorkovsky walked upstairs with his family, followed by applause. The sauna cooled off and the temperature went back to normal.