This time last year, oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky was behind bars, scribbling the occasional public letter to remind the world about his captivity. Last weekend, he stood before thousands of people in Kiev's Independence Square, where he delivered a short speech calling on Ukraine to continue its struggle for freedom. (Read the speech here in Russian and here in English.) As the crowd chanted “Russia, rise up!” Khodorkovsky encouraged Ukrainians to remember that not all Russians support interventionism:
Слава народу новой, демократической Украины! […] Российская пропаганда, как всегда врет. Здесь нет фашистов и нацистов, точнее, их не больше, чем на улицах Москвы или Питера. Здесь нормальные ребята: русские, украинцы, крымские татары, мои ровесники, воины афганцы. Это прекрасные люди, которые отстояли свою свободу. Я всем им желаю удачи и всего самого лучшего. […]
Я хочу, чтобы вы знали – есть совсем иная Россия. Есть люди, которые, не смотря на аресты, не смотря на долгие годы, которые им придется провести в тюрьме, выходили на антивоенные митинги в Москве. Есть люди, для которых дружба между украинским и российским народом важнее их собственной свободы.
Glory to the people of a new and democratic Ukraine! […] Russian propaganda has been telling lies, as always. There aren’t any fascists or Nazis here. To be more accurate, there aren’t any more of them than in the streets of Moscow or St. Petersburg. These are perfectly normal people, Russians, Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars. They are wonderful people who have successfully defended their freedom. I wish them luck and all the very best. […]
I want you to know that there is another Russia. There are people there who, during those days, took to the streets to participate in anti-war rallies. They did so despite arrests and many years that they will have to spend in prison. There are people there who value the friendship between Ukrainians and Russians over their personal freedom.
Russian-Internet users were intensely curious about Khodorkovsky's reasons for appearing in Kiev. Indeed, many online speculated that his visit could indicate plans to launch a career in politics.
Twitter user svolputotouta noted that Khodorkovsky met in Kiev with Yuri Lutsenko, a former Ukrainian Interior Minister and a fellow freed political prisoner:
Ходорковский прилетел в Киев и посетил Майдан в компании Луценко: Бывшие узники
— Egor (@svolputotouta) March 13, 2014
Khodorkovsky flew into Kiev and headed straight to the Maidan to be with Lutsenko. [They're both] former prisoners.
Many Russians seemed to welcome the suggestion that Khodorkovsky might enter politics. Twitter user Vladyslav Chernovay tweeted:
@kgorchinskaya Ходорковский, будущий президент рф.
— Вячеслав Чернобай (@blackbaykr) March 9, 2014
Khodorkovsky—the future president of the Russian Federation.
Not everyone, however, was so optimistic about Khodorkovsky's prospects:
Ходорковский, приехав на майдан, совершил политическое харакири.
— Gateway to the Futur (@swarog09) March 11, 2014
Khodorkovsky, having come to the Maidan, has committed political suicide.
Twitter user fonKyunnap, for instance, was downright cynical:
Майдан, я с тобой-сказал Саакашвили и улетел в США, Майдан, я люблю тебя – сказал Ходорковский и улетел в Швейцарию.
— fonKyunnap (@fonKyunnap) March 11, 2014
“Maidan, I am with you,” said Saakashvili, and he flew off to the USA. “Maidan, I love you,” said Khodorkovsky, and he flew off to Switzerland.
Pro-Kremlin LiveJournal blogger Marina Yudenich was unsurprisingly suspicious of Khodorkovsky's motives, reminding readers about his past as a power-hungry businessman:
Когда-то М.Ходорковский был акулой российского бизнеса и крупным жуликом. Может быть, одним из самых крупных в России. Сегодня перед нами мелкий политический напёрсточник
Sic transit… Да.
Once upon a time, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was a shark in the Russian business world and a huge crook. Perhaps one of the worst in Russia. Today we see a smalltime political scammer. Sic transit… yes.
Whatever Khodorkovsky's true purpose was for going to Kiev, his mixed reputation clearly followed him. The speech at Maidan and other engagements in Ukraine mark Khodorkovsky's biggest public appearances since he was suddenly freed from prison late last year. Now he's attended a rally in a city that just overthrew the Moscow-backed Yanukovich regime. Without mentioning the name of the man who signed his pardon, Khodorkovsky's comments at Maidan were fiercely critical of Russian intervention in Ukraine. That being the case, why did he refrain from criticizing more directly Russia's leader? Where was the word “Putin”?