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Mikhail Khodorkovsky in London. August 13, 2018
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‘I want to feel like I’m in Russia, and that’s how I feel’ Opposition leader Mikhail Khodorkovksy talks Putin, Navalny, Prigozhin, and more five years after his release from prison

Source: Meduza
Mikhail Khodorkovsky in London. August 13, 2018
Mikhail Khodorkovsky in London. August 13, 2018
Dylan Martinez / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Five years ago, on December 23, 2013, Vladimir Putin signed a decree exonerating Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who led the YUKOS oil company and was once the richest man in Russia. By that time, Khodorkovsky had spent more than 10 years in prison on charges of financial crimes. On the day of his release, Khodorkovsky left for Berlin, and he has not returned to Russia since. He has spent the last few years living in London with his family and staying involved in politics, education, and the media. Meduza special correspondent Ilya Zhegulev spoke with Khodorkovsky about what has changed in the five years he’s spent on the outside. He spoke about his successes, mistakes, friends, and enemies and about who is to blame for the murder of three Russian journalists killed in the Central African Republic.

“Psychologically, it’s impossible to get back to a normal way of life as quickly as ‘I’m out, and that’s it.’”

Meduza: Five years ago, you were fresh out of prison, and you flew to Berlin. Now we’re meeting in London, in your own home… or is it yours?

Mikhail Khodorkovsky: I bought this house not long ago. [Technically, it] belongs to my daughter because there are certain requirements for the registration of sites where one can hold various events. I don’t live here; I have my own flat in London.

What’s your greatest takeaway from your past five years of freedom?

For me, it’s the fact that I returned to normal life. That may be the greatest takeaway, and for my family, too. Although they do constantly criticize me and say I’m mentally somewhere else – not present in normal civilian life. But, clearly, such is my fate.

You didn’t get back to normal life straight away?

It was a normal way of life insofar as I was able to travel around the world and chat with close friends. But the fact that I couldn’t return to Russia – that was clearly not normal. The fact that I was taken in a convoy to the stairs of the plane and the convoy only left once the doors had closed – that’s not normal. Most importantly, I’m convinced that, psychologically, it’s impossible to get back to a normal way of life as quickly as “I’m out, and that’s it.” It seemed to me that I was normal straight away, but other people said you could still see it [the mark of being imprisoned].

Not long before your release, I met with Boris Berezovsky here in London. At that time, he was known as Putin’s enemy number one. Now that’s what you’re called. Do you think of Putin as your enemy?

You know, I’m very reluctant to label people as enemies because, as far as I’m concerned, you need to answer for those sorts of claims. If you call someone your enemy, then there’s a lot you have to do [to follow up on that]. I try not to use words like those toward people with whom I have even severe political differences. I’m not ready to call Putin the devil’s offspring; to me he’s not even a monster. I see him as a political opponent — I’d really like to see him removed from power, and I want his office to be investigated in the courts.

I remember well the birthday wishes you sent Putin that were published in Kommersant in 2005. They concluded: “I want to wish you a little bit of that something you don’t have — freedom and peace. You’ll get them when you, in line with the Russian Constitution, remove yourself from this thankless presidential post. God willing we’ll see each other soon.” Has your position changed?

I’d say no. Of course. there are some little things, there is [the fact] that he brought about my release even though he was conscious that there was a certain risk in that move that could pose a real problem in the future – I spoke about this with his people in no uncertain terms. But that doesn’t stop us from being on opposing sides of the barricade. It’s possible that fate will make those barricades a pretty active [conflict zone] once again.

You’ve been building these barricades for the last few years. Is it a profession for you? What is it? A hobby?

I’d say that business is now my hobby and my civic and political activities are what I do full-time.

But people normally have hobbies for pleasure, and you’ve said that business doesn’t bring you any.

Yes — in this case, it’s not about pleasure. It’s more about what you are used to doing and what you do outside of your main activities. It’s necessary to manage my shares effectively so that I can save money for my main activities.

So you didn’t farm it out to some wealth manager? You manage your affairs personally?

Well, I’m sure you understand perfectly well that no matter how wonderful certain managers may or may not be, there are some things that you need to do yourself. What can I do? However, I only spend time on this if I have time left over after other things.

You dedicate most of your time to your civil activism. I have to ask why, especially considering the fact that a scenario in which something in Russia would actually change is becoming more and more far-fetched.

I know there are people who think the following about me: oh, here’s a person acting in accordance with his own interests. I have different ideas about what’s needed. In fact, if you think about it, I’ve spent most of my life trying to change the country and bring it toward democratization. And at the riskiest moments – in 1991, 1993, 1996, 2002, and from 2003 to 2013 – I risked everything I had, I risked my life trying to get the results that I thought were important. Not for me – for the country. So I hope you don’t take me for a naïve individual who doesn’t see that far easier and more comfortable routes for self-enrichment are available.

There are a lot of people from Russia living in London who don’t think about politics at all.

Absolutely. We both know one such individual – Mikhail Fridman [the founder of Alfa Group, one of Russia’s largest privately owned investment consortiums], who, each time a really painful crisis began, took a step to the side. This is a great strategy in life if you dream about the things Mikhail Fridman dreams about.

And I was the opposite. Every time, I came forward to fight. Because my interest wasn’t in choosing the most effective financial strategy but rather in changing the country. And I am still that way.

Do you ever see Fridman here? Do you interact?

Well, I’ve seen him a few times in public settings. We say hello, naturally. He doesn’t have any intention of taking the risk of talking to me about something and it undoubtedly being reported back to the commander-in-chief, and I don’t have any particular need to get anything from him.

Ilya Zhegulev's video interview with Mikhail Khodorkovsky (in Russian)
Mikhail Khodorkovsky

“I’ve made more than enough mistakes. I didn’t choose the right people.”

Can you name three of your most successful projects from the past five years?

First, there’s the move here to London. My family feels comfortable here, and I am able to work.

Second, I thought the project we did for the 2016 elections was quite effective and interesting. We were able to bring forward a large number of young regional activists who [until then] had felt that they had no alternative – either forget about getting involved in civic life or do it within the confines of the Kremlin’s ideas. A lot of them, incidentally, ended up on [opposition leader Alexey] Navalny’s team, and some ended up on [media personality and former presidential candidate Ksenia] Sobchak’s.

Finally, I really like the educational work we’re doing now – running academic and cultural conferences. I meet with students, PhD candidates who come from Russia, and I see what it is they actually need.

Okay, and what about setbacks? What do you view as your mistakes?

No doubt about it — I’ve made more than enough mistakes. I didn’t choose the right people because I got out of prison and everyone who was free seemed normal in comparison with the people I was forced to communicate with over a ten-year period. Thankfully, these are the sorts of mistakes that money can fix, and I think anything money can fix is not that important.

It was much more difficult to face the mistakes I made that had to do with my loved ones, the mistakes that happened because I thought I was normal, that I had adapted [to life outside prison]. It turned out that I wasn’t. It turned out that I still had complexes, and I still had demons to overcome. That did not come quickly.

You said you made mistakes in choosing your people. Which people, exactly?

Naturally, I’m not inclined to name specific errors in staffing. Everyone who came over to me either on their own initiative or by my request is incredible in any case because they are not afraid of expressing that level of civic involvement.

I spoke with people from your projects. You’re sometimes even compared with Putin insofar as you surround yourself with people not based on their professionalism but based on how much you trust each other. Your inner circle is made of people who were with you in those years when you were in a completely different situation, and it’s hard for you to break away from them even if their projects aren’t bringing in results. Is that right?

The people who were with me during those tough years deserve a certain display of gratitude on my part. And the gratitude is rightfully there. I never part with these people just by saying, “You haven’t hit your targets, man, see you later.” But this goodwill and gratitude doesn’t mean I’m not ready to change someone’s direction when effectiveness is required.

But you need to take one aspect into consideration here that makes our opposition today different from business. When you do business with someone, your interaction is regulated by law, and you’re only interested in that person’s professionalism. Theoretically, a state should be built in the same way, but because Putin has constructed a criminal mafia state, there is a problem — his circle doesn’t follow the law. And he was forced to use loyalty to get his bearings.

The situation with the opposition is even worse. The laws work against us. Not only do they not support us — they encourage betrayal, treachery, provocation, and the like. It’s impossible not to take this into consideration. Yes, unfortunately, it reduces our effectiveness.

But Putin also always says that he’s surrounded by enemies.

It’s most unfortunate that the events taking place only show the validity [of my opinion]. I don’t think that even a comparatively protected company such as Meduza can let itself not think about the possibility of being targeted by provocateurs or someone being given false information simply to defame Meduza specifically.

You’re forced to think about this, unfortunately. And if there was legal protection in Russia, then when some Prigozhin really wants to screw you over, he’d be punished by the law. If he wants to screw you over by sticking one of his guys or some fabricated material in, then what, are they going to punish him? Of course not, they’ll say, “Well done, pal.”

“You look at this like it’s a political activity, whereas I see it as educational.”

Business can be evaluated by turnover, profits, capitalization. How do we assess the success of your political activities?

There’s a bit of nuance here — people are still trying to put me on the “political activities” shelf. I’m not even going to disagree because when you try to back away from this in Russia and say you’re not doing politics, they start to say you’re afraid. But right away [upon leaving prison], I announced that I had no interest in getting into politics. Right away.

You listed the elections among your most successful projects.

You look at this like it’s a political activity, whereas I see it as educational. I’ve spoken about this my entire life. What have I done apart from business? You remember that they used to call “Menatep” a school? That “Novaya Tsivilizatsiya” (“New Civilisation”) was a school? [Both institutions were founded by Khodorkovsky. — Meduza] When I got out, I said that I was going to focus on social activities, primarily in the educational sphere.

And so how do we evaluate the success of projects like these?

It’s not simple. And even when these political leaders [who have spun out from “Open Russia,” Khodorkovsky’s umbrella organization] take off, you can never know — is this a result of what you’ve done or not?

And who’s actually taken off?

You understand that looking at specific individuals is the same as passing judgement on Meduza just by reading its headlines. Headlines are needed in order to draw attention to an article. [For example], a chance to win our competition [to become a presidential candidate in Russia] is a headline to attract hundreds of people [to civic life]. And all the projects we do are aimed at helping young activists overcome what’s called the entry barrier. Because, well, as long as they aren’t noticed, nothing really puts them at risk. And even when they get to the federal level, the threat isn’t so great. Really, in order to take down some Ponomaryov, Navalny, or Gudkov, the decision needs to be made at a very high level. And thankfully, [those decisions] are not made very often. For now.

Right, so where are those leaders who, for example, took part in the 2016 elections?

Some of them work as regional coordinators for Open Russia, and some of them are doing their own thing in the regions in ways that aren’t connected to Open Russia.

Is it not the case that you light the fire sometimes, and the flame burns and burns, but then it goes out?

Here you and I know well that if Putin is in charge for another 20 years… well, then what? I recently congratulated Yegor Kuzmich Ligachev on his birthday – he turned 98. So if he’s in charge for another twenty years, then, of course, those who take part in activism today will have either burned out, lost perspective, and left or found themselves at some sort of lower level.

And so what? That’s the way life is. If you work in a fast food restaurant, sometimes clients come in, sometimes they don’t. You still order food to prep, you do something, you come to work. Maybe, sooner or later, people will start to arrive.

Sooner or later these people [whom Open Russia is training] will be in demand. What worries me most is that the situation of 1991 might repeat itself — when there was a turning point, but there weren’t any people who could explain to society what it is reformers do or explain to the reformers what society wanted from them.

Timur Valeev, a regional coordinator for Ksenia Sobchak’s presidential campaign and former leader of a Khodorkovsky project, waits for the start of one of Sobchak’s press conferences. Moscow, February 20, 2018
Artyom Geodakyan / TASS / Vida Press
Maria Baronova at the “Nadoyel” (“We’ve Had Enough of Him”) protest in Moscow. April 29, 2017.
Sefa Karacan / Anadolu Agency / Vida Press

So you think someone like Timur Valeev or Maria Baronova could be take on that position in society?

You’re choosing people who don’t fall under your conception of wonderful politicians.

No, I’m choosing people we’re still hearing about at this point.

Well, you might be hearing about them, but I’m hearing about people like [Open Russia’s Chairperson Andrey] Pivovarov and [Open Russia’s Federal Coordinator Vladimir] Kara-Murza.

Surely Kara-Murza doesn’t need training anymore.

Without a doubt, but I assure you, Timur Valeev and Masha Baronova didn’t need training either, they were already quite good on their own — or bad, depending on how you look at it.

A time will come when Masha Baronova and Timur Valeev and Ksenia Sobchak and all the others will end up in the big basket where all our allies are, broadly speaking — where Alexey Navalny and [opposition politician Dmitry] Gudkov and all the others are now. There’ll be a lot of communists and nationalists there too, by the way. And if you’re not ready for that, if you just want to stick with hardcore liberal democrats, then you’ll have to be prepared either to change the country with a gun in your hands or to let things stay the way they are.

You’re talking about the future, but what about now? Are there any elections you’re thinking about running in?

I think that supporting candidates in elections at the regional level in 2021 is only possible under certain circumstances. When normal people start thinking it’s realistic [for them to be elected].

And the regions? We just had elections in the regions, and it turned out that people were willing to vote for anyone as long as it wasn’t the incumbent governor.

That’s entirely correct. The situation is like that in certain regions. In those places, we see whether we can either help in some way or just help in what we say publicly. If we can, then, undoubtedly, we’ll take part much in the same way we took part in the Moscow municipal elections. We’re aware that the country is very unbalanced in this regard. In some places, it’s possible to get something done, but in others, there’s just no point wasting energy.

In 2017 you organized the “Nadoyel” (“We’ve Had Enough of Him”) street protest. Do you see it as a mistake?

What are you talking about? I really liked it.

What do you think of its results?

Different parts of society react to different things. My task is to create a movement so as to bring about real civic-mindedness, so that people want to take part in solving societal problems. The Nadoyel protest brought forward a significant number of people from the, well, from the more intellectual class.

Are you going to continue bringing people out into the streets?

I’ve always had one position on this issue. Despite my vast background in prison, which it’s likely no one in the current group of civic and political activists has, I don’t have the right to ask people to come to protests that I don’t think are safe. We did find the right legal basis for the Nadoyel protest, which meant it was quite safe, and I thought we could get people to advocate for it. I don’t consider the protests that Alexey Navalny leads, for example, to be safe. Personally, I don’t call on people to go to them; I just support human rights activism.

I don’t want to be the president of Russia. I think we need to get rid of that position altogether.

Not long ago you fired Andrey Konyakhin, the head of your Investigation Control Center. There was a lot of talk when the events in the Central African Republic took place about Konyakhin not having experience in investigative journalism when he took the role. Why did you appoint him?

If I was in your position, I wouldn’t write someone off just because they allowed a mistake to happen.

You’re the one who wrote him off.

I took note of his response to what had happened. I think that it was cognizant and correct, and yes, we were forced to close down the project. But I wouldn’t write him off as a person. Of course, he’s not an investigative reporter on the level of someone like [Sergei] Sokolov from Novaya Gazeta, but you can count the number of those people among the opposition on one hand. And not all of them are prepared to really risk it.

I supported Konyakhin’s startup just like I support seven other [media] startups. He chose to move in an investigative direction, and the startup began to function well. If I was looking at it from a business perspective, then I’d say, of course, it’s not a unicorn, but it’s also not [an asset] to be written off. It’s a normal, decent project. I was greatly disappointed that it ended in such a tragic way.

[When Alexander Rastorguev, Orkhan Dzhemal, and Kirill Radchenko were killed,] it was up to me to figure out what the responsibility of an editor-in-chief really is. I spoke with a lot of people. Those who weren’t in the industry thought that the editor-in-chief has to answer for everything and perhaps even take legal responsibility in a criminal case. The professionals had two different views. The first was that he should have taken much more responsibility for the preparation [of the trip] and that it was his fault he hadn’t. The second – much more widespread – was as follows: when you work with freelancers, you should do what you normally do. And we all understand that at a certain point, you can just be unlucky.

But I decided that even partial responsibility was too much in this case. And the project, because of what happened, had to be shut down.

I met Konyakhin at the beginning of the 2000s, when we both worked at Gazeta.ru. We all knew that the publication belonged to Mikhail Khodorkovsky even though it wasn’t legally registered that way. But we didn’t care because Khodorkovksy didn’t interfere with the content – he was somewhere over there doing business. Has that changed now?

Look, in my mind, there is a definitive difference between the media business as a business and media as a way of interacting with society.

Your current media – is that not business?

I have three types of media. The first is my personal accounts. That’s absolutely not business I use those to interact with society.

The second type is MBK Media [MBK represents Khodorkovsky’s initials – Meduza]. It has that name because it’s also my way of interacting with society, mediated by the editorial staff. Yes, the editorial staff have the opportunity to voice their own opinion, so to speak, but at the same time, they understand that it’s my way of interacting with society. It’s not independent media.

Finally, there’s the Open Media project, which was created from the beginning as a normal, independent publication. And that’s the way it works.

Why so many?

It’s not that many. Three parts aimed at very concrete goals and tasks.

There’s a part of society that I speak to directly. But I’m not self-confident enough to say that all the people I want to interact with are interested in me as a person. I can’t say, like Alexey Navalny can, that I want to be the President of Russia. I don’t want to be the President of Russia. I think we need to get rid of that position altogether. I don’t feel the need to say: everyone pay attention to me because I will be your president. I address the part [of society] that is interested in me.

There’s a part of society that’s interested in the ideas that I put forward but not in me as a person. The editorial staff engages with these people.

And with OpenMedia, I get involved in pretty much the same way as I did with Gazeta.ru, which is basically hardly at all. I’m simply the publisher. I can’t say I love it, but I understand that if you want to educate, then you’re going to need a board and some chalk, and you’ll need textbooks that you haven’t written yourself but that people will be able to read. People write well [At OpenMedia]. If I thought that Meduza, Novaya Gazeta, Dozhd, and Echo [of Moscow] were enough, then I’d remove myself from the field of independent media. However, over the years, I’ve noticed that the field has shrunk like shagreen leather. And I said to myself, it’s not enough just to help independent publications at the federal level as I have done over the years.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky gives a speech at an Open Russia forum in Tallin, Estonia. December 17, 2016
Jaanus Lensment / Postimees / Scanpix / LETA

Do you like everything that is produced by the media organizations you finance? For example, Yoshkin Krot [Holy Moley] – what on earth is that?

I really like it. I don’t care about all those esteemed individuals who say, “It’s not right, you can’t do that.” You can.

The sense of humour there – it’s a bit strange…

It’s rough, but it’s meant for a certain audience that you well-regarded individuals don’t always work with. For those people who would read Krokodil in Soviet times. These people exist, there’s still a lot of them. You need to work with them. And I’m not ready to cast these people contemptuously away to the Kremlin’s media. Yes, we work with them in this way.

Have a look at what Putin did. Journalists say: we give them the facts and people interpret them in their own way. But Putin said: I’ll give you the facts – and I’ll give you my interpretation of them, too. And it’s turned out that there aren’t that many people who have the level of education, development, and motivation necessary to critically analyze the facts that are presented to them, particularly when we’re talking about Russia. A large amount, on the contrary, say: tell me how to understand what’s written here. You know there was a report on the Boeing [MH-17 shot down not far from Donetsk in July 2014]. As you and I know well, according to the polls, 80% of Russians didn’t bother to read the report, didn’t bother to get a grip on the information – they just listened…

To Kiselyov?

Not even to Putin but to Kiselyov. When we say that we aren’t going to [do it] like this, the question occurs to me – then how will we? Will we still let them have this 80 - 90 percent [of the population]? Or are we going to try somehow to work with these people?

“Evgeny Prigozhin should definitely stand trial”

Are you continuing the investigation that was assigned to the journalists who were killed in the Central African Republic?

Yes. Quite a lot has already been published based on our materials. As you know, we see ourselves not as a media outlet but as an investigative group that prepares materials and then gives them to those best equipped to present them to society.

Is the investigation into Russian private military companies in Africa connected to the investigation into the murder of the journalists?

Of course they’re connected, but they’re being carried out separately.

I mean, has the investigation into the murders led you to those private military companies?

Now that’s something I’m not about to say right now. But I can say with full certainty that we can prove that the version of events Mr. Putin mentioned again today – that there was some sort of local criminal group that happened to rob the journalists – you can forget that story. And what actually happened – we’ll talk about it sometime in early 2019.

The investigation is being carried out by a few teams, and most or all of them received materials on the Central African Republic [from us]. If those materials were published, then we would be forced to stop our investigation before exhausting all the opportunities we have explore. So I was forced to reach out to a number of publications to request they hold back the materials for a certain amount of time so as not to hinder the investigation. And I’m extremely grateful to those people who have met us halfway.

My goal is to force security services in Russia and the Central African Republic to take appropriate measures to investigate this case. Unfortunately, lawyers have categorically prohibited me from doing some of the things I would like to do. First, they say that if I did them, it still wouldn’t be any use in court. Second, they say there would be certain international criminal and legal consequences for me and for the people taking part in this.

What are these things?

Well, in part, [we would like] to interrogate those people we believe to be directly involved [in the murders].

Who are being held in Africa?

Who are being held in various places. Unfortunately, we can’t do it. Well, we can do it, but…

It would mean illegal imprisonment.

Yes. The main thing is that I wouldn’t care about that. To be honest, when things like this happen, I guess it turns out that I’m not entirely a man for the rule of law. But I understand perfectly that [my view on that count] wouldn’t matter in court.

So your heart is pounding, you’re ready to grab this guy by the shoulders and...

When I know that someone took part in a murder... And even here, you know, I have a certain spectrum in mind. It’s one thing when you’ve argued with someone and then killed them. Or done it out of revenge. But here – just like that. So that they won’t be a bother. Just in case.

Yes, in this case, I’m not sure that if I were going to be on the receiving end of the legal consequences, I wouldn’t just say, “Yeah, I don’t give a damn, I’ll just have to do more time.”

Have you met these people in person?

Not yet. But, first of all, I know them.

Know them personally?

No, I know of them. And second of all, at some point, we will absolutely meet face-to-face.

And if, in January, there will be results of some kind, then…

I told you, the investigation is going to go on for a long time. The materials that we can release will be released. It is really unfortunate that what we’ll be able to release in January will only be part of what we know. But it will be enough to demand that the security services in Russia and the Central African Republic – if they have such a thing – handle the matter appropriately. I’m not sure they’ll be willing to do that after Putin said the culprit was some local gang, but I don’t want to rule it out.

Do you think Evgeny Prigozhin should be put behind bars?

Evgeny Prigozhin should definitely stand trial. For all the things he’s done, which I now know well enough. Whether he should do time as a result of it all is for the court to decide.

“There are birch trees here – more than enough! There are pine trees, too!”

What do you watch and read? Do you watch anyone on YouTube?

I’m a bit of an old fogy in this regard. I still prefer to read. I’m one of your [Meduza’s] clients. YouTube annoys me because it forces its tempo on you, whereas I can read written material at whatever tempo I want. A bit quicker here, a bit slower there.

What do you actually read?

I really like aggregators that I can customize: Google, Telegram. They bring the stories I have to read right to me. What’s more, I have a huge number of my own correspondents – I don’t mean journalists; I mean people I chat with.

It’s unseemly to admit it, but I read my rivals. On top of Meduza, Dozhd, Novaya Gazeta, The New Times, OpenMedia, MBK Media – I watch Vzglyad, for example. Up until recently, I watched Sputnik and Pogrom. Of course, I watch Izvestiya and other things like that. RIA FAN is also a fixture in my aggregator these days. So you can rest assured that [I watch] the Kremlin, nationalist, and communist press every day. Sometimes, they put me in a bad mood, and I shut the door because my emotions build up. But then I open it and continue reading.

Open Russia workers in Moscow watch an online press conference given by Khodorkovsky. December 9, 2015
Mikhail Dzhaparidze / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

There’s a sense from a lot of people who leave Russia that they’ve already lost touch with life at home a bit, but they continue to follow what’s happening. Don’t you worry that the same thing will inevitably happen to you?

Naturally, I can’t not think about it. But I keep a different situation in mind. I managed enormous companies for more than 10 years of my career, and in a truly large company, you’ll never be able to get to know what each subdivision is doing. It’s not even possible to visit every area where the company is active.

So you’re sure you understand what’s going on in today’s Russia?

This can only be tested in one way. You make some predictions – small, short-term ones, and then they’re either proven right or they’re not. For example, how people will react to one of Putin’s speeches, how a new piece of legislation is going to be enforced, what’s going to take place in a given region. These predictions can be made with some certainty if you’re immersed in the topic at hand. It seems to me that, judging by the level of the predictions I make or those I use, I’m above average.

Do you not miss Russia in London?

When I decided I was headed for London, people told me not to go. Why? Because they say your motivation to come back will disappear since London is like Moscow but better. But I can’t say it’s better. I lived in Moscow for 40 years; it’ll always be my hometown and my main city. But, despite all that, I can’t not notice just how internally similar London is to Moscow.

When I lived in Switzerland, I was wholly convinced that there were laws that would be implemented with a perseverance worthy of the best executive power no matter how rightful or how stupid those laws were. Then, I arrived in London. And here we are in this tightly [regulated] architectural area of London. The building we are in is quite well-protected by the law. When I received the building’s inspection list there were more than ten violations. I mean that the previous owners had done things without the approval of the local authorities. Including building an extra floor.

So everything is like it is in Russia…

So then we go on to speak with the local authorities. It’s a really interesting take – if you’re not bothering your neighbors, then, in principle, [it’s fine]. It’s a very Russian approach. You can find whatever you want in the legislation – there are some very funny, ancient laws that no one has removed. Why haven’t they removed them? Because every law is used to the extent to which is corresponds to rationality. Is it sensible? Then it will be applied. And if it’s not sensible – then why use it?

Common-sense justice.

Yes. I always say – in Russia, we have continental German law, we have this Ordnung that was introduced in its time and just never caught on. Because, in our heads, we have this insular, precedent-based law.

But my question wasn’t about that. See, Berezovsky missed the birch trees, he missed Mother Russia when he lived in London.

Listen, there are birch trees here – more than enough! There are pine trees, too! Look, if you get all depressed just because you’re aware that you’re useless, then you’ll feel that way no matter where you are. I want to feel like I’m in Russia, and that’s how I feel. I always tell the locals, “Thanks for your hospitality – I’m a guest here.”

If you compare this with the way you lived in Russia up until 2003, do you feel as happy as you were then?

That’s an interesting question. If we’re measuring happiness on a scale, then it’s probably the same. It’s just that my focus has changed.

Back then, becoming as effective a company as possible was what drove me, and that was reflected in our accounts, in figures. Now, everything’s a little different, but I’m still an adrenaline junkie. For me, the main thing is the presence or absence of risk, and now there’s as much adrenaline as you could wish for! The Brits ask me, “Aren’t you afraid? So many opposition figures have been killed here in London, this one, that one, lots.” I tell them, “That’s what it’s all about! That’s adrenaline, that’s life.” They don’t get it.

There’s just one problem: before, everyone I came into contact with was either a little bit older than me or a lot older. Nowadays, they’re all a little bit younger or a lot younger. Now that upsets me.

Ilya Zhegulev, London

Translation by Matthew Quigley with Hilah Kohen