KIEV, Ukraine — Shuffling awkwardly in a parka as thousands of Ukrainians chanted "Russia, rise up!", jailed former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky outlined a vision of a "totally different Russia" that supported Kiev's protest movement and opposes Vladimir Putin's incursion into Crimea.
"I've seen what the government did here. They did it in conjunction with the Russian government. More than a hundred dead, more than 3,000 to 5,000 wounded," Khodorkovsky said Sunday, frequently pausing for chants of "Welcome!", "Disgrace!", and "Thank you!"
"That's not my government," a visibly overwhelmed Khodorkovsky, apparently making the first public speech of his political career, said. "There are people [in Russia] for whom friendship between the Russian and Ukrainian people is more important than their own freedom," Khodorkovsky added. "I believe that Russia and Ukraine share a united, common future and I wish you luck."
Once Russia's richest man, the 50-year-old Khodorkovsky spent 10 years in prison on fraud charges widely seen as revenge for challenging Russian President Vladimir Putin before his unexpected pardon in December. Khodorkovsky hinted in interviews that Putin had agreed to release him on the condition that he stayed out of politics and said he would begin a new career as a human rights activist.
Refuting the Kremlin's case for military intervention at the center of what Putin calls an "anti-constitutional coup and armed seizure of power" suggests Khodorkovsky may have had a change of heart.
Khodorkovsky joins some of Putin's critics, including U.S. Sen. John McCain and former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, in addressing protesters on the square.
"Russian propaganda lies, as always. There aren't any fascist or Nazis here — or at least, there aren't any more than on the streets of Moscow or St. Petersburg," Khodorkovsky said. "There are normal people here," he added, "wonderful people who defended their freedom."
Reviled by many during Russia's turbulent 1990s for his rapid-fire acquisition of Russia's prime oil assets, Khodorkovsky transformed his image during his imprisonment and is now seen as a leading liberal intellectual. He visited Kiev's Independence Square, the site of the protests, the previous evening with former Ukrainian interior minister Yuri Lutsenko, who also spent time in prison on charges widely seen as politically motivated.
Max Seddon is a correspondent for BuzzFeed World based in Berlin. He has reported from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and across the ex-Soviet Union and Europe. His secure PGP fingerprint is 6642 80FB 4059 E3F7 BEBE 94A5 242A E424 92E0 7B71
Contact Max Seddon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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