GUY RAZ, host:
A prison in Siberia has been home to Mikhail Khodorkovsky since late 2003. He used to be Russia's richest man. And now, he may be its most famous political prisoner. That's at least how the U.S. State Department sees it.
Now, at one time, his company Yukos controlled 2 percent of the world's oil, but he ran afoul of the Kremlin and was convicted of fraud and tax evasion, and he's now serving a nine-year sentence. His defenders say that charges were trumped up and the real reason was his support for pro-democracy groups.
Now, he's back on trial. He sits in a glass cage in court. This time, he's accused of money laundering and embezzlement. And Khordorkovsky's irritated the Kremlin by secretly corresponding with journalists from jail.
One of them is Susan Glasser. She's the former Moscow bureau chief for the Washington Post and she now runs Foreign Policy magazine.
Susan Glasser, welcome to the program.
Ms. SUSAN GLASSER (Executive Editor, Foreign Policy Magazine): Thank you so much for having me.
RAZ: Can you remind us, you know, sort of at least officially, why he was convicted in 2005?
Ms. GLASSER: Well, this is a big story about Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, a whole new category of businessmen rose up out of nowhere. There was a massive privatization, a selloff of state assets. Mikhail Khordorkovsky was one of the guys who got rich by privatizing state assets and he became the richest man in Russia. He had billions of dollars. He controlled two percent of the world's oil.
His Yukos Oil Company was built out of different pieces of the Russian state that had been sold off to him at, of course, very advantageous prices. He paid way under market, almost fire sale prices. This was, of course, incredibly controversial. His category of oligarchs, as they were called, they ruled not only the Russian economy but also Russian politics under Boris Yeltsin. They rose to the height of power inside the Kremlin.
When Vladimir Putin came to power, which was when we lived in Moscow...
RAZ: You and your husband, Peter Baker...
Ms. GLASSER: My husband...
RAZ: ...who's now with the New York Times.
Ms. GLASSER: That's right. And the two of us watched a really extraordinary shift. So these powerful oligarchs - and Khordorkovsky was the richest and arguably the most powerful - Vladimir Putin was determined to kick them back out of politics. He was determined to reassert the control and the supremacy of the Kremlin over Russian political life.
RAZ: Putin basically said to these oligarchs, you can keep your money. I'm not going to go after you. Just don't meddle in what I do.
Ms. GLASSER: Well, that's exactly right. And Khordorkovsky was warned many times, they're going to come after you. But he said, no way. They won't touch me. I'm the richest, most powerful guy in Russia. And he was arrested. He was hauled off his private plane in a very dramatic moment. Secretary Condoleezza Rice later told us that that was a real watershed in terms of how Washington came to view what was happening inside Putin's Russia.
Russia was not in fact a rule of law state. Under Putin, it was the authority of the Kremlin that was going to go unchallenged.
RAZ: Why is Khordorkovsky back in court now?
Ms. GLASSER: Well, there are many theories, of course, as to why this is. He's still fighting them in Western Europe over the assets of his oil company. So perhaps this new criminal case against Khordorkovsky has something to do with that and the ongoing legal fights outside of Russia. Perhaps, it just means that they don't want to ever have to release Khordorkovsky. Who knows? It's not a transparent process.
RAZ: I was surprised to read about his prison conditions. They seem unusually harsh. I mean, he was in Siberia. He has often been put in solitary confinement for doing seemingly trivial things like drinking tea in an unauthorized area or sunbathing, or at one point you describe how he gets a copy of the prison rules and he's put in solitary confinement because he has an unauthorized copy of the prison rules.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GLASSER: Yes. I think that's my favorite line in the story because I think it does suggest a sort of Kafkaesque nature of some of the things that Khordorkovsky has experienced. I think it's true that Russian prison conditions in general are absolutely deplorable. And if they're not the Gulag, as Khordorkovsky said to us in one of our back-and-forths, at a minimum, it's the Gulag light still.
So these are not American prisons that we're talking about by any standards. That said, people who are familiar with Russian prisons believe that Khordorkovsky has been singled out for unusually harsh treatment from the beginning.
RAZ: You went to Moscow to observe some of this trial, right?
Ms. GLASSER: Mm-hmm.
RAZ: What was that like?
Ms. GLASSER: He's very much in control of his own legal case. He's reading documents in a case with a yellow highlighter. That's what he's doing while he sits inside that glass cage. Because most of the proceedings in a Russian trial are absolutely farcical. They do things like read out loud 186 binders of evidence, much of which consist of, you know, random articles printed out from the internet.
RAZ: I mean, in Russia, he's been compared to Al Capone. His supporters like to think of him more as a Solzhenitsyn or a Sakharov. What's your sense after sort of looking at the evidence and weighing this? I mean, is he part Al Capone and part Solzhenitsyn? Is he one or the other?
Ms. GLASSER: Well, that's the interesting thing. In a sense, maybe that's the answer. Maybe he's a gangster turned dissident. I can tell you that he's playing the role of a political dissident today who is making a very articulate, coherent and pointed critique of the political system in Russia that absolutely drives the Kremlin crazy.
RAZ: Do you think he'll ever be released?
Ms. GLASSER: I think a year ago I would have said no, absolutely not. I think it does depend what the future holds for Putin. It's pretty clear that the level of personal animosity is very much between these two men. But remember this: in Russia, even in non-politicized cases, unlike Khordorkovsky's, 99 percent plus of all criminal defendants are convicted. So the odds are heavily, heavily against Khordorkovsky being released.
RAZ: That's Susan Glasser. She's the editor of Foreign Policy Magazine. You can find her article on Mikhail Khordorkovsky at ForeignPolicy.com. Susan Glasser, thanks.
Ms. GLASSER: Thank you so much.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.