SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Russia's most prominent prisoner is free after spending more than ten years in jail. Former oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky received a pardon from President Vladimir Putin yesterday. He flew to Berlin, where he was greeted by a former German foreign minister, and today's he's reuniting with his family. His release follows an announcement of an amnesty for other Russian prisoners, including the punk rockers Pussy Riot and activists from Greenpeace. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports that the surprise release of Mr. Khodorkovsky has raised a storm of speculation in Russia.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Within hours of the announcement that President Putin had granted the pardon, Khodorkovsky was on a private jet that whisked him to Berlin. Khodorkovsky was once the head of the giant Yukos Oil Company, the richest man in Russia and the most powerful rival to Vladimir Putin. As Putin was consolidating his power, Khodorkovsky was giving money to opposition political groups, and talking about a different vision for Russia than Putin's model of managed democracy.

MIKHAIL KHODORKOVSKY: (Through Translator) My position is rather simple. I think that we need a civil society so the country can develop normally. Many things grow from civil society - independent courts, responsible government, and a normal parliament.

FLINTOFF: That's Khodorkovsky in 2002, as he was coming into increasing conflict with Putin over issues such as corruption. Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 and charged with fraud. His business was broken up and sold, mostly to state-owned companies. In 2010, when his sentence was nearing completion, he and his business partner were tried on new charges, and their sentences were extended until August of next year. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International described them as political prisoners. Through all that time, Khodorkovsky never admitted guilt and never asked for mercy, which is why his sudden request for a pardon came as a surprise to many in Russia. This is Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

LILIA SHEVTSOVA: So, what exactly did they tell him to persuade him to do something that he has resisted doing for ten years? And of course, there is one, apparently, one very persuasive argument.

FLINTOFF: Shevtsova says the authorities' argument may have come in the form of a third case that investigators have been preparing against Khodorkovsky, a case that could have resulted in another prolongation of his time in prison. In a statement issued through his spokesperson, Khodorkovsky made it clear that he had asked for the pardon, but that it did not involve any admission of guilt. To some people, especially in the West, Khodorkovsky came to be viewed as a figure like Nelson Mandela, ennobled by suffering and ready to lead his country to a new kind of society. Dmitri Babich, a political commentator at the state-run Voice of Russia Radio, says most Russian aren't buying that image.

DMITRI BABICH: The problem is that most of the people in Russia have the opinion that you have to choose, either you are Nelson Mandela, or you are an oligarch. You can't be both.

FLINTOFF: Babich says that most Russians still believe that those oligarchs, including Khodorkovsky, who amassed incredible fortunes during the 1990s, could never have done it honestly. Lilia Shevtsova isn't predicting what Khodorkovsky may do now that he's been released, but she says the extent of Putin's power and his confidence has been revealed by his decision to grant a pardon to his former enemy. Compared with that tsar-like power, she says, Khodorkovsky has a certain stature in the Russian consciousness.

SHEVTSOVA: It's very difficult to tell what Khodorkovsky's future is, but one thing is pretty certain, Khodorkovsky has moral authority, which is such a rare thing in this country.

FLINTOFF: Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

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