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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Man and the Mythical Politician

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After being sentenced to nine years in prison, former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky has finally become an important Russian politician. This has been his dream for a long time, apparently. His verbose public musings on liberalism and the deteriorating national infrastructure had already attracted notice several years ago.

Many believe that in fall 2002, Khodorkovsky set his sights on the post of prime minister in a future, parliament-dominated Russia, naturally only after checking his plans with the then-powerful chief of staff Alexander Voloshin. Yukos then dumped millions into getting the dull and ordinary Khodorkovsky all over national television. Yet the only thing memorable about these television appearances was the heavy mark of Kremlin censorship on his slippery words and confusing explanations.

But his dream came true anyway. It came true on Tuesday in Meshchansky District court.

The former oil magnate became Russia's first big politician working outside the system. He does not believe in cutting any deals with the Kremlin and for this reason is completely independent.

He can happily ignore the royal commands filtering down from on high. He cannot be blackmailed with being banned from the television or with being kicked out of office when someone tampers with the useless ballots of some election.

Khodorkovsky is his own man and stands outside the system that President Vladimir Putin understands and controls. He can make decisions without asking the presidential administration and without fear that something will be taken from him for his disobedience. Everything has already been taken from him, except his life and his honor.

For this reason, he now has a chance to become the focal point for a real -- meaning outside the Kremlin system -- opposition in Russia. And in his articles, Khodorkovsky seems to have made a decisive step to the left, and the next leaders to come to power will be leaning in precisely this direction.

I don't agree with those who claim that you can't be involved in politics from a jail cell. You certainly can -- and how!

The myth of Khodorkovsky sprouted, grew and bore fruit while he was in prison. This mythical figure will remain far simpler, stronger and more convincing than the flesh-and-blood man. The real Khodorkovsky was the embodiment of the bourgeois order Russia despises. But he became Russia's native son with his own Dostoevsky-style crime and punishment. It is impossible to say how the inquisitive yet sleepy little towns of provincial Russia would have reacted to the real Khodorkovsky adjusting his glasses and staring with his intense gaze.

But it is clear that from now on every word he speaks from prison is destined to become something akin to Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago." The man who lost $7 billion while he sat in pretrial detention has shifted into the position of moral leader. In today's Russia, this position has long been vacant because the ruling elite does not need it. Yet moral authority means more to Russia than gold monograms on business cards, Mercedes and all the other formal attributes of power.

Khodorkovsky has become a tragic figure, and only tragic heroes can hope to rule Russia.

The country is sick of vaudevillian performers who professionally spout words they themselves do not believe. Russia wants the real thing, not politicking. What could be more real than nine years in a penal colony?

In the end, the road to the Russian throne has always run through tragedy. In recent history, there have only been two leaders who were not tragic and who, for this very reason, wound up in the grips of a serious crisis of legitimacy at home: Mikhail Gorbachev and Vladimir Putin.

For its part, the Kremlin has once again demonstrated that the Yukos affair stopped being a political campaign long ago. Politically, it was not to Putin's advantage to turn Khodorkovsky, the nice chemist, into a prisoner of conscience. The case unfolded according to an entirely different logic: Yukos' former owners were not supposed to get in the way of the complete and final division of the company's assets.

For this reason, they had to go to jail. They could not be allowed to take Rosneft to court, especially abroad. Putin, deputy chief of staff Igor Sechin and others like them have already shown that they do not think in political categories. For them, politics is merely one of the difficult ways to make easy money. If Khodorkovsky and his associate Platon Lebedev have to be thrown behind bars to make this money, so be it.

To destroy Khodorkovsky's political career, Putin did not have to imprison him. The president had all the means for doing so at his disposal, from the complete support of the pro-Putin majority to absolute power over the mass media. But there was no way to grab and divvy up oil assets without the slammer. Putin preferred to lose a political fight for the sake of gaining property.

From a political point of view, the president did not solve the problem; he created a problem that he will have to answer for.

Without a doubt, the Kremlin still has one more chance to make the right move. Putin could pardon Khodorkovsky. It is highly likely that the official liberals from the quasi-formed right wing of United Russia will soon start making a fuss and demanding a pardon. If Russia's most famous prisoner writes to the master of the Kremlin and asks for forgiveness -- and, of course, admits he is guilty of all six charges of the multibillion-ruble sentence -- the president would be most merciful and give a gift to the world community, now somewhat shocked by the unreasonably long nine years. Some observers believe this is exactly why the sentence was so long: Three or four years would not have been enough to scare Khodorkovsky. But the thought of living behind bars until 2012 most certainly would.

If Khodorkovsky wrote and asked to be pardoned, it would certainly be good for his family. Then again, it would be better for the opposition for him to do time. Regardless, he will not spend the full nine years in jail. The maximum time he would serve would be three years. Until he is up for parole or until the regime changes, which ever comes first.

Whatever decision Khodorkovsky makes, he was effectively acquitted on Tuesday. Khodorkovsky put all the blood and grime of the 1990s behind him. He got away from the same system that sent him and his angry associates to jail. So far, no one else has ever managed to survive this kind of trial by fire.

Stanislav Belkovsky is president of the National Strategy Institute. He contributed this comment to Vedomosti, where it first appeared.