How a rich, Jewish man came to define human rights in Russia?

Russia under Putin is an unforgiving place. Impunity is the name of the game.

In this context, a fascinating feature in this week’s New York Times Magazine about Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the country’s richest man, is sobering. Here’s a man who made staggering amounts of money in the post-Communist circus, seemingly had a conversion, discovered human rights and now stands as a quasi-symbol of a broken legal and political system:

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once his country’s richest man, has resided in “gulag lite,” as he calls the Russian penal system under Vladimir Putin, for six years. Since the spring, on most working days he is roused at 6:45 in the morning, surrounded by guards and packed into an armored van for the drive to court. For two hours each way, the man who once supplied 2 percent of the world’s oil crouches in a steel cage measuring 47 by 31 by 20 inches. Convicted of tax evasion and fraud in 2005, Khodorkovsky now faces a fresh set of charges that add up to the supposed theft of $30 billion. In the dark of the van, Khodorkovsky tries to prepare for his trial, replaying in his mind his night reading, the daily stack of documents from his lawyers. But Russia’s most famous prisoner worries too about what would happen if a car slammed into the van. (Collisions are routine in Moscow’s clotted avenues.) “Your chances of making it out alive,” he wrote me one day this summer, “at any speed, are next to none.”

Khodorkovsky (pronounced ko-door-KOFF-skee) has spent more than 2,200 days behind bars. He cannot receive reporters. Yet the ban has brought a revival of a dissident tradition dating back to Ivan Grozny and Prince Andrey Kurbsky in the 16th century: the epistolary exchange. For several months this year, from July until October, Khodorkovsky and I were able to conduct a series of exchanges — as he has done with other correspondents, both foreign and native — filtered through the hands of lawyers (who transcribe his oral replies) and avoiding the eyes of prison officials. In court, he has maintained that he fails to understand the case against him. The new indictment runs 3,487 pages but boils down to a single accusation: that the former C.E.O. of the Yukos oil firm and his deputy, Platon Lebedev, were part of an “organized criminal group” that stole 350 million tons of oil from their company between 1998 to 2003. The tonnage exceeds Yukos’s production during the period in question. If convicted, Khodorkovsky, whose first sentence ends in 2011, could face an additional 22 years in jail.

Even as Putin sought to curb the oligarchs, Khodorkovsky expanded his influence by new means. He brought in American firms like McKinsey and Schlumberger, experts in making the most of oil and profits. He also sought an insurance policy. Nearly a decade ago, he hired APCO, the Washington lobbying firm that employs former ambassadors and Congressmen. But in Putin’s second year in power, Khodorkovsky opened another front, setting up a foundation to support nonprofits and human rights groups. In the months before his arrest, he courted the administration of George W. Bush and power brokers like James Baker. His foundation recruited Henry KissingerLaura Bush, he gave a million dollars to the Library of Congress. He joined the Carlyle Group’s Energy Advisory board, serving alongside Baker, and met — on separate occasions — with the elder Bush, Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney. and Lord Rothschild for its board. He financed policy groups in D.C. and human rights activists at home, and to the joy of

Moscow would soon grow famous for operatic oligarchs and Byzantine intrigues, but Khodorkovsky never got caught in a compromising position — never snared at an Alpine resort, a Moscow casino or on a Riviera yacht. Girls, power, even the money, seemed to hold no magic. Where others basked in pomp, he was shy and painfully soft-spoken; you never heard his squeaky voice, a semitone deeper than Mike Tyson’s, at dacha parties for the foreign press, let alone on television. He divorced young but stayed on good terms with his first wife. Inna, his second, he met at the institute. Khodorkovsky was never flashy — he wore jeans and turtlenecks; the family vacationed in Finland — but he radiated the unlikely allure of a muscular technocrat. And yet, even at the top, he seemed adrift, unsure of his role in society. Unlike older Jewish oligarchs, men like Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, who were often animated by old scores to settle, Khodorkovsky did not seem to consider himself an outsider. Lacking a public persona, he came to personify, by default, the revenge of the Soviet geek.

From the beginning, however, an issue has hampered the defense: Khodorkovsky is no classic dissident like Sakharov. As Khodorkovsky built Yukos, the oligarchic standards of the 1990s were maintained: the state bureaucracy and offshore zones were exploited. And in the tumult, as Putin noted recently, there was blood. In 1998, on Khodorkovsky’s birthday, Vladimir Petukhov, the mayor of Nefteyugansk, a Siberian town fed on Yukos oil, who had complained about Yukos’s failure to pay its debts to the town and its workers, was shot dead. Then there was the 2002 disappearance of Sergei Gorin, onetime manager of the Tambov branch of Menatep, and his wife, Olga. To date, their bodies have not been found, but a Moscow court has convicted one of Khodorkovsky’s closest former partners, Leonid Nevzlin, now living in Israel, of ordering their murder. Khodorkovsky, Nevzlin and their lawyers deny any involvement in the crimes.

Khodorkovsky’s arrest divided the human rights community. Many can’t quite embrace an oligarch as a prisoner of conscience. He is a titan who fell from favor, some say, not a dissident physicist or a novelist arrested for a subversive manuscript. Whatever his sins, though, Khodorkovsky was not jailed for breaking the law. His courting of the Bush White House and pursuit of oil partners at home and abroad infuriated the Kremlin. But his gravest error was to challenge Putin. The reason behind his imprisonment, Khodorkovsky claims, “is well known and widely discussed. It was my constant support of opposition parties and the Kremlin’s desire to deprive them of an independent source of financing. As for the more base reason, it was the desire to seize someone else’s efficient company.”