The Russian State vs. Khodorkovsky
Just as Khodorkovsky had dabbled in dozens of businesses as a Komsomol entrepreneur, his Menatep group's acquisitions ranged from a titanium-magnesium plant near Moscow, to textile mills, from glass factories to food-processing plants. But the real turning-point - the transaction that multiplied his fortune from millions to billions and transformed him from a businessman to a tycoon - was the opaque and controversial privatisation deal known as loans-for-shares.
The 1995 loans-for-shares pact is one of the most shameful moments in post-communist Russia. In exchange for political support, the government granted control of the country's most valuable natural resources to a handful of businessmen, including Khodorkovsky, at a fraction of their market value. The asset transfer was little better than a give-away: in the loans-for-shares deal and an affiliated investment tender, Khodorkovsky's group paid $309m to gain control over a 78 per cent stake in Yukos.
One of Russia's ever-popular questions is: Kto vynovat? Who is to blame? For those Russians who are dissatisfied with the post-communist distribution of resources - and there are many, starting with the 30 million who live below the poverty line - the question of who is to blame begins with loans-for-shares.
To this day, the Russian reformers who orchestrated the deal defend it as the only way to keep the communists out of power and to ensure that Russia became capitalist. As Yegor Gaidar, the mastermind behind Russia's market reforms, put it to me in 1998: "I understood the loans-for-shares programme perfectly well. The loans-for-shares created a political pact.
They helped to ensure that [Communist leader Gennady] Zyuganov did not come to the Kremlin. It was a necessary pact." The complicity of the state in the loans-for-shares deal was hugely important in the making of the oligarchs, who are striving to be seen as the creators of a free market - and, indeed, of freedom itself - within Russia.
But in the Russian popular imagination, and in the eyes of Putin's prosecutors, the oligarchs are Slavic mafia dons, men who have bribed, stolen and even murdered their way into unimaginable riches. They are the capitalist exploiters that 70 years of communism inveighed against. This last accusation is true - the division of property was hugely unjust. But it is also false - the chief perpetrator of that injustice was the state, not the oligarchs.