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Q&A: Exiled Russian oil tycoon who backed reporters killed in Africa says he’ll keep pouring millions into independent Russian journalism

Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former owner of the Yukos oil company, in London on July 24. (Matt Dunham/AP)

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former CEO of the Russian oil giant Yukos, used to be Russia’s richest man. In 2003, as he was increasingly criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin, Khodorkovsky was arrested on fraud charges and spent a decade behind bars. Since being freed in 2013, Khodorkovsky has lived in exile and become one of Putin’s most prominent critics. He funds independent Russian news outlets, including the Investigations Management Center — the organization with which three Russian journalists were working when they were killed in the Central African Republic this week as they worked on a documentary about Russian mercenary forces.

Khodorkovsky spoke to The Washington Post by phone from London on Wednesday about the killings and why he spends several million dollars a year financing journalism in Russia. Translated excerpts of the interview are below.

What can you say about the thrust of the journalists’ investigation and why it’s important to learn more about Russian mercenary forces?

Vladimir Putin likes to say, “This isn’t the government, these are private individuals.” I concluded that in our case, the situation with these kinds of nontransparent mercenary structures is even more dangerous than it is in general. Tomorrow, they can be used to deal with things inside Russia using nongovernmental hands. That’s why I gave the approval to make this film.

How do you see the balance between funding investigative journalism on the one hand and the risks faced by the people carrying out that journalism on the other hand?

You know, I’m an adrenaline junkie myself. My favorite sport used to be rock climbing, because there’s not enough adrenaline otherwise. So I understand people who live on adrenaline very well. Such people are in demand in a profession as dangerous as investigative journalism. It’s clear that if they don’t find a job in this area, they’ll get their adrenaline in other areas. This is a civically beneficial path to fulfillment for people who live on adrenaline. Of course, it’s very important that these people be professionals. …

Before working in the oil industry, I worked as an apprentice at factories for munitions and explosives. This was a profession I liked because it gave me that adrenaline. Well, so what — someone has to carry out that work. [Sighs.] Yes, it was also a risk. Factories blew up from time to time. [Sighs.] Well — what can you do? What can you do? One must make sure one does all one can to prevent such things from happening. But on the other hand, you can never make sure you are completely safe.

How do you explain to people in the West the situation with journalism in Russia? I sometimes get the sense that people are surprised when they hear there’s any independent journalism in Russia at all.

I’m surprised myself, because independent journalism has no economic foundation [in Russia], because not only do the authorities not support independent journalism at all, but independent journalists know full well that they can be arrested or beaten up even inside the country. … There’s a lot more risk in independent journalism, and much less money. Over there [at pro-Kremlin publications] you get official awards, while over here they’ll throw you in jail or even, as we see, kill you. Nevertheless, there are enough decent people — those who don’t want to be over there and are prepared to risk it over here.

Why do you think the authorities in Russia allow independent journalism to be possible at all?

Those in charge don’t want to look like utter monsters, for a variety of reasons. What are they going to do with these people? Don’t give them money? They don’t give them money. Beat them up? They already beat them up. What else is there — put all of them in prison or kill them all? Those in charge, luckily, aren’t yet psychologically ready for something like that.

The authorities could block access to more independent news websites, as they have done with some of yours.

As I understand it, they made the decision … not to fight what only reaches 5 or 10 percent of the audience because “that segment of the audience isn’t ours anyway.” But as soon as you get beyond that threshold, they’ll try to shut you down or fine or do something else. They are purposely trying to keep independent journalism in this narrow corral.

So what influence can journalism have in this context?

I remember the situation in the late '80s and early '90s [the fall of the Soviet Union]. At some point, a society can erupt, and the demand for such narrow sources of information grows like an avalanche. So it’s important that they exist. … Second, you know the Russian saying that what’s written with a quill can’t be cut out with an ax. … The people on the other side, in reality, are not that brave. They know perfectly well that what is seen by 10,000 readers or 100,000 readers today can become a huge problem for them tomorrow if the situation changes. … That’s why, when even rather small news outlets write about something and it gets attention in even a narrow segment of the public, the authorities can get rather sensitive and tuck in their paws. It’s one of the few ways we can currently influence the situation in the country.

Will you reconsider how you fund journalism after what happened?

I may reconsider my degree of involvement in this. That is, I’ll become more involved, because when I depend on professionals, and then these kinds of events happen, I start to think that when people were telling me all these years, “Don’t get involved, we’ll figure it out ourselves” — maybe that wasn't completely right. … If I continue to do investigative projects — and I certainly will — I will try to be involved to a greater degree not just in the process of making decisions but also in the process of the ongoing work and risk assessment, and so on. I now have less of a feeling that I can allow myself to transfer the responsibility to anyone else in this. This doesn’t mean there won’t be risks and there won’t be tragedies. But at least I’ll know that I personally did all I could do and didn’t depend on professionals.