Was Intel From Russian Spies Behind 2003 Arrest Of Putin Opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky?

by Kseniya Kirillova


Russian Spies and Khodorkovsky Arrest


The October 2003 arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a billionaire Russian oligarch and head of the Yukos Oil company, may have been the result of a report sent to Moscow from Russian spies in the U.S. who were part of the Illegals Program, a network of deeply embedded agents living and operating undercover in the States.

This is the conclusion made by analysts based on information in the novel A Woman Who Can Keep Secrets,” published by one of the intelligence agents exposed in 2010, retired colonel of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, Elena Vavilova.

Russian spy Anna Chapman
Anna Chapman, the redhead at the center of this photo, at a fundraiser for the FDNY, a dinner also attended by the mayor and other New York dignitaries.

Col. Vavilova, who posed as a Canadian citizen named “Tracy Foley” for 20 years, keeping her true identity from everyone, including her own children, was eventually arrested in 2010 and returned to Russia in a spy swap that included Anna Chapman, who penetrated the upper-echelons of New York City society posing as a real estate company owner.

She published her book in 2019, a fictional account of the Illegals Program, which began under the Soviet Union and continued under Vladimir Putin’s modern Russia.

While the work is a fictional espionage novel, as the author admits in her numerous interviews, the book is largely autobiographical, although some names, places and details in it are deliberately changed.

However, these changes are not hard to spot, since quite often only a couple of letters distinguish them from real names. An example of this is the chapter that describes the arrest of the Russian oligarch Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky.

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(Mr. Khodorkovsky was convicted of fraud under circumstances that many viewed as politically motivated.  He was stripped of most of his wealth, estimated at $15 billion at the time, and eventually pardoned in 2013. He then fled to London where he heads a Putin opposition group called “Open Russia.”)

The name and patronymic of Mikhail Borisovich in the book remained the same, but the surname was replaced by “Khovansky,” and the company “Yukos” by “Yugos.” The transparency of this ploy is underlined in the book by quotes from the Western media on the arrest of Khovansky.

In particular, Elena Vavilova literally quotes an excerpt from an article by The Wall Street Journal published after the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky:

“Whatever the intention behind the attack on the Yukos CEO and his associates, its success has always depended on isolating its victims and on persuading possible allies, fellow-oligarchs like Vladimir Potanin, Mikhail Fridman and Oleg Deripaska, that their empires aren’t threatened as long as they play by whatever rules were agreed behind closed doors at the start of Mr. Putin’s presidency.”

In the book version, the names of the oligarchs are omitted, and Yukos, as already noted, is replaced by Yugos. Also quoted verbatim in the novel is the excerpt from The Financial Times, which refers to the suspension of negotiations on the merger of Yukos with Exxon Mobil and Chevron Texaco in connection with the Khodorkovsky arrest.

The mugshot of Russian Spy "Tracey Foley."
Russian spy Elena Vavilova was embedded in the United States for 20 years, hiding her true identity from everyone, including her children who believed she was a Canadian.

According to the storyline in the book, intelligence officers in the Illegals Program learn from a Pentagon employee that the U.S. intelligence agencies are trying to gain control of the Russian budget by transferring oil export revenues under the control of American corporations.

This plan, according to the colonel, will be executed by “M. Khovansky.” After the arrest of “Khovansky,” the illegals celebrate their victory and express joy that their information was useful.

It’s possible that the story of the information received in the United States was a complete fiction created by the Russian special services in order to belatedly justify the arrest of the businessman and rob him of his wealth.

However, the effectiveness of such an idea is highly in doubt. First, the format of the fiction novel does not help with the wide distribution of the proposed version.

Secondly, the Russian government looks even worse in this situation than before.

If in the original version, the Kremlin insisted that Mikhail Khodorkovsky was guilty of many criminal offenses.

Now, according to the book, it turns out that the reason for his arrest was the Russian leadership’s fear that the oligarch’s business deals could weaken their international position. In fact, the book states that Khodorkovsky was arrested for completely legitimate actions based only on the report by the special services.

(A version of this article was also published at Homeland Security Today)


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Kseniya Kirillova was born in 1984 in the city of Kamensk-Uralsky, Sverdlovsk region (Russia). In 2001 she graduated from school with a silver medal. In 2006 she graduated from the Faculty of Law of The Liberal Arts University with a degree in jurisprudence with honors.

She was twice awarded the governor’s scholarship of the Sverdlovsk region and has lived in the US since 2014.

An investigative journalist and analyst focused on analyzing Russian society, mentality, the mechanism of action of Russian propaganda (including in the US), “soft power,” “active measures” and foreign policy, she is the author of several hundred articles, including researches on Russian propaganda and soft power.

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