Leonid Nezvlin is an accomplished businessman, philanthropist, publisher, and author. Though born in Russia, Nezvlin has been an outspoken advocate for Ukraine – something that has gained him many enemies. In the new book, Putin’s Mafia State: A Story of Corruption, Control, and the Failure of Democracy in Russia, Nezvlin and others lay out how Russia went so totally out of control – and what we should expect next.

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Formerly, you were the co-owner of the largest Russian oil company, Yukos, before the government, jailed your business partner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in 2003 as a means of taking over the company. Did you then suspect that Putin would resort to mafia tactics? Is it like the “wild east” of Russia in the 1990s?

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The Putin regime is a criminal entity. When you read about the violence and lawlessness of 1990s Russia, you can draw strong parallels with what Russia has become today. A big difference now is that Russia is a totalitarian state, with no hope, no opportunities or personal freedom. The Russian government is quite literally part of the criminal structure plundering the nation and spreading terror abroad.

How do you see the progression of Putin’s criminality since that time, two decades ago?

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Putin is the don of a mafia that we commonly refer to as “the Russian government.” People must understand that the niceties of diplomacy and decorum mean nothing to those who are at the wheel of the Kremlin. They only think about how to make money and only understand force as a means of achieving that goal. Those in the Kremlin do not know how to build, they only know how to destroy.

No sane person can justify the illegal war against Ukraine through political theory. Nor can anyone “read Putin” and find a thread of truth in his justifications for his actions. Putin’s Russia has released countless plagues on humanity and openly cooperates with criminals, rogue states, and terrorist organizations.

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You have been an outspoken supporter of Ukraine throughout the war, starting in 2014. Did the outbreak of the full-scale invasion in 2022 surprise you?

That is absolutely correct: I fully support Ukraine.

Per your question: When we look back at history, we see that Putin is repeating the same story of other dictators who came before him. Not satisfied with the full destruction of Russian society, having already embezzled enough money to be the world’s richest man, Putin desired to expand his murderous campaign beyond his infamous assassinations: He decided it was time to add genocide to his list of crimes against humanity.

Putin and the regime he created will not stop until they are stopped.

Why did Putin do it?

Well, Putin thought that he had little to risk: He had routinely ignored and violated international law for decades and no one in the West dared to stand up to him. Why would Putin have thought that this time would be any different? It is a lesson that the world is painfully re-learning now: Do not negotiate with terrorists. They must be put into their place, or they will create greater harm to the civilized world.

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Vocally standing up for Ukraine has led to you often being attacked in the Russian government news. Does that bother you?

There is no need to make excuses for doing what is right. For me, being on the side of freedom and truth matters far more to my conscience than the deceitful words of Russian government news, who support killing innocent men, women, and children.

In that vein: Recently, you wrote a successful book, Going Against the Grain, detailing your life’s story and how you came to be who you are today. If you could give some words of advice to someone beginning their career today, what would you advise them?

People, often young people, worry about what others will say or what others will think – and so they end up going with the tide. That is the easy way out. However, when I look back at my life, being from the Soviet Jewish minority, there were many antisemitic policies during that time. However, despite being born as someone whom society had prejudices against, it did not cause me to deny who I was – rather it allowed me to take refuge and pride in knowing I was “an outsider” to some around me. I am who I am – I can be no one else.

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Similarly, though millions in Russia praise Putin as a great leader, it does not sway me in the least. Yes, it may cause some people to hate me, but standing up for what is right and just is something that I have never regretted. I will never regret being on the side of light.

Trust me: It can be harder to “go against the grain,” but it allows for the discovery of a remarkable freedom that comes with it that undoubtedly prompts one to further grow internally.

Earlier this year, The Hague court ruled that the arbitration award that your partners and you won against the Russian government, for $50 billion, could stand: You won. Russia lost.

Well, it is not my partners and I, but the companies who owned the shares in Yukos; but yes, that is true. It took years, but justice was served. The Russian government acted towards Yukos, my colleagues and I like mafia thugs – and the Hague court agrees with this assessment.

Thank you for taking the time to chat with the Kyiv Post today.

The pleasure is all mine.

Leonid Nezvlin, a well-known Israeli publisher and philanthropist, formerly a co-owner of Yukos oil company and was a senior manager at Bank Menatep. Nezvlin, who emigrated to Israel in 2003, has been a vocal critic of the Putin Regime for more than 20 years. An active supporter of Ukraine since the war began in 2014, Nezvlin is the owner of a Hebrew magazine, Liberal, and is a shareholder of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

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