Former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a staunch Kremlin critic who went from Russia's wealthiest man to its highest-profile inmate, remains upbeat about the country he fled upon his release from prison in 2013.
His vision of a future democratic Russia would be anchored by a decentralized government, including improved criminal investigations, and also offers a few surprises.
For one, he told Current Time TV in a wide-ranging interview, Russia is on a European path and has been for centuries. For another, he says, Russian citizens should be armed to defend themselves not from "criminals" but their "own government."
"I think that if we want to be a free people then people should have weapons. And these weapons should allow them not to defend themselves from criminals; criminals should be dealt with by the politicians working in conjunction with law enforcement authorities. The people should have weapons to defend themselves from their own government," the 55-year-old tells the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
After running afoul of the Kremlin in the early 2000s, Khodorkovsky was imprisoned for more than a decade on financial-crimes charges his supporters said were trumped up. His oil company, Yukos, was dismantled, its largest assets sold off to state oil giant Rosneft.
'We Could Be Killed'
Khodorkovsky, who today lives in London and runs his pro-democracy Open Russia foundation, said the assassination of prominent opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in 2015 served as a chilling reminder of the dangers faced by activists in President Vladimir Putin's Russia.
"When they killed Boris Nemtsov, we all knew that beyond the people who were immediately detained there were those in higher levels, which became clear immediately. Nevertheless, Putin without much deliberation decided to limit the investigation to that lower echelon, and not those higher up," Khodorkovsky explains.
After Nemtsov, a former Russian deputy prime minister, was gunned down not far from the Kremlin walls, a jury found five ethnic Chechen men guilty of the crime. But friends and family fear those who ordered the assassination may never be caught.
Khodorkovsky says he and other activists -- including Aleksei Navalny, another high-profile Kremlin gadfly -- would stand little chance if Putin wanted them dead.
"I know that in the current situation if Putin were to decide to have Aleksei Navalny or me, or anyone, killed, then it is doubtful we'd be able to defend ourselves. But for whatever reason that decision hasn't been made," Khodorkovsky says.
Navalny, 42, has organized large street protests on several occasions since 2011 and has published a series of reports alleging corruption in Putin's inner circle.
He has repeatedly been jailed for periods ranging from 10 days to a few weeks, usually for alleged infractions of laws governing public demonstrations.
Navalny has spent nearly 200 days in jail since 2011, including 140 days since the start of his attempt to challenge Putin in the March 2018 presidential election, according to his spokeswoman.
Russia On 'European Path'
Despite the gloomy current climate in Russia, Khodorkovsky says the country's history gives reason for hope.
"The experience of Russia shows that we are still developing along the European path, and we haven't deviated from this European path over 500 years. We lagged behind, we went off the track, but came back. And even if we talk about the current regime, which is extremely unpleasant for you and me, it is nevertheless not so horrible as the regime during Stalin or right after Stalin," Khodorkovsky explains.
He "dreams" of a "constitutional republic" with more power diffused to the regions in a more decentralized system -- with not one megapolis, but 10 or 12 "minimally."
"The idea that this will lead to the collapse of Russia, I completely reject. That's because the country's territorial profile would mean that if one part were to break away, its future would likely be bleak," Khodorkovsky predicts.
But to get to that democratic promised land and "European integration," Khodorkovsky predicts Russia will likely go down an even more overt nationalistic path.
"In this regard, Russia is a fairly monoethnic country; the [ethnic] Russian population is about 85 percent. That's enough for a mono-nationalistic Russian government to call itself [ethnically] Russia."
Asked whether he's observed a rise in xenophobia across Russia, Khodorkovsky is dismissive.
"I don't see any problem with ethnic exclusion, with xenophobia inside Russia. In opinion polls, people do say some absolutely terrible things, that, for example they don't want foreigners as members of their families; that they don't want foreigners at work with them, Khodorkovsky says.
"But when we look at what is actually happening in real life, no real xenophobia exists inside Russia."