LANGUISHING IN his spartan Moscow prison cell yesterday Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky, 41, could only sit and wait for the shadows to close around Yukos, the successful oil giant which he fashioned in his own image.
Nine years after he and his associates snapped up the firm for a fraction of what it was worth and joined the exclusive ranks of Russia's super- rich, the post-Soviet roller-coaster which he rode with such aplomb finally appeared to have hit the buffers. With $15.2bn to his name, Mr Khodorkovsky may remain the country's wealthiest man on paper but his ability to influence events has never been the same since he was arrested at gunpoint on an icy Siberian runway last October and charged with fraud and embezzlement to the tune of $1bn. At a stroke, Russia's premier capitalist and "oligarch of oligarchs" was brought crashing down and put in his place.
Like the other inmates of the capital's overcrowded, disease- ridden Matrosskaya Tishina prison, Mr Khodorkovsky's bread is black and accompanied by buckwheat porridge.
The champagne and caviar he used to lavish on corporate hospitality is long gone and Yukos, once a model of what Russian firms could become, is close to being systematically dismembered.
On Wednesday police swooped to seize safes from the offices of top executives. Assets and bank accounts were frozen; creditors have been left fuming. The Russian tax police are looking for $3.4bn in unpaid taxes for the year 2000, which Yukos cannot pay. Mr Khodorkovsky's personal empire is on the brink of collapse.
Mired in fear and ignorance the company can only wait for the coup de grace or pray for a reprieve from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Clutching at what may be the last straw, Mr Khodorkovsky has raised the white flag and offered to surrender "a part" of his stake in Yukos to save the company from bankruptcy.
But, like anyone who holds all the cards, the Kremlin is considering its options and has so far not responded. Few doubt, however, that while Mr Khodorkovsky and his associates may be charged with a plethora of white- collar crimes his real crime was to bite the hand which fed him so prodigiously.
He made his fortune during the mid 1990s, when the east was in full swing and the Russian state was selling off its crown jewels for peanuts.
In that sense, he was no different from any of the other so- called robber barons who built fortunes among the ashes of the Soviet Empire under the patronage of the then president Boris Yeltsin.
"You can't call these people thieves in the true sense of the word. They were allowed to steal. They were given the keys to the flat where the money lies and told to help themselves," said one Moscow analyst, who preferred to remain nameless.
Mr Khodorkovsky thrived on the dearth of rules and regulations. The good times rolled for the man who had started his career running a student cafe at his college.
In 1988 he founded one of the first licensed banks in Russia - Menatep - which became the main investment vehicle for his asset buying spree. In 1994 he and his business partners bought a 20 per cent stake in Russia's largest fertiliser producer for just $225,000.
But 1995 was the real turning point. That was when he snapped up a controlling stake in Yukos, then a disparate patchwork of inefficient Soviet-era oil firms. He paid just $350m - two years later it was valued at $9bn. Today it is Russia's largest private oil company. …