Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed oligarch who became the Kremlin's most famous critic, has arrived in Germany to possible exile after 10 years behind bars.
In a whirlwind release granted less than 24 hours after his surprise pardon by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr Khodorkovsky left prison colony No. 7 in the remote town of Segezha, in north-western Russia, minutes after the reprieve was published on the Kremlin's website.
The former oil tycoon, once the richest man in Russia, immediately boarded a private jet to Berlin.
It was a fitting end to Mr Khodorkovsky's decade-long incarceration, which began when his own private jet was surrounded on the tarmac at Novosibirsk airport in Siberia in 2003.
After landing in Germany, Mr Khodorkovksky thanked his supporters, including Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the former German foreign minister who played a role in negotiating his release.
"On November 12, I asked the President of Russia to pardon me due to my family situation, and I am glad his decision was positive," Mr Khodorkovksky said.
He continued: "First of all I am going to repay my debt to my parents, my wife and my children, and I am very much looking forward to meeting them."
The father of four is likely to be visited tomorrow by his parents and family members, who are mostly in Moscow.
His daughter Anastasia told Russian television: "I've realised I can't entirely believe it until I see him in person."
Mr Khodorkovsky said in his statement that "the issue of admission of guilt was not raised" by his pardon.
There was strong speculation that he would not return to Russia, taking the path of exile followed by other oligarchs who have fallen out with the Kremlin.
The pardon appears calculated to ease pressure from Western states before the Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi in February.
It followed a general amnesty that will allow several other high-profile prisoners released in coming days, including two members of the punk protest group Pussy Riot, and 30 Greenpeace activists who were arrested after a protest at a Russian oil rig in September.
Starting as a member of the Communist Party's youth wing, Mr Khodorkovsky became one of Russia's most powerful business people.
But his apparent political ambitions and disagreements about the oil and gas industry put him on a collision course with Mr Putin.