Ex-tycoon writes of life in Russian prison
Already imprisoned for nearly eight years, the inmate who once was Russia’s richest man must still see at least 1,800 more sunrises from behind his barracks window, his view of the real world beyond the camp fence with barbed wire on top.
But armed with a pen and pencil, Mikhail Khodorkovsky is following in a grand, if grim, Russian literary tradition: writing about his life in a gulag-style camp he has described as “an anti-world” where “lying is a norm and truth an exception.”
Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s ardent opponent, whose convictions on fraud, tax evasion and money-laundering charges were widely seen as politically motivated, once wrote that the only thing he was missing in prison was a computer — “but my penmanship has improved.”
Just five months after special forces stormed his plane at an eastern Siberian airport in late 2003 and arrested the head of the Yukos oil giant, Khodorkovsky wrote his first article in captivity, headlined, “The Crisis of Liberalism in Russia.”
Since then, the 48-year-old former billionaire has contributed more than 100 articles, interviews and short stories to media organizations in Russia and abroad. In the writings, he not only defends his honor and denies all the charges against him, but also responds to the political, economic or moral challenges that Russian society faces.
In recent weeks, Khodorkovsky has started a series of columns called “Prison Folk” for the New Times, an influential Russian weekly political magazine. In them, he approaches his characters with the sharp eye of an intellectual observer but also the compassion of a fellow prisoner, giving his prose a touch of the desperate hope prevalent in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s classic “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”
“Often you feel literally terrified from the sense of utterly wasted human lives, fates broken by one’s own hands or by the heartless system,” he writes in one of his most recent columns, which his lawyers say he files through the prison mail system — subject to censorship — or dictates to them.
In a matter-of-fact way that makes the account even more wrenching, Khodorkovsky tells the story of Kolya, a young man caught with drugs. Investigators, hoping to write off an unsolved case, also want the man to confess to a petty robbery he didn’t commit.
Kolya agrees in exchange for a promise that he can choose a prison camp to his liking and meet with his family. But when he finds out that he is going to “confess” to robbing an old woman of her cellphone, he refuses. The man is a criminal, but he has his principles.
The investigators beat him up and throw him back into a cell to think, Khodorkovsky writes.
“In a short while, he knocks on the door and when the feeder [a small window to get food] opens up, his intestines flow into it. Kolya cut himself up for real.
“I look at this man many times convicted and think with bitterness about many people outside who value their honor much cheaper and don’t consider robbing an old man or an old woman for a couple of thousand [rubles] a special sin, even if their robbery is covered up by smart words. They are not ashamed. And involuntarily I am proud of Kolya.”
The novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who faced a death sentence that was changed at the last moment to a prison term that included hard labor in a Siberian prison camp, laid the foundations of Russian prison prose in the 19th century. Since then, that tradition has been upheld by many prominent authors in a country with an old saying that loosely translates as “beware of prison and poverty” — painfully true for Khodorkovsky.
It is too early to seriously judge Khodorkovsky’s literary merits as a storyteller, says Russian literary critic Benedikt Sarnov. But “he is growing fast both morally and spiritually, and the way he notices things around him, singles out stories and their heroes, carries visible grains of writing that may eventually put him close to such pillars of Russian prose as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov,” revered authors who experienced the Russian prison system.
Popular Russian writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya, who has exchanged several letters with Khodorkovsky, says he is “an exclusively talented man” and that his writing has quickly improved.
“Khodorkovsky is already writing his book, which he publishes in small chapters,” she says. “Unfortunately, the fate of Russia is such that the topic of crime and punishment and also the prison theme are the core motive of Russian literature.”
Much of what Khodorkovsky writes and says remains poignantly political. Far from surrendering under the Kremlin blows, he continues to lash out at the government, pointing out its political and economic errors and comparing Putin to Stalin.
“The continuation of Putin’s era is a step toward the past,” Khodorkovsky says in an article this month in the independent daily Vedomosti. “For any political system and political elite, a movement back into the past is bad as it kills hope.”
Political experts evaluate his influence as marginal, given that his support in polls has remained static at 6% to 8%, but Khodorkovsky argues that “any heroes are always marginal by definition.”
“A hero begins from opposing the habitual, routine way of life, the inertia of mainstream sucking you in,” he said earlier this year in an interview with the magazine Vlast. “Look at what is happening now in Tunisia, Egypt and countries which didn’t know a democratic tradition either,” he added, comparing the Russian leadership with autocrats who think they will rule forever.
Khodorkovsky may become a conspicuous figure in Russian politics when, or if, he comes out of prison at the end of 2016, says Maxim Shevchenko, a conservative political analyst and member of the Public Chamber, a presidential advisory board. But he would face obstacles.
“The prison has failed to break him but turned him into a man of steel, and the Russian people are traditionally sympathetic to people sitting in prison regardless of their former oligarchic status,” Shevchenko says. “However, should he choose politics after his release, his one big problem will be his marginal support base.”
Khodorkovsky’s supporters are mainly a group of intellectuals living in Moscow and St. Petersburg, whereas the rest of the population largely remains indifferent toward the imprisoned ex-oligarch, said Boris Dubin of the Moscow-based independent Levada Polling Center.
“Unless there are major economic and political upheavals rocking Russia, chances of Khodorkovsky to become a Russian Nelson Mandela are miserable,” Dubin says.
“The authorities don’t even try to prevent Khodorkovsky from his writing because he poses no political threat for them and they can’t care less what he writes about them or Russia from his prison camp,” Shevchenko points out.
Khodorkovsky argues that even if Stalin’s gulag is gone, the penal system hasn’t changed much. Instead of correcting criminals, he writes, it hardens them or destroys them altogether.
In one of his most recent “Prison Folk” stories, he muses on that destruction and its final stage: death: “This is the system. These are the people. Before the threshold. On the threshold. Which is in store for all of us one day.”
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.