'Dreams of freedom? They undermine the fortitude of prisoners'

Today, 25th October, marks the tenth anniversary of the arrest of Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky, now Russia's most famous political prisoner. A short while ago, Ben Judah wrote to him asking about the circumstances of his imprisonment, and how that experience has changed him. This is what he said. 

 Nobody in our country has any doubt that “approval” for my arrest came directly from Vladimir Putin, although neither Mr Ustinov [Prosecutor General] who, with his deputy, confirmed the order to bring charges against me nor Mr Patrushev [Head of FSB] who formally allowed the FSB’s special forces to “bring in a witness” (my status at the moment of arrest) are admitting that they did receive such “approval.” Kasyanov [Prime Minister], on the other hand, provided a detailed and interesting account. 

But the initiator of everything that happened – and today this can be said with a high degree of certainty – was Mr Igor Sechin, who knows his “patron” very well indeed; and was able to successfully manipulate him and a significant part of his retinue.  

Most likely it was a case of “playing chicken”

It is impossible to say precisely which of the arguments that was being advanced by Sechin through various people ended up being the decisive one for Putin. Most likely it was a case of “playing chicken.” I was made out to be a dangerous political adversary, and, what is more, as representing the interests of Americans. 

That I regard Americans as kindred spirits is something I told Putin myself. There were quite a few of them working at YUKOS, along with Germans and French.  Putin, as head of state, was receiving regular, detailed information directly from me about the negotiations with Exxon and Chevron; and through Roman Abramovich, my then business partner. 

Lovers of conspiracy theories easily accepted the idea of a large-scale conspiracy

Lovers of conspiracy theories easily accepted the idea of a large-scale conspiracy, citing the financial assistance I was giving to opposition parties; the  activities of the “Open  Russia” foundation; my widely discussed calls for the need to get away from a super-Presidential political model  to a parliamentary one; and my call to reject systemic corruption, which has today become one of the foundations of the regime; and so on. 

There were also the fabricated reports about “secret negotiations” with Dick Cheney [US Vice President] and Condoleezza Rice [US Secretary of State]. Misrepresenting informal public encounters as “Conspiracies” is a favourite practice of the security services,  although  the  real topic of those conversations was perfectly well known to anyone who took the trouble to find out. But the misinformation strategy of  “secret  information” gleaned from  “sources  familiar  with…”  worked splendidly: over time, a huge quantity of other, completely implausible myths, intended for mass public consumption, also appeared. 

Such a well-run company was a very tempting dish for certain people in his retinue

It is difficult to say whether Putin was being truthful when he declared, at the end of 2003, that the destruction of YUKOS had not been planned, but, at any rate, there is no doubt that such a well-run company was a very tempting dish for certain people in his retinue. Most likely, for that same Sechin who regarded it as an important way to strengthen his own position “at  court.” Here too were the financial resources for greasing the wheels – people, pet projects, an opportunity for having additional influence with regional leaders; and, of course, material gain, which allowed one to live much better than a civil servant. However, the main thing for Sechin was the weakening of the democratic wing of the President’s retinue, with a simultaneous strengthening of the role of repressive mechanisms in the general running of the country. Thus it was that Sechin is the one who became the principal beneficiary of the changes that took place as the result  of  the YUKOS trial. 

Of course, my position differs from that of the majority of prisoners

Of the nine years of my detention, I have spent more than six years in the special blocs reserved for particularly dangerous criminals, of jails in Moscow and Chita. About a year and a half was spent in a camp on the Russian-Chinese border; and the last year and a half in the bogs of Karelia, this time not far from the Russian-Finnish border. 

Of course, my position differs from that of the majority of prisoners, who are not under such constant and strict control, although my jailers do not tire of repeating to me that I am housed “under the usual conditions.” Where I am concerned, they do try, at least formally, to abide by the law. If this proves impossible, they change the law retroactively. That is what happened when, contrary to the penal code at the time, they sent me off not to the nearest prison camp, but six and a half thousand kilometres from my home. 

The right to be released on parole before the end of one’s term or to be placed under less strict conditions “do  not  apply” to  me. As to the rest, I am “like everybody else:” the same black uniform, the same family visitation rights once every three months without prison bars; a food parcel every two months; the same food in the local cafeteria, prepared for the most part from tinned goods; the same work six days a week at the local factory; , the same bunk in a barrack for twenty people. 

How have I changed over these nine years?

How have I changed over these nine years? It is difficult to talk about oneself; after all, to notice the ways in which one’s own self has changed is hardest of all. Some might say they are significant, others consider them to be only superficial. For certain, I have more or less learned how to set out my thoughts and emotions on paper; and not just instructions. I have learned how to take longer to think things over, how to seek new, more profound meanings; and how not to react right away to external irritations. It seems to me that I have begun to understand people better and to accept their “differences” more calmly. 

Of course, there is much that I have lost, especially in the professional sense, as an entrepreneur.  Incidentally, I am not planning to return to business. But, more than anything, the personal losses have been monstrous. Chief among them is the relationship with my family and my children. I would not wish jail on anybody. 

What has inspired me most of all in my time behind bars is the people – my former colleagues, partners, some of them personal acquaintances and some not – who fell into the grindstone of the system; and yet there was not a single traitor among them, not a single person who decided to buy personal peace by bearing false witness. 

There were those who were afraid to tell the truth

There were those who were afraid to tell the truth. There were not many like that,but there were some.  I can understand them, it is hard to forswear your own personal safety for the sake of someone else.  But nobody told lies; and yet they were being pressed hard – dozens of people went through arduous interrogations. 

If we speak of the most painful aggravation, then that is the close acquaintance I have made with our  “law-enforcement-and-judicial” system. In all my forty years, as it then seemed to me, I had not been a naïve person; I could imagine the capabilities of  “telephone” and “corrupt”  “justice.” I had no doubts whatsoever that they could hold me in jail for several years, without any evidence, that they could create some sort of nasty frame-up, falsify a crime or evidence, but it never even entered my head that you could absolutely brazenly, in an open trial, before the eyes of an astounded public, sentence a person to a prison term without bothering yourself with any of the niceties like evidence or presumption of innocence. 

"When armed men entered my plane, if anything I felt a sense of calm.  At last the energy-sapping wait was over, and certainty had appeared.". Pic (c) Ekaterina Belyakovskaya

Then, in the second trial, having spit upon the first, to draw the opposite conclusion!  In the first, they were saying that taxes on the income from the sale of oil that had been produced had not been paid in full, although they did agree that everybody else was acting in the same way, and that the tax inspectorate knew all about it. Moreover, the legislation of that period allowed one to do just that.  In the second, they saild that all of the oil produced had been stolen!  But, if this were so, then taxes could not have been levied at all – there was nothing to levy them on! 

“We are just bit players, we received orders from above” 

Meanwhile, in parallel with all this, over at the ECHR [European Court of Human Rights] they were again talking about taxes, saying that “nothing was stolen!” I remember asking the investigators: “Why so deliberately ignore not just the law, but even plain common sense?  Their only answer was “We are just bit players, we received orders from above.” 

At first, I simply could not believe that such a thing was possible. Then I understood – this is the usual practice. There are many cases like this where everything hinges on whether or not there is an order from above.  In such a situation, a trial is nothing but appearances. 

When armed men entered my plane, if anything I felt a sense of calm.  At last the energy-sapping wait was over, and certainty had appeared. Although, formally, this was not an  arrest,  but merely  “bringing  a  witness  to  the  investigator,” escorted by the special forces of the FSB.  

They simply played out a brief and badly staged theatrical performance

The actual arrest took place later, in the Basmanny Court, where I first looked into the craven, roguish eyes of a bureaucrat dressed up in the robes of a judge. By law, the prosecutors were supposed to be proving that the charges had merit; and that my being at large might prejudice the investigation. Of course, none of this took place, nor indeed was it required. They simply played out a brief and badly staged theatrical performance. I was in shock. 

Neither the first nor the second verdict had much of an impact on me.  I knew what was coming. I had been told already at the end of 2003 that Putin had willed that they give me eight years, although, at first, I did not believe this. The second time, they reported half a year before the start of the second trial the fact that they had changed their minds, and had decided to add on another six or seven years. Nobody particularly conceals anything over here.  Perhaps they are not capable, or, perhaps, they do it for psychological effect.  But it is a fact – I was prepared: I was thinking only about my loved ones.  I was looking at my mother, at my wife; I was endeavouring to catch their gaze and to hold it, to convey my own composure.  It seemed to me that this was important to them. 

I do not dream of getting back YUKOS

I do not dream of getting back YUKOS. Even if such a thing were possible, this would not interest me. In a profoundly personal sense, the company was nothing more than a way to show to myself and those around me that I had the ability to resolve large economic and production tasks.  I think I showed that I could do it. To repeat is boring. Looking ahead, I will be resolving new tasks, in a new way. 

At the same time, however, the state must compensate the losses of the shareholders, especially the minority shareholders. Myself, I have not been a YUKOS shareholder since 2004.  

What needs to happen in Russia, for me to be released?  It is enough to restore the independence of the judiciary in our country.  It began to be restored in Russia in the 90s, but this attempt lasted only a few years.  I am afraid that under the current political regime this is impossible. A controlled judiciary is one of the cornerstones of the system created by Putin. 

I consider it useless to analyse palace undercurrents and the manoeuvres of power, even though they do impact directly on my own fate.  

I would not say that I recall the past too often.  My mind lives in the future, in upcoming events and encounters. At the same time, those around me are constantly returning me to the events of days past.  

Many are particularly interested in 19th February 2003, when I gave a report on corruption at a meeting with Putin.  It is specifically that day that people usually reckon as marking the starting point of the events that brought me here. Fortunately, or unfortunately, a full video report about that address of mine is accessible online to everybody; little is therefore left to the imagination. 

Dreams of freedom undermine the fortitude of prisoners

Freedom? It is universally known that dreams of freedom undermine the fortitude of prisoners. I am thinking now about my personal future exclusively as it applies to the realities of being in jail; and here my plans are very concrete: in the main, they are connected with the writing of new articles and letters. 

People talk about my future release as being a “Mandela” moment; today, without a doubt, this is not so. Our society has not yet accumulated such a potential for protest that would allow one pebble to start an avalanche. But time moves on, the country is changing, and it is impossible now to predict what might become a sufficient impetus for  drastic changes in several years’ time. 

About one thing there is no doubt: it is impossible to speak of democratic change without the release of political prisoners. 

My personal ambitions today lie in the intellectual sphere: the ability to accumulate ideas, to pick out the more worthy ones among them, to transform them into normative acts and practical plans – that is the skill that I would like to develop in the future, to the extent that it will depend on me. 

For certain, I had illusions and erroneous impressions about the essence of the Putin regime

Mistakes? For certain, I had illusions and erroneous impressions about the essence of the Putin regime, about capitalism, and about my country, but I had cast many of them aside long before the arrest. For example, the crisis of 1998, when I had to come face-to-face with the devastating social consequences of bad economic  decisions; and  the  state’s inability to carry out its function as a force for good, forced me to take a completely different look at neo-liberalism. 

It was precisely then that I understood how modern-day society has to be structured much more complexly than simply as “a free  market” of “private property,”with the state acting only as a night watchman.” 

That understanding led me into civic activity, pushed me to create “Open Russia,” the “New Civilisation Initiative” that led me to actively participate in the drafting of new laws; and developed my belief in the need to strengthen parliamentarianism. 

My impression of the Putin regime changed substantially in 2001, after the routing of NTV. I knew quite a few of the people there, I helped them out as I could, and I was practically an eyewitness observer of what happened when the only federal TV channel independent of the state was annihilated under the guise of a corporate conflict. 

Allowing corruption to flourish is a deliberate method for managing the bureaucracy of state

That well-known meeting with Putin on 19 February 2003 made me understand that allowing corruption to flourish is a deliberate method for managing the bureaucracy of state. While in jail I have seen how the law-enforcement agencies and the courts become mindless puppets as soon as they get a “signal from above; ” and how their loyalty is maintained with the levers of corruption – irresponsibility, raiderism, and common everyday extortion.  It is a vile spectacle.

My impression of Russia has not particularly changed in jail. Actually, I did not have any particular illusions before, either: a huge backwoods country with a very divided and weak society, and an atomised population where the majority feel themselves not as citizens but as serfs of various kinds of “bosses.” 

Of the things that need to happen, I have only the feeling of my own personal responsibility for what is happening, which weighs very heavily on me.  The responsibility of a person who could and can change something; and this means I must at least try. 

The older I get, the more frightening it becomes to face the Creator.  I believe more and more that He gave us strength, and He will hold us to account for how we had thoughtlessly wasted it on secondary things. Someone who does not believe in God has it easier in this sense, perhaps.  

"Putin inherited  the leadership of an anarchic army on the march, with a straggling baggage train. He called a halt, drew up the baggage train, planned for a bivouac life; and got rid of the combat commanders and headquarters staff, replacing them with quartermasters and foot soldiers who had been serving the rear. By and large, the objective of the march has been forgotten, and the bivouac has become a camp, which is gradually turning  into a  prison camp. "

The people who came out on Bolotnaya Square elicited pride in me for my fellow countrymen.  These are not serfs, but citizens, ready to take their own fate in their own hands. The opposition has so far not been able to become a real political and organising core. This is normal. People need time for self-education. 

Any authoritarianism in our country quickly and inevitably turns to shit

It is extremely important that the ideology of the opposition force that is forming, become the ideology of a modern-day democracy, and  not merely a  “better form” of authoritarianism. Any authoritarianism in our country quickly and inevitably turns to shit. The country is too big and too varied to be able to move on a uniform path towards a single unitary goal.  You either get lots of blood and an unattainable goal, like communism, or the anything-goes lawlessness of unsupervised “vice-regents.” But always a terrible crisis after the autocrat is gone – this is the recurring pattern of Russian history. In that sense, my attitude toward Alexey Navalny and other possible leaders of the protest movement depends on their choice of government.

What needs to happen? The powers of the president must be balanced out by a strong parliament; there must be an independent judiciary; local self-administration; oversight of state institutions. Any other approach is unacceptable. In the main, I am of the view held by many that young people should make the decisions about the future of the country. 

It appears that Putin is insufficiently wise or bold to become a leader of change

The mistake that Putin made that is frightening for our country is the fact that he made a choice in favour of a paternalistic political model, having cut off the young shoots of self-reliance then developing in Russian society. Like a multitude of other potentates from world history, he turned out to be sufficiently intelligent to impose his formal primacy on the country, making use of the passive majority and  the traditional  method of  “divide  and  rule.” But it appears that he is insufficiently wise or bold to become a leader of change, to support the modernising minority, in order to create a self-sustaining institutional mechanism of modern-day state power. 

He inherited from Yeltsin the leadership of an anarchic army on the march

If we use an army analogy, of a type that Putin so favours, he inherited from Yeltsin the leadership of an anarchic army on the march, with a straggling baggage train. He called a halt, drew up the baggage train, planned for a bivouac life; and got rid of the combat commanders and headquarters staff, replacing them with quartermasters and foot soldiers who had been serving the rear. By and large, the objective of the march has been forgotten, and the bivouac has become a camp, which is gradually turning  into  a  prison camp. 

Now, however, the supplies that have been brought in are running out, people are getting fed up with sitting in the middle of the road, the leader is getting old, the soldiers in the rear are thieving, and the quartermasters have gotten out of control, while the world outside looks upon what is happening with ever greater dread and bewilderment. So much time has been lost. 

Putin is evidently not going to change and not going to leave

Changes are inevitable, only it seems that Putin is no longer capable of taking charge of them. Is it worth my, or anybody else, telling him about this during a face-to-face encounter?  I think not. He could take charge of the march if he wanted, but he won’t. Now, all that is left to say to him is: “Vladimir Vladimirovich, we understand that you wanted to do good for the country, and only the court of history will say how it turned out for you. But the country needs changes. Don’t hinder the new generation of politicians, the modernising class.  Either help the changes or leave in peace.” 

Alas, Putin is evidently not going to change and not going to leave; and this means we can only look forward to a continuation of the stagnation, and a serious crisis when it ends; perhaps fatal for Russia, and certainly very sad for us and our neighbours.

 

 

About the authors

Ben Judah is the author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin published by Yale University Press. 

Mikhail Khodorkovsky is Russia's once-richest man who dared to challenge Vladimir Putin. Founder of the Menapet bank, and the major shareholder of the Yukos oil company, he was arrested in October 2003. Since then, he has been Russia's most famous political prisoner.