Even the cream of Russia’s penitentiary service, the flower of the State’s militocracy, can make a mistake once in a while. However, the dramatic error committed yesterday by the Siberian bureaucratic management, which allowed Neil Buckley of the Financial Times to conduct the first major interview in years with Russia’s most well known political prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, sets a new benchmark among the fiascos of this case. Given the appearance, one would think that this series of stories and feature interview were planned far in advance. In fact, that’s not at all how it happened. According to my sources, there was a slight mix-up at the courthouse in Chita, and where the attendees are usually registered and allowed (or denied) entrance, Buckley breezed right through undetected. Some local bureaucrats, perhaps unaware he was with the Financial Times (Buckley speaks Russian), accidentally left the reporter alone in the courtroom with Khodorkovsky, even permitting what I believe is the first new photograph we have seen of him in many months. I wouldn’t be surprised if the gulag took in a couple new occupants following this mistake. So either by serendipity or a colossal blunder, Khodorkovsky had the rare opportunity to speak his mind in an encounter with the international press.
The impression I am left with, biased though I may be as his lawyer, is that of a man who despite being on the ninth day of a hunger strike, speaks optimistically with measured, erudite words about the critical challenges facing not only his friend, Vasily Alexanyan, but the Russian Federation as a whole. In my view, the interview was the demonstration of a supreme exercise of will in extremely difficult conditions.What does it say about this regime, when an interview such as this can only happen during an ephemeral opening of the curtain of censorship? Perhaps more powerfully, how is it that we hear the most optimistic declarations about Russia’s future potential for democracy and rule of law from a man who is arguably suffering the very worst of its injustices? Khodorkovsky hasn’t given up hope that Russia can change, and this means a lot coming from a man who has been illegally exiled to a Siberian gulag, stabbed and harassed, subjected to multiple judicial farces, and whose friend was being murdered before the world’s eyes as part of a medical blackmail for testimony.Following a speech I delivered today at Chatham House, several colleagues from various countries approached me to talk about the extraordinary will shown in the interview – like a shot heard around the world, this seemed to be a news story that everyone had read.Seeing Khodorkovsky’s name and photo grace the front page of Europe’s most important business daily was a heartening reminder that the Khodorkovsky still has the potential to be a major area of focus during the presidential elections – and we can only hope that this interest and attention increases to the point where the Kremlin will hesitate before implementing the most blatantly illegal measures it has become used to in this case.