Esquire Interview with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Part 1 of 5

esquire100608.jpgThe Russian version of Esquire magazine has published a very interesting and extensive conversation between Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the writer Grigory Chkhartishvili – who is better known by his pen name Boris Akunin. Each day this week we will publish a section of this important article. Correspondence: CONVERSATION OF WRITER GRIGORY CHKHARTISHVILI (B.AKUNIN) WITH MIKHAIL KHODORKOVSKY When the editorial board proposed to me to get an interview from any person who would be interesting to me, I said right away: “Most interesting of all for me would be to talk with Mikhail Khodorkovsky”. The fate of the former richest person of Russia gives me no peace. And not at all because he is the richest. Every time somebody tries to stand up for Khodorkovsky an his comrades, without fail you always hear the reproach: come on, we have many people in our country who are being held behind bars unfairly. They don’t write about them in the newspapers, they don’t have a team of high-class lawyers looking out for them. Why is it, gentlemen, that you’re making such a fuss over this specific oligarch? I will explain why I’m making such a fuss. It was specifically on the YUKOS case that we lost the independence of the judiciary – an institution without which a democratic society can not exist. That means this is precisely the point to which we have to return. If we restore justice and legality in the case of Khodorkovsky, this will also help all the rest of the victims of our foundering Themis. For understandable reasons, the dialogue took place in epistolary form. It is given here without any abridgements. — Grigory Chkhartishvili

GRIGORY CHKHARTISHVILI. Mikhail Borisovich, I belong to the number of those to whom your fate does not give any peace. And there are quite a lot of us people like this. However, you rarely interact with us. And if an interview does appear, then in some kind of Financial Times. Why? Can it really be that to attract the attention of the world community is more important for you than to be heard in the motherland?MIKHAIL KHODORKOVSKY. For a real dialogue is needed an interlocutor who understands and is interested. They just “don’t make that kind” of journalist in Russia. Why? Maybe the publishers don’t want it, maybe self-censorship. As to the “Westerners” – I interact with them infrequently as well. I don’t want to get published a lot in the West, and besides one wants to rant about many questions, but what would be the point of my ranting to a Western reader? So that he could once again condemn Russia in his soul? This is unpleasant to me, and, most important, pointless; we need to be the ones to change Russia, right here. It doesn’t work any other way.But here – there are other problems. Novaya Gazeta? There, many of the readers are [already] like-minded, and to [try to] convince them of something, with respect to the broadest circle of questions, is silly – they already know everything themselves anyway. But in those questions where I don’t agree with them, my bilious letters, being published, play into the hand of all kinds of riffraff, who gleefully start to cry out either “look at those liberals, they’re such slime that even Khodorkovsky rants at them”, or “Khodorkovsky’s contriving to get himself a pardon, cursing out the opposition”. That’s why I write letters, but I don’t permit them to be published. As to other publications… When they phoned me, completely unexpectedly for me, to give an interview to Financial Times (for which the court secretary, I believe, suffered), representatives of two of our publications were sitting in the hall too – interesting fellows, we had been discussing questions that interested them, including the prospects for Chita Oblast (one of the journalists represented a Chita newspaper).We spoke for a long time, they gave us nearly two hours. Financial Times published everything that I said to their journalist (apparently out of ethical considerations, he didn’t take anything that I’d said to our [journalists]). Our journalists kept silent [i.e. didn’t publish anything from these interviews]. The publications, however, were delighted to reprint the Financial Times material. It is understandable why this is so, but I would never do something like give an interview to Financial Times and deny one to our [journalists] who were right there. As concerns the regime – yes, while I was in the camp, after every article they threw me into the Penalty Isolator.Perhaps it was just coincidence. But I couldn’t care less about that. It doesn’t scare me any more. True, after Financial Times Times this did not take place. Could it be they’ve smartened up? Or the times have changed? Sorry, that was just me being overly optimistic.G.CH. The most painful image from what has happened is how the trial went. In fact, why don’t we start with the trial and the judges. It seems to me that in Russia today has arrived an epoch of the personal liability of a person for his conduct. The choice – to participate in something dirty or not – is something everybody has. During the times of the Great Terror, the judge and the procurator put their stamps on the guilty verdict out of fear for their own life. During the times of Brezhnev, by refusing to convict a dissident, they would have risked finding themselves in a jail or a nuthouse. Now we’re only talking about a career. You can take off the robe and join the bar. And this means that the choice is not at all that dramatic, and there are no justifications whatsoever for meanness.The YUKOS affair – is the most shameful page in the history of the post-Soviet judiciary. It, without a doubt, belongs in the history textbooks. Not only the names of those convicted will make it in, but also the names of the “top students” from the judicial/procuratorial workshop, as this happened with the never-tobe- forgotten judge Savelieva, who publicly berated the parasite Iosif Brodsky. What do you think about the people who actually conducted the investigation, presented the charges, issued the verdict? I was at your trial, at Alexanyan’s trial, and just kept looking at their faces. What’s going on inside them? For me, it’s a mystery why they’re not thinking about how it won’t be very long at all before their own children are ashamed of them. What kind of special people are they, what makes them tick?M.KH. When people talk about how Russia has changed since the Soviet times, I recall the trial.This will sound silly, but the trial became for me an opportunity to see and to re-evaluate my colleagues, my fellow citizens. You want to hear [me talk] about procurator Shokhin, about judge Kolesnikova? These are petty bureaucrats, who would never have been put in such a trial if there weren’t enough kompromat against them to hang them with. Novaya Gazeta wrote about Kolesnikova; she was “hanging” on a complaint lying without a response in the Procuracy General throughout the entire trial. On an analogous complaint, her colleagues got 12 years each (a question relating to an apartment). It’s not for me to judge how true this is, but I think Kolesnikova knew better than I that the truth in such a situation is meaningless. As concerns Shokhin, his problems are understandable too. The fact that he decided not to stand up against the superiors, but to creatively lie in court (about which I declared there) – unfortunately, this is an unavoidable consequence of the one-hand-washes-the other everybody-covers-for-everybody-else system in which he exists.Now they’re trying to demolish it a tiny bit, and inside the procuracy there are many people who would like to be independent and can be that way because they’re educated, they’re needed, and there isn’t any kompromat [on them]. Many, but not all. Today’s nomenklatura is based on there being kompromat, i.e. the opportunity to annihilate someone who “lashes out”. Is this good? Yes, of course, it’s abominable. What is taking place is the advancement upwards of the most “sullied” ones, projecting “downwards” and into society their distorted moral principles. But what can you say about them? Pitiful, miserable people, who in their old age will be scared of death.What struck me in the trial was something else. The prosecution had interrogated more than fifteen hundred people. Many with threats of bringing charges against them (with some they did). They hand-picked just over 80 for the trial. And these people, who were completely justifiably afraid for their own fate, did not take sin upon the soul. Nobody – I emphasize, nobody – gave testimony against me and Platon.And some even decided to speak out in our defense. This is witnesses for the prosecution, hand-picked out of those who could have considered themselves to have been wronged by us. I can not help recalling former director of Apatit Anatoly Pozdnyakov, former governor of Murmansk Oblast Yevgeni Komarov, and indeed many – dozens of people who, being found under the strongest of pressure, refused to go against the conscience. And by the way, among them were also employees of the procuracy, who refused to lie on the order of their superiors (I don’t know if makes sense to bring up their names now). We’re living in a completely different country after all. Yes, there’s still enough riffraff to go around, but there are already more citizens – real citizens – and a further process of transforming the horde into a community of citizens is taking place. Putin’s greatest mistake is that he, wittingly or unwittingly, put the brakes on this process, the process of the establishment of a civil society. Now there are hopes for the resumption of this process, which makes me happy. Maybe my words do sound silly.G.CH. But why did you agree in the first place to participate in the trial, in what was always going to be a profanation of justice? Would it not have been more proper to declare right from the start: “Do with me what you will, I don’t believe in the objectivity of your court and do not intend to help you play your game”? Or did you have some kind of illusions?M.KH. You’re going to laugh, but I turned out to be quite a naïve person. That is, I didn’t have doubts that the procuracy would be able to hold me long in jail, but I didn’t believe until practically the very end that the court would be able to issue a guilty verdict without evidence and, most importantly, in defiance of obvious facts – and in an open trial, no less. I considered that a court is still a court; it can, and it will, play along with the prosecutors, but it can not directly violate the law… Turns out, it sure can, and how. No, at first everything was decent enough, but in the beginning of 2005, someone called someone in someplace, and that’s when I understood – there’s nothing to discuss with these people. But there remained society, investors, my colleagues, the employees of the company, and I had the duty to explain to them that they had worked not in a criminal group, but in a normal company, which found itself in a grindstone not simply out of political motives, but – and here’s the main thing – on charges of crimes that never were. And, judging by the fact that [employers] both here and abroad are happy to hire all the YUKOS employees, I have succeeded in this.G.CH. Let’s turn the clock back. By the moment when the power adopted the final decision: to lock [you] up. With whom haven’t I talked on this topic in the intervening years.Everyone was preoccupied and to this day is preoccupied [by the question of] what was the true reason for Putin’s personal war against you. I’ve gotten to hear the most varied of hypotheses. It is noteworthy that nobody, not one person of those with whom I have discussed this, took the official hypothesis seriously: that YUKOS was supposedly unlawfully grabbing someone else’s property, was maliciously evading taxes, and that’s why they’ve locked all those good-for-nothings up.First, YUKOS itself was snatched right before everybody’s eyes, without any embarrassment. Second, many had heard that YUKOS was paying more taxes into the treasury than Rosneft – the company that gobbled it up – does today, even though oil has become four times more expensive in this time. “This isn’t what they locked Khodorkovsky up for” – such was the general voice. I will now enumerate the prevailing hypotheses for you, and you say which one of them is closer to the truth. The theory of what happened that’s maximally close to the official one (let’s call it Version 1) looks something like this. All the oligarchs of the 1990s amassed wealth in an unrighteous way. They had gotten access to the subsoil from the state and therefore were supposed to have observed certain conventions in relations with the power. But Khodorkovsky, having accumulated billions, violated this unspoken understanding and began to behave like an independent socio-political force. His example could have been picked up by other billionaires, and Russia once again would have ended up in a dim and restless time of “seven banker-ness”. Yes, Putin applied unlawful and dishonest methods towards Khodorkovsky, but he could not have acted any other way. The oligarchs had to be scared a bit and brought into line.Version 2, the romantic one, was narrated to me by one Splendidly Informed Lady. Supposedly at a meeting of Putin with oligarchs you alone dared to appear without a necktie, in a turtleneck, and The Guarantor [Putin], very sensitive to signs of external obeisance, supposedly said: “For Bush, he, I’ll bet, would have put on a tie”. And deep inside he felt this as a mortal affront. That same lady said: “And in general, He can’t stand tall men”. (This last is obvious hogwash. If that’s the case, then Mikhail Prokhorov would need to be locked up).Version 3 (narrated to me by one Person of State). Competent organs reported to the president that Khodorkovsky is planning to invest billions in “orange” scenarios. For the sake of public tranquillity the president adopted a heavy – but the only right – decision. Version 4 – my own. I can easily imagine that a 40-year-old person, at one time having set himself the ambitious task of becoming the most successful entrepreneur of the new Russian economy, at some moment suddenly realized that, broadly speaking, “money can’t buy happiness”. So I’ve become the richest, now what? Lots of strength, half a lifetime still ahead, and you want to do something truly large-scale: for example, to help Russia to finally become a civilized, competitive country. And this drive got someone mighty worried.Which of the hypotheses is closer to the truth? What really happened?(Click here to continue reading Part 2 of this interview, and Part 3 here.)