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Grigory Pasko: Siberian Prisoner Interview

Andrey Volozhanin, Khodorkovsky’s former foreman: “Misha is a chance passenger there…” By Grigory Pasko, journalist You don’t necessarily need to try tasting prison gruel in order to understand the conditions in which a person finds himself in places of deprivation of liberty [formal Russian term for institutions where convicted prisoners serve their sentences; pre-conviction detention facilities are known as investigative isolators or SIZOs—Trans.]. It is enough to talk with those for whom life behind bars is a customary thing. For Andrei Volozhanin, resident of Krasnokamensk, his most recent term (or “round trip”, as the “zeks” say) was the eleventh in his 42 years of life. He has spent a total of around 20 years in prisons and “zones”. His area of expertise is fraud. When he ended up at “The Dime” [correctional colony IK-10—Trans.], the general-regime zone in Krasnokamensk, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was already there, working in the sewing shop. In July 2006, Volozhanin became the “brigadier” [foreman] of this shop. Naturally, he and Khodorkovsky interacted with one another. How, and about what, we’ll tell in a moment. But first a small philosophical digression: a person is free, and freedom means nothing other than self-determination, i.e. the ability to act in accordance with one’s intentions, and not under the pressure of an outside force. And so, often these “external forces” are the people around you. I know from my own experience: I sat in mass cells, and in solitary, and in the zone…. I do not need to be told what Jean-Paul Sartre meant when he said that “Hell is other people”. And I think there’s no need to explain the meaning of this phrase to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, either. I offer our readers three small stories about people with whom I met in Chita and who sat in the colony of Krasnokamensk and in the Chita SIZO at the same time as Khodorkovsky. True, Mikhail Borisovich only had personal interactions with one of them – Andrei Volozhanin. Let’s hear what he has to say.

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Photo of Andrei Volozhanin by Grigory Pasko

First story. Andrei Volozhanin: We are the children of stagnation [the Period of Stagnation is roughly the last decade of Leonid Brezhnev’s rule, when the USSR was in a holding pattern of slow decay and cynicism—Trans.]. All my life I’ve been a swindler, I’ve got no calluses on my hands. Never have gotten in the habit of saving a kopek for a rainy day. What for? You gotta live for today. I spend all my money, what’s the point of living otherwise? Money brings happiness only when you spend it. This time, as usual, they gave me a small term – 3, 5 years. I did half and got out on parole. I’ve been a foreman, a “boss”, in many camps. At “The Dime” I also established myself as a boss at the sewing shop, from July of last year. I already knew that Khodorkovsky was working there. He was in the experimental shop – a packager – that’s what we called those who packed finished product in packages. What product? Bed linens. There are five working rates at the shop. There wasn’t enough work for everyone who wanted it. Maybe about thirty people came out to work. They threw out the wages at everybody. Then they bought what was needed for everybody. Khodorkovsky reacted to everything without a word. They showed him, they explained – and he started doing without a word. How did we meet? The way two guys usually meet. We had a cup of tea. True, he doesn’t chifir (i.e. drink extremely strongly brewed tea—G.P.). He immediately started to use the formal form of address with me. I’m all informal at him. I told him straight out: I was taught that you use the formal address only with superiors or with idiots. And which did he think I was? In short, I began to call him Boris’ich [a semi-formal form of address, using a shortened form of the patronymic; Volozhanin is probably using it sarcastically—Trans.], but with the familiar form nevertheless. To myself, I called him Misha. Misha – he keeps himself to himself. A serious grown-up guy. People treated him with respect in the camp. He was usually reading books all the time. Some people like to talk, but he’d rather stick his nose in a book. He likes it. In that system he’s a chance passenger. Of course, we did talk about the prospects of his case now and then. It told him the way I saw it: it will be your good fortune if Putin’s successor is kinder. And Putin? He’s trying to grab the money that was stolen. True, not from everybody, for some reason. There wasn’t anything unusual, nothing I recall. The incident with Kuchma (when one prisoner slashed Khodorkovsky with a knife—G.P.) didn’t happen when I was around, but earlier. While I was there, they did throw him and two other people in the punishment isolator. He’s trusting. Apparently, he helped organize transfers for two prisoners. In the end, all of them did time in the punishment isolator – Misha and those two. 15 days they did. If this hadn’t involved Boris’ich, nobody would’ve paid any attention to it. I remember saying once: Misha, tell me, what can you do with your millions here? Nothing. But I can make something out of a hundred rubles. I’ll give them to a policeman, and he’ll do something for me. If you offer him a million, he won’t take it – he’ll be scared. But he will take a hundred. Mikhail Borisovich helped how he could. Me, for example, he helped write a “super” (supervisory appeal to a higher-standing court—G.P.). He suggested how mitigating circumstances ought to have been taken into consideration in my case. Well, what else can I say? A normal guy, that Khodorkovsky. The “zeks” treated him normal. He didn’t interact much with anybody. He usually walked around in the “local” (the little yard adjacent to the barracks building—G.P.), ran in circles around the barracks building… God willing, he’ll pull through the second term too. Although, of course, this lawlessness is totally over the top…