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Khodorkovsky: My Life in the Gulag

The following is an English translation of an interview with Mikhail Khodorkovsky in the Italian magazine L’Espresso:

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My life in a gulag 

Talks with Mikhail Khodorkovsky by Gigi Riva

The political and economic interests behind his case. The difficult life in prison. His enemy Putin. The desire of redemption. Exclusive interview with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Russian richest man.

He will struggle, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, “until death or release.” Former oligarch and patron of Yukos, in jail for the last six years for tax evasion, fraud, money laundering, is having a second trial (see box). In this exclusive interview with ‘L’espresso’, made possible by his lawyers who addressed him our questions in prison, Khodorkovsky pinpoints the political and economic interest behind his troubles. He talks about Putin and Medvedev as well as about Berlusconi. He speaks about the prisons and the moments in which, even today, in 2009, they can become gulag. However, he still has hope. For himself. For his country.

Mr. Khodorkovsky, may you please describe a typical day in prison?


The main thing in prison is – self-discipline. Therefore, no matterwhere the power throws me, whatever conditions I find myself in – getup in the morning, do calisthenics, take a stroll through the cell,work with papers. Everything else – depending on the situation. If theconditions are human – good, if not – we can survive. I miss onlyfamily: wife, children, parents.

What have so many years in a Siberian jail meant for a successful businessman as yourself?

Confinement encourages a more philosophical, unhurried, strategicconceptualisation of the world. At first you try to react to everythingquickly, like on the outside. But the conditions do not allow this.There is time to think again and again – and yet again. Gradually, youget accustomed to it.

It seems that this new trial will not be fair, will you continue fighting or are you giving up?

Personal liberty for a person, in my opinion, is the most importantthing. Therefore, without a doubt, I am going to continue the struggleuntil death or release.

Do you believe there are any differences between Vladimir Putin andthe new President Dmitry Medvedev? I mean, do you think the newPresident is more open to democracy issues or is he only an expressionof Putin?

Putin and Medvedev, without a doubt, are very different people. Butpolitical expediency is for now on the side of preserving the stabilityof the “tandem”. However, such a thing as having two presidents doesnot exist in Russia.

Many high-ranking personalities in the world have taken a stance foryou. Do you think that this will have an impact on the decisions of thegovernment? To which extend the judiciary power is related to politics?

Support is very important. In Russia there are a lot of servilebureaucrats, ready to do anything at all in the hope of winning theapproval of their bosses. Without public attention I am completelydefenceless. In the last two weeks both the US Senate and the Bundestagin Germany have adopted special resolutions which characterizes ourcase as politically motivated selective justice and which call forindependent and fair trial. The initiative of Pier Ferdinando Casini,President of the UDC Party of Italy, deserves a special attention.

There is no doubt that the entire YUKOS affair has been politicallymotivated from the start. The reason – a desire to undermine supportfor an independent opposition. However, today the situation haschanged: now the commercial, corruptional interests of a series ofmiddle-level officials who had personally lined their pockets in thecourse of the destruction of the company have come to the forefront.They fear that their dirty hands will be revealed.

Do you expect more from Italy? Or do you think that some initiativesmay be undermined by the friendship between Berlusconi and Putin?

The friendship of Berlusconi and Putin influences the relations betweenour countries. However, without a basis in values and institutions, asEuropean history teaches us, the situation can not be stable. I hopethat Berlusconi understands this, while the friendly relations willallow him to discuss such sensitive topics with Putin, and to discussthem constructively.

Do you have any hope in a commitment from the new American PresidentBarack Obama to intervene on the Kremlin about your detention?

There is no doubt that a decision with respect to my case is going tobe adopted in Russia, but not in the Khamovnichesky Court (where thetrial is taking place). There is likewise no doubt that our officialswould very much like to portray their decision as the decision of an”independent court”. I learn the name of Barack Obama in connectionwith the US Senate resolution which was adopted in regard to our case2005 at his and others initiative, I hope that Obama, as a person whohas directly and openly declared about the unacceptability of thesituation in Guantanamo, will demonstrate to his counterparts that hehas no illusions in the given question as well.

Do you think it will take long time until Russia will become a full democracy?

As I understand it, a democratic country – this is a country withwell-formed institutions. Including institutions such as elections,courts, civil society, etc. Independent and fully functioning. Ibelieve that if we do not collapse into yet another authoritarianstagnation, then in the next 8 years we may be able to build suchinstitutions, and, in one or two years it will be clear what directionwe are heading in.

Do you admit any mistakes in your life before detention? If yes,which? Do you think the economic power you reached was harmful for you?Why where you considered so “annoying”?

I have made quite a few mistakes. The main one – I consider – is thefact that I spent 10 years building Russian industry, when what neededto be built was democracy. The main annoyance to the power was causedby the existence of an independent centre of support for theopposition. This turned out to be completely unacceptable for them.

What kind of relations did you have with politics before the detention?

I have always supported the opposition. And during the time of Yeltsintoo. He knew this. I have a deep internal conviction that aninfluential, independent opposition is indispensable for Russia. But itis extremely dangerous for a corrupt bureaucracy.

Regarding the allegations against you do you have any idea why theywere made? Who else benefits from you detention other than Putin?

There is no doubt that besides the political interest in underminingthe opposition on the threshold of the 2003 parliamentary elections,there were also the commercial interests of a series of persons. Withtime, these have moved to the forefront. Now it is already they who arepersonally dictating the power’s line of behaviour in this case,contrary to the real needs of the country.

Will your eventual release have a negative impact on the image ofthe establishment? Why does this not happen and you are under newallegations that keep you in prison?

Quite considerable sums changed ownership with a complete lack oftransparency in the course of the rout of the company (we are talkingabout approximately three milliards dollars). Now these “owners” arevery worried and are determined to indemnify themselves, hiding behindthe cover of the “political” interests of the country.

What kind of books do you read in jail? Do you watch television?What programs? Do you have any idea of how the world has changed inthese years?

Today’s Russian jail – this, of course, is not the GULAG, although manyhabits and traditions have remained. With books, newspapers, magazinesthey practically do not restrict me. I subscribe and read much. Ofcourse, the categorical prohibition on the internet narrows theinformational horizon. The state television channels give a verypeculiar view of the world. But in general, given certain skills, whichevery intellectual living in the USSR has, one can work. Which I do. Ieven sometimes get published. True, then, it happens, they throw meinto the penalty isolator. All in all, GULAG-light.

When you are released, will you fight for changing the situations inthe Russian prisons? How do they look like? May you please describeyour relations with the other prisoners?

I truly think that my obligation is to help to protect the rights ofthose who are subjected to criminal prosecution. In this regard, Isupport the steps to conduct the legal reform which have been declaredat the highest level of the Russian leadership. Today in Russia,besides several hundred political prisoners, a huge quantity of peoplehave found themselves in jails during the grabbing of their property byraiders making use of corrupt courts and law-enforcement organs.

Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people out of almost a millionRussian prisoners have become victims of a dependent justice, thepursuit of rank, positions, material incentives by policemen,procurators, judges. Try to appreciate this: tens of thousands ofdestinies broken every year.

It is enough to say that relatively independent jury trials in Russiaacquit every fourth person, while so-called “professional” judgesacquit only one in three hundred. And yet it is they who have amonopoly on hearing 99% of cases, which are frequently determined bycorruptional or pseudo-political interests.

Would you like to say anything to those that are following your case even from abroad?

First, I want to thank them for their support. Plain and simple, ithelps both me and my colleagues to survive. Second, and most important,- Russia – is a part of Europe politico-geographically (80% of Russianslive in Europe) and culturo-historically (merely recall the history ofthe House of the Romanovs). A single understanding of common Europeanvalues, democratic institutions, including an independent judiciary, -is the best guarantee of trust in Europe. It is trust that gives birthto security, including energy security.

I am convinced that talk about the YUKOS affair – is not only a”humanitarian” topic. This is also a question of trusting Russianinstitutions of power.

How do you imagine your life out of jail? Do you have any projects in your mind that help you get over these moments?

Much has changed in the years that have gone by, my children have grownup, my parents have aged. I have many moral debts to repay. But how?For now, I don’t know. Life will suggest something.