He Gambled His Life: An Open Russian, Part I

July 16, 2019


A visit with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, ex-oligarch and ex–political prisoner

Editors Note: The article is the first in a two-part series. You can find part two here. Please note, this article was first published on the National Review website.

I can’t help noticing that security around Mikhail Khodorkovsky seems very light. I tell him I have known people in the crosshairs (including Russians): Some are fatalistic about their security, others are vigilant. Where does he fall on that spectrum? On the fatalistic end, he says. If a decision to kill him is made in the Kremlin itself, there is very little he can do to defend himself.

But there is this consolation, he says, with a smile: “I know how unprofessional everybody in Russia is.” By tradition, every Russian seems to be an expert in everything, Khodorkovsky continues. “You would never hear a Russian say, ‘Oh, I’m not an expert in this field, so I cannot answer your question.’”

If a team of assassins came to get him? “With some basic security measures in place, and a bit of luck, I could make their lives difficult.”

Mikhail Khodorkovsky has a sang-froid, and a dark sense of humor, not unknown to Russians . . .

He is a human-rights leader these days, but he still has the air of a business titan, an air of command. This is accompanied by a certain restlessness. At the same time, he is thoughtful — so much so, in fact, that he will think for a long time before answering a question. He does not fill the air with words as he’s gathering his thoughts, as so many of the rest of us do.

In 2009, when Khodorkovsky was a political prisoner — the most prominent in Russia — Arvo Pärt, the great Estonian composer, dedicated a symphony to him. Pärt made some remarks, explaining the dedication. He began, “It would seem to me that the person of Mikhail Khodorkovsky needs no introduction.” Yet it does, certainly at this remove, and I will provide the briefest of biographical sketches.

Khodorkovsky was born in 1963 to parents who were engineers in a factory. His dad was Jewish, his mother Christian. The family lived in Moscow. From childhood, the future titan had a nose and desire for business. Paradoxically, perhaps, he was a fervent Communist. In college, he was an officer in the Komsomol, the Party’s youth league.

Sitting with him in London, I ask, “Did you think that Communism was forever?” “Of course,” he answers. And yet: “We did not think that Communism had really and truly arrived.” He recalls a slogan, which he saw on a pavilion at an exhibition in Moscow — the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy. The slogan came from Khrushchev, uttered at the 22nd Congress in 1961. But his name was nowhere to be seen now. The slogan read, “The Party solemnly promises that this generation of the Soviet people will live under Communism.”

Like a great many, Khodorkovsky turned against this ideology, the ideology that was long a state religion.

Yet, when he speaks of Communism, he does not speak in totally denunciatory tones. Another slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” is a powerful concept, one that human beings keep wrestling with and trying to realize, in their various ways.

When Gorbachev took power in 1985, he loosened things, and Khodorkovsky, barely into his 20s, began his businesses: first a café, then an import-export business, and so on. I ask, “Do you think you were born with a business gene, the way some people are born for music, science, or sports?” He thinks for a while. “I’m not sure,” he says. “I don’t know.” He continues, “My talent in business was not innovation — there were other people who were always coming up with new ideas. But I was always able to know which of these would be successful. Also, I was not averse to risk.”

One more thing: “Organizationally, I was very successful, but that’s the result of training.”

(I might mention, at this point, that Khodorkovsky understands a lot of English, but prefers to speak Russian in interviews. As his interviewer — me — does not speak Russian, he, and I, are using a translator.)

In 1989, Khodorkovsky and partners founded Menatep, one of the first private banks in Russia. During the Wild ’90s, Menatep acquired the controlling interest in Yukos, an oil company. The company was a rarity in Russia, business writers say, in that it operated in accordance with Western practices, or perhaps I should say “Western”: transparency, honest bookkeeping, etc. In time, Khodorkovsky became the richest man in Russia, by some estimations — worth about $15 billion.

The boss, Vladimir Putin, had a rule: Do what you want on the playgrounds of business, but stay well clear of politics. (By the way, Putin would far surpass Khodorkovsky, and possibly everyone else in the world, in billions.)

Khodorkovsky flouted the rule, repeatedly. In 2001 — a year into Putin’s reign — he founded Open Russia, whose mission was to foster democratic values. It was based in London, and among its trustees was Henry Kissinger. Khodorkovsky fingered the Kremlin for corruption. He funded independent media. He funded opposition parties. He was even talked about as a presidential challenger to Putin.

By October 2003, the boss had had enough: Khodorkovsky was arrested, by a small army, some of them masked, at the airport in Novosibirsk. He would not be out of prisons and prison camps for a decade.

In 2013, on the eve of his 50th birthday, when he was still a prisoner, he was interviewed by Yevgenia Albats of The New Times, a Russian magazine. She asked him a hypothetical question. It went, roughly, Knowing what you know now — knowing what would happen to you, over the course of the next ten years — what would you have done in Novosibirsk, before the arrest? “I’m afraid I would have shot myself,” answered Khodorkovsky. “My current experience would have been a shock for the me I was back then.”

He was tried for tax evasion and sentenced to nine years. Then he was tried again, for embezzlement, and was sentenced to another thirteen and a half (later reduced to twelve). Putin was making an example of Khodorkovsky. The message to other oligarchs was: Politics is mine. They got the message.

At the culmination of his second trial, Khodorkovsky said that he and other Russians looked forward to living, one day, in “a land of freedom and law,” where “human rights will no longer be contingent on the whim of the czar, whether he be kind or mean.”

This entire statement is worth reading — is amazing to read, actually. Find it here, in a translation from Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty.

I ask Khodorkovsky, “Was everything done on Putin’s say-so?” Did he direct the entire farce? The answer, in short, is that he did not specify every move — but did he direct the overall farce? Sure.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was an unexpected thing: the oligarch as political prisoner and human-rights symbol. Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience (in other words, someone imprisoned for his views, not for an actual crime). Elie Wiesel and Yelena Bonner, among others, campaigned for his release. Arvo Pärt dedicated that symphony to him, saying the following:

It would seem to me that the person of Mikhail Khodorkovsky needs no introduction. His name, and the story connected with it, have received widespread attention in the West. With my composition, I would like to reach out my hand to the prisoner, and, through him, to all those imprisoned without rights in Russia. I dedicate my Fourth Symphony to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, wishing him peace of soul and vigilance of mind; anything more is beyond my power. I do not know whether he will ever be able to hear this composition. Nevertheless, I hope that my carrier pigeon does reach faraway Siberia one day.

If you yourself would like to hear the symphony, go here.

When in prison, Khodorkovsky wrote sketches of people around him, later published in a book called “My Fellow Prisoners.” The sketches are startling and moving. When the book was published, the author wrote a foreword, beginning, “There were many times in prison, and later in the camp, and then again in prison, and then again in the camp, when I really wanted to listen to a live performance of classical music.”

Four times, Khodorkovsky went on hunger strike — in order to secure better treatment for his fellow (and less famous) prisoners. One of these was Vasily Alexanian, another former executive at Yukos, who was dying of AIDS. The authorities were brutalizing him.

“In a Russian prison,” Khodorkovsky tells me, “the only way you’ll get anywhere is if you’re ready to gamble your life. If you’re not ready to gamble your life, you will never get anywhere. You should be prepared to say, ‘Do this or I’m ready to die.’ And you must be ready to die, if you want them to do it. If they don’t do it and you don’t die? Then you’ve lost all your weaponry — your whole arsenal. I gambled my life four times like that in prison and won each time.”

I have interviewed a fair number of ex–political prisoners (and other prisoners). I have learned to ask, “How did you keep your sanity?” When I put the question to Khodorkovsky, he thinks a long, long time before speaking.

Finally, he says, “I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth.” He had become a multi-billionaire, yes — probably the richest man in Russia — but he had not always lived in comfort. He remarks that his room at home, when he was growing up, was not much bigger than his prison cell. True, “the food in prison wasn’t as good as my mom’s — but she cooked only a couple of times a week, and the rest of the time I ate school dinners, and school dinners, believe me, were not much better than prison food.”

His main problem, he says, was not knowing when he would be released or whether he would be released, ever. “You feel kind of like the living dead. As though you’ve been buried alive. And that is the hardest thing.”

“What keeps you sane is letters, from various people, and visits from your family. The very fact that people haven’t forgotten you is important. Because this is what they try to create [the authorities do], the impression that the whole world has forgotten you and nobody needs you anymore.

“So when people ask me, ‘How can I help an inmate?,’ I say, ‘Write letters. That is the least you can do.’ Psychologically, letters are very important.”

At the end of 2013, with the Winter Olympics in Sochi coming up shortly, Vladimir Putin issued pardons for several high-profile political prisoners. One of them was Khodorkovsky, who immediately went into exile in the West.