In late November the Russian newswire Lenta.ru created a web platform for readers to address questions to Mikhail Khodorkovsky regarding his book, “Prison and Freedom”, co-written with Natalia Gevorkyan. Mikhail has accompanied his answers with a letter in which he described the book as, “purely subjective, biased, but true”. He received over 130 questions. The English translation of the first ten together with the answers can be found below.
My and Natalia Gevorkyan’s book is about the events of the past 25 years, about YUKOS, about people who became famous because of the YUKOS affair, and about the future of the country.
My view on all this is highly subjective and biased, but truthful. That is, this is the truth as I saw it at the moment of the writing of the book. A book that I wrote instead of stories to my grown-up children about how it was.
Natalia Gevorkyan’s huge contribution consists of not only supplementing my story with the stories of other dramatis personae. What she was able to do – convince me of the need to put the story down on paper – is nothing short of a miracle. It was Natalia who directed the process with her professional questions, not letting it come to a stop.
I would like to thank everybody who has read what has been written, especially those for whom the main goal was to understand. It is precisely for this reason, and understanding the shortcomings of my work, that I proposed conducting this meeting several months after the book came out.
My aim is to answer the questions of the interested reader, who truly aspires to figure out something important for himself.
I would like to underscore one more time: I am not a professional writer; therefore I do not lay claim to perfection of style and do not comment on assessments of it. I ask you likewise to treat with understanding the fact that I will leave without a response questions that could cause harm to people in the course of endless persecutions, and will not reveal (I shall not be the first, at any rate) the content of confidential talks, even with my opponents. By the way, there are not all that many such as these at all.
I shall be delighted to freely discuss everything else with those who are interested in my opinion.
With deep respect,
Nikolai [22.11 22:22]
Good time of day, Mikhail Borisovich.
I do not doubt that at the beginning of Putin’s rule there was a multitude of influential people who were aware of what all this could turn into, of what situation the country would come to by moving in the direction set by the new president in the beginning of the 2000s. Why weren’t any effective attempts whatsoever undertaken that would hinder the development of an authoritarian regime and the paralysis of civil society in Russia? Why was there no more [or] less palpable struggle with the still nascent autocracy. If there was one after all, then why did it suffer a lack of success?
Thank you in advance for the response.
Nothing has changed. Everything was as it is now. Some were scared, some found it to their advantage, some didn’t care. Some decided to actively object and ended up in jail or in emigration.
Dmitry [23.11 00:39]
Mikhail Borisovich, hello!
I’ve just finished reading Prison and Freedom. The book grabbed me – it turned out to be both entertaining and, what is more important, interesting, forcing me to ponder upon what had been read many a time. I felt your words about simulacra instead of real large-scale national projects to be mercilessly truthful – and in connection with this a question: tell us, what, in your view, can a healthy educated young person who does not believe Russian policy and politicians do in modern-day Russia for his Motherland? I’ve been in the army, I’ve created a family and am bringing up children, a couple of times, while indignation at the sordid elections was boiling, I went down to rallies – I was disenchanted: lots of noise, but was there a point? – barely. I feel that time is passing and the flowering of strength is not eternal, while in the country there is deathly leaden “stability”. What, to your view, can every one of us in his place do today for his Motherland?
May God be your succour, Mikhail Borisovich, hang in there. Thank you and Natalia Gevorkyan for the book, and “Lenta.ru” for the opportunity to pose a question to you.
Thank you, Dmitry. A change of the regime in the next twenty years is an inevitability. Perhaps this will take place much sooner. What is important is not to allow either a new cycle of authoritarian stagnation or revolutionary breakdown. For this one needs to learn how to manage, acquire political experience and authority, working in political, civic, or state organizations, defending the rights of people in that measure in which this is still possible, and supporting the struggle for changes. Then the changes will be for the better.
Vladimir Sergeyevich [25.11 13:40]
Hello, dear Mikhail Borisovich!
How does it seem to you, why is it that notwithstanding the law, good sense, and huge reputational losses, the Putin power continues to keep you in captivity? What is the power afraid of?
With hope for your swift release,
The Demchenko family.
city of Kazan.
Thank you. Over there they’ve apparently got their own understanding of good sense, reputation, and what needs to be feared. I am in agreement with you that it is erroneous.
Ilya [25.11 11:42]
The book given as a gift by Ostap Bender to the underground millionaire Koreyko began with the words: “All large modern-day fortunes were amassed through the most dishonest means”. In this connection a question: are you not in agreement with the classification or the amount of the punishment for the act imputed to you, or is it that you consider in principle that over your career as a businessman you did not commit anything of the sort for which you ought to be punished?
Without a doubt, each of us has done something for which he could be punished. Only infants are without guilt. But for sins we answer before conscience (believers – before God as well), while a court has the right to chastise any person only for proven guilt of a concrete crime, prescribed by the law. This is not there in my [criminal] case.
Alexandr [23.11 09:57]
It is not a secret that a certain part of Russians considers that there nevertheless were grounds for your detention. Tell us please, has such a lengthy detention pushed you towards a reassessment of your life path? Has regret relative to certain actions appeared?..
Would you risk jumping anew into the abyss of the notorious 90s – were there an opportunity to go into this river a second time?
Without a doubt, “yes” to all three questions. Only this bears no relation whatsoever to our courts.
Sergey [22.11 18:10]
A couple of questions so’s to defuse the political topic a bit:
1. What’s the last book you’ve read?
2. What can you call, at the given moment, the highest value in life for yourself?
The highest value – human dignity.
Igor [22.11 17:52]
Good day Mikhail Borisovich. I recall at the very beginning of your term, you were writing your vision… just about a repentance and prognostications into the future in letters in Vedomosti. You know what, the present turned out to be not quite like that. More horrible. So what happened, then?
Our tradition – to cleanse the soul through repentance before mortal combat, to ask forgiveness from God and people. For me too this turned out to be important.
Abushaid [22.11 20:44]
Having read your book, I really liked yr [sic] objective opinion, with respect to how you’re a team player whose team lost. How would you have acted, in the place of V.V Putin in relation to a person threatening his regime? After a lapse of many years, what kind of objectives and tasks in life do you have? What worries you more revenge or never the less [sic] the future of the state
I would probably be able to conduct myself less emotionally, in order to deal with the challenge at less cost. Revenge as such is not pragmatic. I love my country.
Yuri Semenovich [22.11 22:17]
Esteemed Mikhail Borisovich yet another question.
I read your correspondence with the just recently departed B. Strugatsky with great interest. Especially important was the reflection on freedom and limitations. As it seemed to me, Boris Natanovich was lacking one thing – a faith in a Higher sense and the spiritual component of man. And from this his pessimism. True from your book I understood that you are not an atheist.
A question. Do you rely in trials and tribulations only on yourself or do you feel an internal prop and support?
Apologies if you consider the question not quite proper.
Yuri Semenovich [22.11 21:57]
Dear Mikhail Borisovich.
Many are using the expression civil society [literally “citizen society” in Russian—Trans.] in recent times. And I think that it has its own meaning for everyone. For me a citizen is one who feels his involvement (communion) in the Life of his country and kin-group (or people) [the author makes clever use of the fact that the word for “a people” in Russian is the word for “kin-group” with a prefix—Trans.]. Moreover not only with the mind, but also with the heart, which hurts for the weak, the robbed and the abject, and with action -acts of protest. These are those for whom it does make a difference- what will his kin-group/motherland [once again the author engages in an untranslatable play on words: the first syllable of “Motherland” is the word for “kin-group”—Trans.] be like in the future. And will it be a Motherland for his children and grandchildren.
Now it seems that this future does not exist. In order to raise the country up from this depravity, disintegration and decay (at all social levels), a leader is needed and confederates worthy of him. Not simply a charismatic with the right ideas and slogans, but one Who has been through the desert and the trials and tribulations in it.
Only the existence of such leaders gives hope for rebirth.
A question. Has Russia prepared such leaders?
Moreover, as a deeply believing (but not religious person), I think that trials for endurance for them these are an unavoidable initiatory providence [sic].
Do you believe in providence, design and chosenness (in the good sense) for Ministry?
And a last personal thing. When that [sic] in the first years I wrote you a letter and got a little sheet with gratitude and an apology that you can’t write. Then I shared my thoughts thru the website’s el. address. In the book I read that it’s hard for you without a computer. I don’t claim to have the answers, but I would like to understand whether letters get through thru e-mail? And likewise words of support of the forum and the website. Is there time to read mail? And the last from the ranks of mysticism. There’s not long left. No more than a year. Do you believe in miracles? An example of which may be the collapse of the USSR. Too bad.
I am hoping to hear much behind the words.
A deep bow to You. Thank You for Hope. We await You.
I am grateful to everyone who writes to me, and apologize for the infrequent replies – there is not that much free time here. I get electronic letters after they are printed out and sent by mail.
I deeply believe that at the foundation of each person is good. Sometimes it is hard to “knock your way in” to it. Often stupidity, laziness, cowardice, ambitions, or greed get in the way of our acting the way we should. But in our soul we know precisely when [we’ve acted] “in conscience” and when against it. This is that same spiritual prop that we need to seek in ourselves and in others. I personally try.
Kirill [22.11 23:02]
Esteemed Mister Khodorkovsky,
in the autumn of the year 2008 in Kiev one good acquaintance of mine, having a direct relation to the oil-and-gas sector, recounted to me that on the day of your arrest in Novosibirsk you were supposed to be flying to Eton (if I remembered the city correctly), where you were supposed to have a meeting with 12 representatives of the oil-and-gas sector from a series of countries (two from Ukraine, including my acquaintance). During the meeting, the topic of selling a large part of YUKOS to foreign investors was supposed to have been touched upon, something the Kremlin could not allow. Could you comment on this information?
I was flying from Nizhny Novgorod to Irkutsk with a refuelling stop in Novosibirsk. In Irkutsk, a school for public policy was taking place, that is a meeting with young politicians and community volunteers. Why in Irkutsk? We (YUKOS) were working there – we were developing Eastern Siberia, reconstructing the Angarsk [petrochemical] combine.