Mikhail Khodorkovsky: The Only Bargaining Chip A Political Prisoner Has Is His Life

February 14, 2018

They don’t give a damn about you if you’re behind bars. If you have no substantial support outside prison to which the authorities will react, then you don’t have a single tool of pressure. You can simply disappear and die.

Everyday convicts can buy off the administration, but this rule does not extended to political prisoners in Russia. The only currency a political prisoner has is his life. If they are ready to place a bet with their own life, they can win. This is only possible if support is maintained outside of prison, if the authorities know that the death of a prisoner will have costly consequences.

The prison administration will report upwards, and if a prisoner’s life comes into question, the person who put him there will make the final decision.  It’s vital to recognise that if you bluff once, the game is up.  If this is the case, you have lost forever.  Every time you go on a hunger strike or slash your veins, you must be prepared to die.

This cannot be done without a cool head. When in prison, I went on four hunger strikes, twice refusing dry food and twice normal meals. I won every time because I identified which demands to make, who would support me, on which terms I could make a decision, who would accept it and to what extent my death would be unprofitable. If I had miscalculated just once, I would most likely have died. A life without such a bargaining chip is no life at all.

The first time I went on hunger strike was when Platon Lebedev was put into solitary confinement. It was a dry strike which lasted for six days. Nobody believed that I would last so long. He was released on the sixth day because they didn’t need two corpses on their hands.

Then came my second hunger strike, refusing normal meals. In the colony I was shut in a so-called ‘safe space’ – a solitary cell – and realised that it was simply impossible to survive in such conditions. I had to solve the problem while I still had the strength. I did not demand to be released, instead asking them to recognise that I was being kept there on their decision and against my will. This meant that they could hold me there for 30 days.

You know my biography and can see that I am quite a pragmatic person. But in prison, God hears you. He really listens. I don’t know if you can convince someone who thinks differently, but it’s true.

It helps you to stake your own life without fear.  You recognise that you must act because it is necessary, not because you want to receive some amenities. You talk to yourself, and that’s when He listens. When you understand that He has heard and agrees, the fear melts away.

There are two options: you can live in prison and tell yourself: “I live in prison, so the world outside doesn’t exist.” It’s easier to live that way, but makes adapting to normal life again practically impossible. The second option is to tell yourself: “I do not live in prison. I am situated here, but I live freely. I know the prison slang, but I myself won’t use it. I’m interested in the world beyond these walls, not in prison issues.” It’s harder to get by that way, but it makes it simpler to adapt.

A final option is to consider whether or not you will be there forever. For my own peace of mind, I told myself that I would be in prison forever after I heard that they were preparing a second case in 2006. I assumed that my whole life would pass behind bars. Some people’s lives will pass in a wheelchair, while others will find themselves in worse situations than I.  I refused to believe that I would walk free until the very last moment, until the moment that I walked out of those gates. A breakdown of hope is extremely unpleasant, so it’s better not to have any at all.

My struggle played out in words, and words can only be written. I generally hate writing. I never wrote essays myself in school. My best friends helped me, and I forced myself to do it nonetheless.

I wrote every article, column and book with a specific, pragmatic aim. I wrote an autobiography because I thought that I would never leave and didn’t know what they were telling my children about me.  I wanted there to be something said by me. I wrote columns because I needed to earn money in prison.  It happens that you can keep money if you earn it, and are unable to transfer it if you don’t.  Secondly, I realised at some point that these columns could help my fellow prisoners, about whom I was writing.

You can always rely on people. As in the outside world, prison is full of more good people than bad.

It would be difficult without the mutual assistance of other prisoners. I was able to help with columns and lawyers. And they helped me in return.

During my first hunger strike, there were 13 people being held in my cell. Operatives demanded that my cellmates sign a statement denying a dry hunger strike. Imagine 13 of the prison’s usual criminal population and the operatives on whom much depended. Not one of them signed it.

Segezha’s Daily Routine

You get up early and have ten minutes to remake your bunk and get dressed, and five to ten minutes to wash. Not shaving is a problem, and so is shaving. There is a lengthy queue for the washbasins. Then you have a ridiculously embarrassing event called ‘loading’, where people are driven onto the street in frost or any other weather to wave their hands. Breakfast comes next. People head to work after breakfast, where searches are conducted in the cold. Work and lunch, building, another search, lunch, building, work, another search, work, building, dinner, back to the barracks followed by an hour of free time. It’s a heavy schedule.

It’s all very similar to the army. But everyone in the army is approximately of the same age and health. People with an array of diseases, aged between 18 and 80, are held in prison. Nowadays, a prisoner can get up and calmly get through the day before falling ill the next. But this doesn’t interest anyone. Our prisoners are fed on one dollar a day, while the whole Federal Penitentiary Service cashes in on this dollar however it can.

When I went to prison in 2003, there were still hungry colonies. People would arrive at the pre-trial detention centre and ask for any leftover gruel.

If someone is in a small cell, it’s vital to do sports every day. Otherwise it’s easy not to notice the process of muscular atrophy.  I saw people who brought their belongings into their cell by themselves.  When they left prison, however, they were too weak to carry them out. It was still extremely important to catch some sun then in Russia. If a thin ray of sunlight, unfiltered by glass, appeared anywhere, you would immediately climb up to stand under it.

I had a situation when this did not happen for a long time, resulting in a severe boil that eventually had to be cut out. Wild things happened that it’s better not to talk about. In Turkey, for example, prisoners won’t have to deal with such problems.

Letters are very important as you’ve got to converse about some things.  It’s important for a person to understand that nobody has forgotten about them, that no-one believes him to be a bastard and a scumbag.

I did not have the feeling that I would have a problem with re-adapting after my release. I went into prison and left, I threw away ten years as if they never existed.  Whenever someone asks me to write a book on the subject, I say: “don’t bother”.  They simply erased this time. It did not happen.  And I continued to walk further down the path of life.


This article first appeared in Die Welt in German and has been slightly abridged in translation.