Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “Family — The Most Important Thing a Person Has”

July 1, 2013

An interview with Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Part 3 (Part 1, Part 2)

On 26 June, Mikhail Khodorkovsky — at one time Russia’s richest man, now one of the most famous prisoners in the world — turns 50. He has spent most of the last ten years in jail. During these years, while his children are growing up and his parents are growing old, he lost his YUKOS oil company, which he had created, along with his wealth. The State thought that Khodorkovsky would be forgotten — the way many others have been forgotten, especially those who were more motivated by profit than reputation.

Khodorkovsky has been subjected to humiliation, jeering, antagonism, and condemnation: along the lines: “It serves him right”. He bore it all. He thought. He wrote. He did a lot of rethinking. And public opinion turned around. MBK, as he is usually referred to, has become a moral authority for many. And not just because prisoners are traditionally pitied in Russia — he proved that he could not be brought to his knees. His choice — either stand tall, or die. From the camp, IK-7, in Segezha (Karelia), Mikhail Khodorkovsky answered some questions put to him by ‘The New Times’ magazine.

“My first spouse— she and I went through our student years together and broke up but stayed on good terms”. Elena Khodorkovskaya and son Pavel at a protest rally in support of Khodorkovsky in New York, December 2010


Is there something you want very badly that you can’t have in prison – such as to swim in the ocean , or fry some potatoes, or take a walk in the forest?

Yes. A shot of ice-cold vodka.

But I would like to speak of something else, since we are now “summing up”.

As a child, I went to an ordinary school in Moscow on Cosmonauts’ Street, right next to the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy. This was a long time ago, more than 30 years ago.

Some of my teachers and classmates back then are no longer alive, but my class teacher — Yekaterina Vasilievna Meleshina, (despite her own difficult life) — does write, and passes on greetings from my other school teachers; she’s concerned and gives me her support. For me she is a great value.

My classmates held a group 50th birthday celebration in April, and they sent me photographs, greetings, and warm wishes. All these ten years I feel their support and involved friendship. Twenty friends from my youth — my wealth.

My University group was made up of people from all over the USSR, and on graduation, the engineers went off all over the world, as did some of our professors. We rarely met after graduation, but to this day (and nearly 30 years have passed already) I get letters in which they tell me that they’re following my fate and offer their help. Sometimes this offer of help turns out to be significant.

Recently, a letter made its way to me from someone who was fulfilling a promise he’d made to my University tutor Sara Yakovlevna Chernomorskaya. She died in Haifa several years ago, but before her death she had asked him to pass on her words of support to me. Is there anything that can compare with something like this?

How can I express the feelings that well up in me when I get letters from people in Angarsk, Tomsk, Strezhevoy, Novokuibyshevsk, and other places or from former YUKOS employees and residents of the cities where I’d had occasion to work at some point in my life?

Ten years have passed, after all, and indeed the years before that weren’t all that easy either. But people remember the good and they write, although I’m afraid this is not without danger for some. I thank them all.

Recently, some former YUKOS employees celebrated the company’s 20th anniversary. They sent me words of congratulation and photographs. Around 200 people got together. Of course, I don’t remember all of them, but they are all dear to me, as are those who couldn’t come, because they have been forced to flee Russia or are now in jail. A part of my heart is with them.

When I was at liberty, a multitude of good people, as I later understood, simply avoided me for a variety of reasons: they didn’t want to “impose”, or they regarded me as “nouveau-riche” with everything that goes with that. And as for me, I didn’t have any leisure time at all — work took up all my time.

Only at the beginning of this century did the understanding come to me that something had to be changed. I began working with Ira Yasina, Victor and Yulya Muchnik, Elena Nemirovskaya and Anatoly Yermolin, the late Yuri Belyavsky, and many others. Many years have passed since then. They themselves don’t have an easy time in today’s climate, which makes their unfailing support for me all the more important to me. I thank them all.

Thank you to the wonderful people whom I didn’t know personally before or whom I knew only very little: Ludmilla Alexeeva, Grigory Chkhartishvili, Igor Guberman, Fr. Alexei Uminsky, Nataliya Fateeva, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Liya Akhedzhakova, Yuri Shevchuk, Eldar Ryazanov, Sergei Yursky, and many, many others. We have got closer in these years. Their involvement is a great help to me and my family.

I cherish the memory of Yuri Markovich Schmidt and Vasily Alexanyan — lawyers who did their duty as true human beings to the very end. Their images are etched in my soul, they are now a part of it.

I would like to name many, many more besides, but I’m compelled to take reality into account.

And for the end, I want to say a few words about my family.

Family — the most important thing that a person has. Here, in jail, there are many lonely people with bitter, orphaned lives. Looking at them, I sometimes feel guilty about my wealth. After all, friends and family are true treasures. It’s unfortunate that in all the hustle and bustle of living we understand their real significance later than we ought.

In this particular lottery of life, I’ve won the jackpot.

My father and mother are alive. Being 50 year old now I’ve become a little bit smarter, and I can tell them how much I love them, although sentimentality isn’t customary in my family.

Marina Filippovna and Boris Moiseyevich Khodorkovsky in the editorial offices of ‘The New Times’

I’ve got a son who is grown up, an entrepreneur and a fighter. I’m proud of him and afraid for him. Also his lovely wife and wonderful Dianka, my granddaughter, a precious creature just three years old whom I have only seen in photographs and heard her charming “g’ampa!” over the phone.

My first spouse — she and I went through our student years together and broke up but stayed on good terms. She’s been writing to me all these years and remains someone I regard as a close friend.

My pretty daughter — a student, also grown up — looks a lot like her mother. I have two teenage sons, a bit on the shy side for now, but already demonstrating our family’s caustic intellect. They and I have been apart since they were small children and this is truly a great tragedy, although it is a pretty ordinary occurrence in our country. I love them very much, and I hope that we will someday say this to each other.

“Wonderful Dianka, my granddaughter, a precious creature just three years old whom I have only seen in photographs”
“Two teenage sons, a bit on the shy side for now (...) They and I have been apart since they were small children and this is truly a great tragedy”

And my wife who is waiting for me as well. We’ve already been together for more than half of our lives (…), in which all sorts of things have happened — both joys and misery, just like everybody else. It seems to me that I wouldn’t be able to live without her — she is half of my heart. My family is my main value, and we are together, despite the years, the kilometers, and the barbed wire.

Inna Khodorkovskaya and daughter Anastasia on the evening of 30 December 2010 outside the Khamovnichesky Court: half an hour earlier, they had learned that the head of the family would have to remain in jail for many more years

Today, when I turn 50, I want to take a deep bow to all my treasures.

As long as they are with me, there is no reason to feel sorry for me.

Photographs: Vasily Popov/’The New Times’, AP Photo, Olga Glolvanova/khodorkovsky22.ru

Yevgenia Albats, The New Times, 26.06.2013