Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “I find it easier to live by the principle ‘don’t believe, don’t be afraid, don’t ask’”

February 6, 2014

The English translation of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s interview with  journalist Alexandre Minkine can be read below. The interview is available in the French newspaper Le Monde, in the Swiss publications Le Matin Dimanche and Sonntagszeitung, and in the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets.


Khodorkovsky is in Zurich.  We are speaking with him not about politics.  He has already said everything he could, and wanted, to say about this subject at the very first press conference.  There is no point in rehashing it here, and it is clear that he does not want to and cannot say any more.

But there is a much more grandiose topic.  Prison.

Once upon a time he was Oligarch Number One, Russia’s richest person.  But for the past 10 years and 3 months he was a zek [slang for prisoner—Trans.].  A very special zek.  Zek Number One.

Alexandre MINKINE:  They’ve released Lebedev.  What do you say to that?

Mikhail KHODORKOVSKY:  I’m glad that Platon Leonidovich is at liberty.

AM:  I thought you’d be in there forever.  For life.

MK:  I thought so too.  It’s better not to indulge a vain hope.  Because it’s hard afterwards if you do but then it doesn’t turn out that way.  Of course, every person’s psychology is different.  I find it easier to live by the principle “don’t believe, don’t be afraid, don’t ask”.  So if they hadn’t proposed that I write [a request for pardon—Trans.], I wouldn’t have written.

AM:  Who proposed it?

MK:  Genscher.

AM:  But he didn’t ask in person?

MK:  No.  Some of the lawyers brought …

AM:  Did the lawyer realize that this was coming through Genscher, or did he think that this was Genscher’s own initiative?

MK:  I don’t know what the lawyer realized.  I knew that the offer was coming from Putin.

AM:  Is this something you actually knew, or just assumed?

MK:  Of course I knew.

AM:  You knew formally?

MK:  I knew, I heard, I read — let’s not discuss all the mechanics of it now.

AM:  Why did he let you go?

MK:  That’s what I’m asking everybody too.

AM:  Because of the Olympiad?

MK:  No.  My explanation is somewhat more conspiracy-oriented.  I reckon that a certain part of the Putin entourage had started getting a bit too independent, in Putin’s opinion.  And he wanted to bring them back into line.  In my view, he had exactly two options to achieve this:  he could either give Serdyukov 10 years, or he could release me.  Either one would have had more or less the same effect.

AM:  Your release had the effect of an atomic bomb.  But locking Serdyukov up — well okay, so they lock him up, big deal, nothing all that stupendous here.

MK:  But we’re not talking about society’s reaction here, are we?  We’re talking about very specific individuals who would be shown that they’re not capable of influencing all of the president’s decisions.  This is very significant for them.  And from what I know, there were some who only found out about the president’s decision from the media.

AM:  This was yet another blow for them.

MK:  Yes.  I’m convinced that Putin did it intentionally, and specifically to do with internal considerations.  And if external considerations even worried him at all, they were decidedly secondary.

AM:  And there weren’t any leaks.  Not in the slightest.  This means that practically no one knew.

MK:  That’s right.

AM:  He took the decision alone.

MK:  That’s right.

AM:  Just him and no one else.

MK:  Yes.  And the way I understand it, that’s the whole point of the lesson for that audience:  there are some decisions that he takes by himself.  I’m not sure that this is good in principle for the country.  But if you’ve gone ahead and built an autocracy, then you should act accordingly.

AM:  And now, inasmuch as we’re having a humanitarian conversation, not about politics, so after you finish your soup… (The conversation was taking place in a restaurant, and the waitress had brought Khodorkovsky fish soup.  Hot.)

MK:  I’m not caught up by this process all that much.  Of course, I am caught up a bit, just not that much.

AM:  So is everything hot there or cold?

MK:  In camp everything’s hot.  Because whether it’s hot or cold, or how well it’s been prepared—this all depends on the prisoners themselves; they’re the ones doing the cooking, after all.  If they’re going to be serving it cold or just really badly made, then… there will be conflict.  But as for what kind of products [they have to work with—Trans.], well, this doesn’t depend on the cook.

AM:  Let’s [talk—Trans.] about the moment that for our purposes we’ll call “the plane”.  About the arrest, about 2003.  You’re sitting in the plane.  Suddenly someone bursts in…

MK:  We were sitting in the plane, in Novosibirsk, waiting to be refuelled.  We wait and we wait.  Then they tell us to go to a far-off parking place.  We look through the porthole—there’s an encircling security cordon standing there.  They weren’t standing very far away, some 50 meters, maybe more.

AM:  For you this was a surprise?

MK:  An expected surprise.  I’d thought they’d wait until I returned to Moscow.  There had already been a summons to the prosecutor’s office.  I’d written to them saying that I would come in as soon as I got back from my business trip.  I was going to Irkutsk, to the School of Public Policy, and then to Evenkiya.  I thought that I’d go to the prosecutor’s office when I came back.  But they decided that it had to be done like this.  This wasn’t an arrest, after all.

AM:  This was an apprehension.

MK:  It wasn’t an apprehension either.  This was delivering a witness.  That’s the way witnesses are delivered in our country, by a special unit of the FSB.  Even though the law says that if a witness is on a business trip they don’t have the right to deliver him.  They’ve got to wait.  And all the more so if the date that the person being summoned is coming back is known.

AM:  What were you thinking when you saw the security cordon?  What did you imagine would happen next?

MK:  When I was coming back to Russia from my last business trip abroad, I was clearly aware that the risk had become great.  And when I went on this business trip throughout the regions of Russia, I already understood that this was probably it.  I wasn’t totally sure, of course; I estimated that I still had some 20 percent of a chance.  It turns out that I didn’t.

AM:  What did you feel when they burst into the plane?

MK:  They didn’t burst in.  They entered calmly and peacefully.

AM:  They weren’t yelling “On the floor, face down!”

MK:  That’s all fairy tales.  What are you talking about?  Everybody knew each other there, after all.  Remember, they specially sent people I knew.  So there wouldn’t be any conflicts.

AM:  You knew them by sight?

MK:  Yes.

AM:  The chief?

MK:  The chief, not the chief, that’s not important.  The ones who walked in, I knew them.

AM:  You were assuming that they were going to take you to Moscow for some kind of a talk?

MK:  Come on, I’m not completely stupid, you know.  If they’ve brought over a special unit of the FSB for me, it’s not just for the fun of it.  Of course there was a chance (the way there always is a chance) that something would still change in Moscow.  But this hope was small.  I’ve already told you, after all, that I don’t like to reassure myself with hope.  That’s why I was thinking through:  what things have I got to do, what things should I say something about, what things should I leave with someone.  I left my wedding ring, my cellphone, and my computer.  They didn’t take anything from me, nobody touched a thing.  I just left everything with my lawyer, no fuss.

AM:  You had a lawyer with you?

MK:  No, he came to the prosecutor’s office in Moscow.  But I’m telling you how I mentally kept in my head what I had to do.  I ran through a simulation of how I’d behave at the interrogation.  I was thinking through how the company was going to be managed.  In general I was engaging in absolutely pragmatic work.

AM:  Nearly five hours of flight time — a valuable moment.

MK:  Yes, this is a precious opportunity that they afforded me.  But do you know that nobody ever seriously interrogated me?  They never searched the house.  When I asked about an additional interrogation, just for laughs (this was in the second case already), they refused:  “Why do we need to know more than necessary”.  There was another amusing story.  I was in Chita, a prosecutorial [worker—Trans.] came to me:  “Look here, a separate investigative mandate has come in”.

AM:  In Chita?  This means you were already serving your first term.

MK:  Yes, but they yanked me out and put me in a SIZO [investigative isolator, a remand prison—Trans.], and there I sat under investigation in the second case.  This is normal.  This is a tradition we’ve got.  They’re always running two-three cases at a time.  First they ram through a simple one — for a not-large term, then they follow it up with a big one, so the person will keep on sitting and sitting [behind bars—Trans.].  I’ve run across this many times.  Anyway, so the investigator came and he says:  “A separate mandate on the question of Severnaya neft.  Are you going to be giving testimony?”  (It was precisely the corrupt purchase-sale of Severnaya neft that Khodorkovsky spoke about at the famous meeting with Putin, arousing the president’s wrath; this was the moment that everything began… — A.M.)  I was surprised.  I’m thinking:  Whoa! What’s gotten into them all of a sudden like that?  Well, if they’re so brave…  After all, I’d told the president about this in my time.  So since I’d told even him, then of course I’ll repeat it.

AM:  Severnaya neft, that’s the one which former deputy minister of finance Vavilov got …

MK:  Yes.  And they say to me:  get ready, there’ll be an interrogation on Monday.  On Monday the prosecutorial [worker—Trans.] comes in with a very surprised look on his face:  “They’ve revoked my mandate.  Thank you, we don’t need anything”.

AM:  Paragraph!  Oh, excuse me, “paragraph” — that’s a journalistic synonym…  By the way, what language did you speak in the zone [prison camp—Trans.]?

MK:  When I was in the first zone,  that was a black zone.  There were no obscenities there whatsoever.

AM:  What does black mean?

MK:  There are three types of zones.  Black, red, and regime.  A normal zone, that’s regime.  Everything there is right by the book, they follow the law to the letter.  In a black one the criminals are in charge.

AM:  Criminals?

MK:  Well, there aren’t all that many criminals [similar to “made men” in the American mafia—Trans.] any more.  Let’s just say certain criminal authorities [a prestigious rank in the Russian criminal hierarchy—Trans.].  In actuality they’re just doing what the administration tells them to.  But the administration sort of hides behind their backs, as it were.  It’s not the PVRs (rules of internal order) that are in operation in a zone like that, but understandings [unwritten code of conduct of the criminal underworld—Trans.].  A red zone is the opposite.  There, the administration uses the zeks to exert influence on the other prisoners.  There aren’t any laws there, [it’s a—Trans.] “police state”, but — by means of the prisoners themselves:  beatings, the whole nine yards.  But it all comes from the administration.  There aren’t any understandings there, it’s just anything-goes lawlessness.  So anyway, in a black one people don’t use obscenities.

AM:  How did you learn all this?  How could you know which zones were black and which ones were red and how you were supposed to behave?

MK:  Russian people already have an understanding of what prison is all about.  I’ve read both Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov.  And before I even got into a zone, I’d already sat through two years in prison while I was under investigation and on trial.

AM:  This means they explained everything in the SIZO?

MK:  Of course.  I didn’t run into anything particularly out of the ordinary, with only one exception.  In the first zone, where they’d placed [transported—Trans.] me after the sentencing, the chief asked:  “So who are you for real?”  [prison jargon, explained below—Trans.] I look at him like a deer in the headlights.  Such a question in an official’s office created cognitive dissonance.  (In contemporary language — “tore up the template”. — A.M.)  I did not expect him to be talking in Fenya [criminals’ cryptic language—Trans.].  I was stopped dead in my tracks.  I say:  “Excuse me?”  He could see the astonished look in my eyes, I was totally flabbergasted.  He says:  “Fine, you can go, we’ll sort it out ourselves”.


AM:  And what are the ways you can respond to this?

MK:  There’s a ton of right answers.  There’s a multitude of so-called “colours”.  The lowest colour — they’ve got different names for them, insulting words.  The second type, something along the lines of flunkies—shnyri.  And then there are the muzhiki…  When we sorted things out, I said:  “Guys, you’re going to have to adjust your system, because a new colour has appeared in Russian prisons — politicals”.  And the difference is very significant.  Unlike a proper muzhik, I’ve got no problem interacting with the administration (I can easily speak with it).  I can write a complaint to the prosecutor and to the courts (which I did with pleasure).  A proper muzhik isn’t supposed to complain, to interact with the administration, and so forth.  On the other hand, in contrast with the people who work for the administration, so to speak…  I’m not going to say what they’re called…

AM:  Bitches?

MK:  Yes.  I don’t have any confidential contact with the administration and nobody can suspect me of cooperating with it in any way.

AM:  Understood.  If someone complains, then that means he’s not a muzhik.  And if he doesn’t snitch, then he’s not a stoolpigeon either.  But did they understand your special color?

MK:  The people understood.  They simply decided that I was an alien from another planet.   And that it was okay to associate with this extraterrestrial.

AM:  But what if this extraterrestrial, intentionally or not, violates something, let’s say simply because he didn’t know?

MK:  But he’s an extraterrestrial, after all.  He’s excused many things.  For example, there was such an incident.  The administration was very worried (I don’t know for what reason) that I was going to get photographed.

AM:  Excuse me, but zeks don’t have any way to take a photo.

MK:  Sure they do.  They can take photos, and they can make phone calls.  In a black zone.

AM:  For money?  Through blat [connections—Trans.]   How do they get their hands on a telephone?

MK:  We can talk about this if it sparks your interest.

AM:  Well yes, I’ve still got all this to look forward to.

MK:  We don’t lock up pensioners.

AM:  Are you being serious?

MK:  At your age, I can’t imagine what you’d have to do for them to lock you up.

AM:  I’ll think about it.

MK:  And so, it’s not allowed to photograph me.  But one comes up to me:  “Can I take your photo?”  I answer:  “You know you won’t be able to avoid problems later?”  He replied:  “That’s okay, this is like my business.  I’ll deal with it.”  Well okay, if you say you’ll deal with it, you deal with it.  “Only I’m not going to be looking at you”, I say.  “I never saw you”.

AM:  Otherwise it would turn out that you’d allowed him?

MK:  I just didn’t want them asking me stupid questions later.  I’m actually a very prudent and cautious person. (Friendly laughter.)  Yes, yes, yes.  If I suspect that there might be some kind of nastiness, I try to be proactive and prevent this nastiness from happening.  Okay, so he sold this photo to some journalist for 300 bucks, and they start trying to get to the bottom of it in the colony. In a big way.  They summon [me—Trans.] to the operative department [where the FSB operatives work—Trans.]:  “Who photographed you?”  I say:  “How am I supposed to know?”.  They understand that they can’t do a thing.  They made some threatening noises.  But what can they threaten me with?  After some time passes I get summoned to the Kremlin.

AM:  !!??

MK:  Every zone has got a barrack where the “monitor” lives; it’s called the Kremlin.

AM:  Exquisite!  I’d never heard this.

MK:  Consider it a present…  But walking between barracks is categorically forbidden.  I say:  “I won’t go.  It’s forbidden to move around between barracks”…  Practically – in a black zone everybody just walks without any problems.  But in red zones only those who have permission do.  It’s just that I was following all the PVRs myself.  If you’re not supposed to go out, I don’t go out.

AM:  In order not to give them a reason to punish you?

MK:  Everything’s for real over there.  The towers, the fences, the machine-gunners.  They told me:  “The administration gave its approval”.  Fine.  I’m curious, after all.  I come into the Kremlin, the monitor is sitting there, Pasha the Mongol.

AM:  Mongol?  Slant-eyed?

MK:  No, that’s just his nickname.  A normal lad.  26 years old.

AM:  Well, bully for him.  So he’s a murderer?

MK:  Yes, something like that.  And he starts asking the same questions:  who?  how?  I say:  “Look, Pasha (I use the formal form of address with everybody):  why should I tell you if I didn’t say it in the administration?”  He’s suddenly at a total loss for words here (cognitive dissonance).  For someone in a black zone not to answer a question from the monitor — that’s impossible!  But it turns out that it is possible after all.  We stood there staring at each other.   He says:  “Okay, fine.  Come on, let’s go take a look at the barrack”.

AM:  A tour?

MK:  Yes.

AM:  And?  Have they got it better?

MK:  There are some advantages there.

AM:  Warm?

MK:  It’s warm everywhere over there.  There are uranium springs close by.  Energy out of the yazoo.

AM:  So did you feel a threat to life from the other zeks or from the administration?

MK:  I didn’t want to waste time thinking about this.  So okay, so they can…  What can I do about it?

AM:  Have you got any guesses as to why they didn’t kill you there?  Getting the zeks to do it, for example.

MK:  Why they didn’t kill me?  The answer is simple:  Putin prohibited it.

AM:  Oh, come on!..

Long pause.

MK:  …Would you like to ask:  why did he prohibit it?

AM:  No, something else.  There’s such a thing as knowledge, and there’s such a thing as conjecture.  When you say that he prohibited it — is that knowledge?

MK:  This is a well-founded conjecture.  It was after about half a year that I understood that there was a strict prohibition against doing anything to me; I was supposed to be left alone.

AM:  Did you have occasion to witness a fight with a fatal outcome?

MK:  No.  In the whole time that I was in the colony, I don’t think there were any fatal incidents, or maybe there was one.  (It ought to be remembered that what is being spoken of all the time is “general regime” colonies, but there is also “strict regime” and “special regime”. – A.M.)  There was one person who was seriously mutilated.  I was in the barrack at the time and didn’t see how it happened.  But I did see the person before and I saw him after.  They beat him with sticks, they ruptured his spleen.  And the little hospital, the first aid post — it’s on the other side of the fence from us.  I shout across the fence:  “Hey guys, how’s he doing?”  They answer:  “Normal.  He’ll probably be dead by evening”.  I raised such a fuss…  And if I’m not mistaken, this was the first time in the history of the zone that they let an ambulance onto the territory and took him to the hospital and laid him on an operating table.  His blood pressure was 60 over 40 at that moment.  He’d lost two liters of blood.  Good thing he’s a hefty guy.  Anyway, they pulled him through.  And later he slapped the colony with a lawsuit for four hundred thousand.

AM:  And did he get the money?

MK:  I don’t know for sure.

AM:  If he won, he owes you.

MK:  This was many years ago.  But I thought it was great.

AM:  And how did you interact with the zeks?

MK:  I didn’t see any problems with interaction.  Adaptation takes place gradually.  The first place they take you is quarantine.  This is a separate barrack, one of the experienced [prisoners—Trans.] is sitting there, and they explain everything to the newcomer.  It’s literally an orientation session.

AM:  That is, your lack of knowledge, your prison illiteracy, they aren’t used against you?

MK:  They are, of course.  But this is already a question of interpersonal relations.  You understand, there’s the 18-20 year olds playing all kinds of kiddie games with each other over there, and then there’s the solid people, 35-40 years old — they’re not going to waste their time on foolishness.  In the meantime, you’ve got the monitor and the administration working with you — each of them separately.  They need to understand what kind of person you are, and then to place you somewhere in the camp hierarchy, give you some kind of job, what bunk to assign you.  Because what if you turn out to be incompatible with the neighbours?  There will be conflict.  And nobody needs conflict.  Because after conflict, there’s more work for the administration, and for the zeks — a stiffening of the regime.  Yes, it’s a bit complicated for them with me, I’m something new and unusual.  That’s why on the one hand they don’t want to interact with me any more than necessary, but on the other hand… it’s interesting.  There’s so little to do for entertainment in camp, after all.  But this—it’s a new face, and on top of that you’ll even be able to brag later to your homies—check it out, you’ll never believe who was in there doing time with me, yeah, we had this guy in there with us.

AM:  Were there times that you were offered a telephone to make a call?

MK:  Naturally they would offer it.  Naturally I would refuse.

AM:  You were afraid of a provocation?

MK:  I wasn’t afraid, I knew it.

AM:  And what are the consequences for this?

MK:  The ShIZO (penalty isolator).

AM:  Is it hard in a penalty isolator?

MK:  Not for me.

AM:  You’d gotten [sent to—Trans.] it, right?

MK:  Many times.  Maybe five, maybe six, maybe seven.

AM:  So what’s it like in there?

MK:  It’s not a big room.  There’s a cot strapped to the wall, and you can unstrap it only for the night.  A kind of bedside table, and you can sit on that.  There’s nothing good about it, but if you’ve got enough self-control…

AM:  If being in a ShIZO is tolerable, why do you have to try so hard to avoid it?

MK:  They shut me up in the ShIZO unlawfully, even though I was conducting myself in accordance with the law.  But if I take a telephone, I’m going to be conducting myself unlawfully.  But see, right from the trial onwards I wanted to prove:  everything that’s being done to me is being done unlawfully.  That’s why I [was doing everything—Trans.] only according to the law.  And you too, please [prison administration—Trans.] — according to the law.  You’re going to laugh at this one:  the second camp that they shut me up in was originally a red one (where anything goes. – A.M.), and three months before my arrival they started turning it into a regime one.  And they did it.  When I arrived, the camp was absolutely regime.  That is, if there even were any deviations from the law there at all, they were absolutely minimal.

AM:  What can there be in a black one, and what can’t there be in a regime one?

MK:  You name it.  In a black camp, a prisoner can leave the barrack and take a stroll…  but not too far.  In a regime camp this is impossible.  In a black camp, the cooks can cut a piece off from what’s supposed to be for everybody and fry up some meat for the administration — and make sure they’re taken care of too.  In a regime camp this is impossible.  Everything there is different, absolutely everything.

AM:  Where is better?

MK:  For me personally there’s no difference if it’s black or regime.  I’m under a television camera 24 hours a day anyway:  at meals, in bed, and at work.  But for an ordinary prisoner, a regime camp is radically better.  And for the 10% of prisoners who have access to these or the other opportunities (money or authority), of course it’s better in a black camp.  Because after all, over there you’ve got a telephone by your side, and products, and vodka, and narcotics.

AM:  An important question, a humanitarian one.  In your view, how many innocent people are sitting [in prison—Trans.]?

MK:  Completely innocent?  Some 10 percent or so.

AM:  Who are they?

MK:  Well, let’s put it this way.  There’s a radical difference between the first camp and the second.  In the first camp where I was, there were mostly Russian citizens.  100 percent Russian citizens were in there.

AM:  This is in Krasnokamensk?

MK:  Outside Krasnokamensk.  There were a lot who were in there for something they did.  And many – for something someone else did.  Some had had a falling out with someone.  Others had had something taken away from them.  But the main thing is:  you need “stooges” for nice and neat looking statistics in the fight against crime.  For example, some kind of crime has been committed; you need to pin it on somebody.  There’s a whole array of reasons.  The situation with narcotics is a special case.  There are very many ordinary drug addicts in there, only they’ve gotten the rap for distribution, they are the “stooges”, but still they are drug addicts.  In the second camp where I was in Karelia, there were many who are imprisoned for nothing at all.  Some 70 percent there are Gastarbeiters [Guest workers, citizens of poor countries who come to Russia to seek work—Trans.].

AM:  From Central Asia?

MK:  Yes.

AM:  Simply for violation of the passport regime?

MK:  No, mostly for rape.

AM:  How can you call that “for nothing at all”?  This is certainly very much “something”!

MK:  No, they had [these rapes—Trans.] pinned on them.  In reality they’re not guilty.  Like I’ve already said, there’s some 10 percent that are completely innocent.  But…  So they’ve got a guy on trial for rape.  The woman tells how he broke into the apartment and raped [her—Trans.].  The judge asks:  “How come you didn’t scream?” — “I was afraid I’d frighten the child.” — “How old is the child?” — “12.” — “And whose child is it?” — “Mine and his.”  It turns out that the two of them are living together in a civil union and they’ve got a 12 year old child.  The prosecutor’s a woman, the judge is a woman, and the lawyer is a woman.  They look at her and say:  “Lady, are you sure you want to lock your husband up?”  She jerked or twitched or something, and her lawyer says to her:  “If you drop it, they’ll charge you with false denunciation”.  They gave him four years, suspended.  They couldn’t acquit, but they decided not to stick [him—Trans.] in the zone either.

AM:  You were Zek Number One on planet Earth; an expert, it can be said.  And you are asserting:  10% in the zone are innocent.

MK:  Yes, 10 percent or so.  And another 20 percent or so are imprisoned for the wrong thing.  They’re guilty, but not like that and not of that [crime—Trans.].

AM:  So that means some 30 percent are innocent or half-innocent.  Which means 70 are guilty.

MK:  You know something that a Russian person may not understand at all, but a Western one does understand?  If guilt hasn’t been proven, it means you’re innocent.  I consider that some 10 percent of the verdicts should have been acquittals, and accordingly 10% of the people shouldn’t be in prison, because they’re innocent.  And another 15 percent or so shouldn’t be in prison because even though they are guilty, their guilt hasn’t been proven, and this means they’re legally innocent.  While everyone understands the first one (about the ones who are innocent), unfortunately very many people don’t understand the second one (about the ones that haven’t been proven).  Everything’s stayed just the same as it was in our country.

AM:  You’ve spent so many years with people you previously knew very little about.  What has changed in your view of this world?

MK:  I’ll tell you what’s changed.  What a horrible thing vodka and narcotics are!  What a horrible thing!!!  (Strong emotion could be seen in the eyes.  Very strong.)

AM:  It’s all because of the booze?

MK:  All because of the booze.  All because of the booze or because of the junk [drugs—Trans.].  I asked the monitors how come they don’t allow liquor to be snuck into the zone (Only individual people are allowed; a very restricted circle.)  They answer:  “Because otherwise we won’t be able to hold the zone back” (From rioting and rebellion. — A.M.)  Guys who are absolutely normal, nice people when they’re sober — polite, respectful, observing the rules, in control of themselves — they lose all touch with reality when they take a swig from a glass.  I had one acquaintance there, a wonderful lad when he was sober but who committed two homicides.  He’s a hunter, and each time he contrived to prove that it had been an “accidental discharge”.  What accidental discharge?!  He smoked a person through a closed door!  All because of the booze!  He told me openly:  “I even scare myself.  I’m gonna get out, I’ll have a drink, and the third time I’m not gonna get away with it like this.  I’ll go away for good”.

AM:  There are many like that?

MK:  Bandits [gangsters—Trans.], thieves, and professional criminals make up 10 per cent or so in such zones, and some 10 per cent are innocent.  The remaining 80% — are there because of the booze or because of the junk.  It’s horrible!  I couldn’t even imagine this before.  Even when I do some serious drinking myself, I’m not aggressive, so it was hard for me to imagine that in other people this brings out such an outburst of aggression.  But it turns out there are many like that.

AM:  And what happens with you?

MK:  I want to go to sleep.

AM:  There’s still a very important zone between “slightly tipsy” and “I want to sleep”.

MK:  I get a bit jolly.  I enjoy having a chat.

AM:  While you were locked up, you published several articles and interviews, and you said that you’d begun to read a lot in prison and had started to look at the world and at culture completely differently.  What did you read and how did this process of changing your views go?

MK:  In order not to lose my marbles during the long time spent [in prison—Trans.] (and I was aware that such a thing could happen), I forced myself to read serious journals, philosophical ones.  In one article out of five it’s evident that the person’s done a whole lot more thinking than I had in some area.  Or maybe it’s just that his brains are better.  And you read something that you would never have come to yourself.  I find things like that interesting, very intriguing…  I really liked one French author, a woman, I think:  “The theory of the unattainability of a goal”.  A wonderful thing.  About how a goal (by which is understood something big) is unattainable in principle.  Either because of the impossibility of attaining it, or because of the impossibility of attaining it in a reasonable time.  An example that anyone can understand is offered:  if you started courting a 20 year old maiden, desiring to have her as a wife, and continued this courting for 50 years, then it’s hardly likely that at the end of the road the goal will be precisely the one that you saw before you at the beginning.  And further on, the conclusion is drawn that in actuality it’s not the goal that’s important.  What’s important are the means.  You shouldn’t talk about the goal, inasmuch as it’s unattainable.  You should be talking about the means.  Moral means make the goal moral.  And it’s not necessarily the way you initially assumed it to be.  But amoral means make a goal amoral, irrespective of how it appeared to you when you first started out.  I really liked this.  It’s settled nicely in my head, and I keep recalling [it—Trans.] all the time.

AM:  What will you say about judge Danilkin, who read out the verdict on Lebedev and you – 14 years each of deprived liberty?  What did you think of him in the glass cage at the Khamovnichesky Court?

MK:  At first I was wondering:  did he understand what was going on?  In half a year it became obvious that he understood everything.  Everything.  And after that it was terribly uncomfortable to look at him, it was hard.  I would put myself in his place and think:  would I be capable of saying the kinds of things that he’s saying?

AM:  Did you feel sorry for him?

MK:  Well, if you put it in really coarse terms, then I suppose you could say that.


He’s smiling, but he’s insanely tired.  From 2003 through 2013 — 10 years and then some of prison, courts, transfers, and an absolute certainty that it’s for life…

With such a mind, such a character, and such an attitude (now) towards life, you couldn’t find a better reformer for Russia’s system of prisons and camps.

But it’s hardly likely that they’ll offer him the job.  And if they do offer it, then it’s hardly likely that he’ll accept it.

And besides, it’s not like Russia’s authorities are giving any indication that they actually want to reform their prisons.