“Putin became what he became because we let him”: Mikhail Khodorkovsky

December 17, 2014

The following is a translation of an interview with Mikhail Khodorkovsky by Yevgenia Albats published in The New Times.

“Putin became what he became because we let him”: Mikhail Khodorkovsky

20 December marks exactly one year since the day the most famous zek in Russia, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, became a free man after two trials and verdicts and 10 years in jail and the camps. The New Times is publishing the first part of an interview with MBK, to be continued in the next issue

And indeed — it really does seem like it was just yesterday: 19 December 2013, the president’s press conference, approaching the end of its fourth hour; Putin, having already come down from the podium, seemingly just as an incidental passing remark in answer to a question from the journalists about the fate of the zek Khodorkovsky, suddenly pronounced: “In accordance with the law Mikhail Borisovich was supposed to write a corresponding paper. He was not doing this. But very recently he did write such a paper and turned to me with a supplication for a pardon. He has already spent more than ten years in places of deprivation of liberty, this is a serious punishment. He is making reference to circumstances of a humanitarian character: his mother is ill. I consider that having in view all the circumstances, a corresponding decision can be adopted, and in the nearest future an edict will be signed for his pardon”. And in that very second everybody forgot everything Putin had been talking about for the past four hours. The world’s mass information media were interrupting their broadcasts with news flashes: Putin is going to pardon Khodorkovsky.

December 2013

At this time, MBK‘s lawyer Elena Levina was on the Petrozavodsk — Moscow train: she was just on her way back from IK–7 in Segezha, where she had been to visit her client; she got out and caught a train heading right back, but the following morning Khodorkovsky was no longer in the colony already.

MBK, as he recounted later to The New Times in his very first interview at liberty, found out about the pardon from the evening news on the state channels. He had been waiting for this decision: already on 12 November he had written the supplication for pardon, in which there was no admission of guilt: “My mother would not have let me into the house if I had written an admission of guilt”.

“And in that very second everybody forgot everything Putin had been talking about for the past four hours. The world’s mass information media were interrupting their broadcasts with news flashes: Putin is going to pardon Khodorkovsky”

Marina Filippovna Khodorkovskaya passed away in August of 2014: had it not been for the pardon, she never would have seen her son a free man. She did not believe that he could be pardoned. Shaken, she asked the author “But what about the ECHR?”, having in mind the examination of the application in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, which was found in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg: she was afraid that her son — whom they had been trying to get to say “I’m guilty” for 10 years — would incriminate himself after he found out about the sentence issued to her by doctors. After all these years, she did not want any favors from Putin, and apparently was even not prepared to accept such a sacrifice from her son.

Meanwhile, journalists from all over the world were searching for her son: he was already no longer at the colony. They woke the zek Khodorkovsky up at 2:30 in the morning on 20 December — he was waiting and had and had already gathered together his meager camp belongings (papers and a toothbrush). Come to take him from the colony was the chief of the camps administration for the Karelian Republic. After that — a car, Segezha — Petrozavodsk, a wait for an airplane (apparently, a private plane of the FSB) in the guest house of the FSIN [Federal Service for the Execution of Punishments—Trans.] — an empty TU-134 (MBK and two escorts) — Pulkovo airport in Saint Petersburg, where they handed him a prepared foreign-travel passport right in the plane — a private «Cesna» leased by former minister of foreign affairs of the FRG Genscher, — Berlin. He arrived in Berlin in camp clothes — in St. Pete they had also given him a summer jacket that had “Pulkovo” written on the back in exchange for his quilted jacket and hat [prisoner’s garb—Trans.].

On the evening of 20 December he telephoned the author of these lines: “Zhenya, freedom, freedom!”, he shouted.

And now — nearly a year has passed.

December 2014

A Spartan office (see photo above) right in the very center of Zurich, a narrow staircase, third floor, a table, two sofas facing each other, a floor lamp. Khodorkovsky is dressed in jeans, a thick knit shirt, and sneakers, a sports rucksack hanging behind his back, headphones in his ears. He comes into the city from the Zurich suburb where he lives either by commuter train or at the wheel of his own BMW. The prison slouch that was so strikingly evident in Berlin is gone; on the other hand, he has put on some kilograms. Nor is there that tension — from the necessity to hold emotions in check — that had been there a year ago. A distancing and detachment have appeared: this is certainly not of the zek Khodorkovsky — a politician of global scale, who has thrown down a challenge at Putin himself. He was changing noticeably this whole year that he has been living at liberty: prison is not letting go of him that easily —10 years! — although he himself denies this. Over ten years he has developed a habit of not trusting anybody, and heaven forbid of showing someone his weakness, internal pain, and constant readiness for the worst. For the average person who had never known the oligarch Khodorkovsky before prison, like the author of these lines, and who knew the person from letters (there is a whole pile of them) — intelligent, thoughtful, rationally forthright and candid, with the suffering coming through between the lines on rare occasions — the coldness and even a certain haughtiness of the Zurich Khodorkovsky at first induces repulsion: “a cold snob”. “He has withstood the test of prison. Now he’s going to have to withstand the test of freedom”, said one interlocutor who knows Khodorkovsky well. But with time you begin to understand: both of the zek and a citizen of the world are living in him simultaneously, and his exodus from the camp is still continuing. “I too get scared, it’s just that I know how not to show it”, said he in one of his interviews. He is organized and precise to the extreme; it seems that everything for him is work — including giving an interview. He listens well, but in so doing his brain is divided in half — he answers the question and at the same time is analyzing both himself and the interlocutor, fine-tuning his thought, writing something down in a ruled notebook along the way. He says no more than necessary, but neither does he try to evade questions. As you read the transcript of the interview later you marvel: all of the word formulations are polished and have been thought through in advance — it is impossible to catch him unawares. And he is always in control.

A year later

How has this year turned out for you, Mikhail Borisovich?

First of all — and this is surprising — in prison every day goes by slowly while the years fly by fast. You look back and there’s nothing there to remember. Even though there were supposedly such events taking place as trials, dungeons, and hunger strikes. And nevertheless en masse there is nothing to remember. At liberty it’s the opposite — each day flies by quickly. I just got up in the morning, and it’s suddenly evening already. By the way, in prison I slept eight hours a night. Well, you’re supposed to get eight by the rules, and so you sleep through all those eight in full, because you know: the day isn’t going to bring anything good for you. Here I’m sleeping some six hours a night, and I don’t have enough time in my day. A day flies by quickly, but a year is an eternity. An eternity! Look, so many events have taken place in this year that the scale of it’s taken up all ten of the years in prison.

What kind of events?

All kinds. Both good ones and bad ones. But a whole lot of things took place.

And does prison weigh down on you, do you think about it?


Not at all?

Not at all. That is, of course I’ve got lots of examples from life in prison that I use when I’m talking with people, inasmuch as what is happening now in Russia has a sufficient quantity of analogues in the everyday life in prison and in the interrelationships you have in prison. Of course I recall the people who were there, whose acquaintance I’d made there. Because I saw many different characters that I hadn’t encountered before, including our friends the siloviki. But to say that I suddenly wake up in a cold sweat remembering something from prison… No. Thanks to my parents, I possess an absolutely stable psyche. For me, difficult moments that have passed, well, they’re past and that’s that.

“In prison every day goes by slowly while the years fly by fast. At liberty it’s the opposite — each day flies by quickly. I just got up in the morning, and suddenly it’s evening already”

Back then, in Berlin a year ago, you were recounting that in the camp, after you had been slashed in the Krasnokamensk colony and had nearly lost an eye, you had acquired a habit: your eyes would open immediately if someone was looking at you while you were asleep. Have you kept this habit?

This isn’t a habit, it’s something that you tell yourself to do. I can tell myself to do such a thing even now — or not.

If I tell myself that I’ve got to wake up, then this means I’m going to sleep with one eye half open and will wake up the moment someone looks at me or I hear something squeak.

So what other kinds of prison habits have survived?

You know, there really weren’t any, truth to tell.

You did a lot of writing in the colony — stories about zeks, memoirs, articles, letters. How about now?

In prison I learned how to write long texts, far removed from instructions. Truth to tell, I need this now as well, because I’m conducting an extensive correspondence, but on the net already, naturally, and I do need this, I do engage in this. Naturally, inasmuch as I’m writing on the net, I’m writing on a keyboard. I write a lot on paper as well, but this is already just for myself. The reason is also sufficiently understandable, it’s pragmatic: I can do maybe 80 characters a minute on the keyboard, but I write, naturally, 300 characters a minute, it’s simply faster. But I hope that with time I’ll increase the speed of my work on the keyboard.

And the stories?

No, for me this is… I’m not a writer, after all. A writer, that’s a person who is incapable of not writing, but for me… In prison this was a way to do at least something. But here this is uninteresting for me. I’m writing something every day now too as well. But here, the most comfortable variant for me has turned out to be Twitter, because 140 characters — this, I consider, is how much is necessary to fit a thought in. If I can’t make a thought of mine fit into 140 characters, that means the thought’s no good, I need to think it over some more. I try not to write two-three tweets in succession.

The people about whom you wrote — do they try to get in touch with you; do they find you? In general, have you maintained some kind of ties with Krasnokamensk or with Segezha?

I naturally don’t correspond with the people I was locked up with. If I were living a strictly private life, then maybe I might do this. But inasmuch as I lead an active socio-political life, this is not without its dangers for these people. In our country, all people who have been in jail are under watch, and it’s enough for them to pop up on some radar screen just once because they corresponded with Khodorkovsky and, taking into account their lifestyle, they aren’t going to remain at liberty for much longer. Although some of them do reach out to me asking for help — help with lawyers. I do help them out with this.

That is, you don’t have any nostalgia?


None whatsoever? Ten years, after all…

Prison isn’t home for me.

“If I can’t make a thought of mine fit into 140 characters, that means the thought’s no good, I need to think it over some more”

You lived for years under constant stress — you could get killed, you could get mutilated, they locked you up in the dungeon, you lived with the thought that you would never get out of prison. In such situations people subsequently turn to psychoanalysts. How about you?

Goodness gracious! I can’t even imagine why I would! It’s my wife who tells me: “Normal people have stresses, only you decide to go and give jail a try”. And so I gave jail a try. For me that’s not stress.

What do you think, would Putin have let you out of jail now?

No, I think he wouldn’t have done this even two months after he factually released me. Of course not.

Do you think he regrets his decision?

I think he’s being told from all sides that he should be regretting it, but I think that he continues as before to consider himself unassailable.

In that first interview in Berlin you were saying that the reason for your almost incredible release was in that: “he (Putin) wanted to send a signal to his inner circle — quit freaking out. To clean things up in that bawdy cathouse that had gathered around (him), was possible only by putting Serdyukov away for ten years or so, or by releasing me”.

Yes, my impression is that that’s just how it is. Although, of course, one shouldn’t view him (at Putin) two-dimensionally; he naturally had other reasons as well, including ones of an emotional nature.

You are referring to your letter, in which you wrote to the president that Marina Filippovna is incurably ill?

I consider that of course an emotional aspect was present in his decision.

In other words, Putin is capable of empathy?

That he’s capable of empathy is something about which there’s no doubt whatsoever; I wouldn’t start making a two-dimensional figure out of him. He’s a complicated person with his own problems — and I talk about them because they’re important; and with his own strengths — and I talk about these too, because they’re also important. He’s got a good feel for people, he understands his inner circle well. That’s the way he is, and this is what we’ve got to live with and this is what we need to fight. I consider that Putin is bad not because he is the way he is, but because we allowed him to create a situation — or more precisely, to make it worse — in which he’s able to decide too much. And this burden — it’s beyond the strength of any one person, as it turns out.

The post of president shouldn’t have the kind of power that it does in our country. If it — this post — is going to have such power, then time and again we’re going to be witnessing dragon-slayers transforming into dragons themselves. Of course I regard Putin as an opponent, but in so doing I realize that he became what he became, among other reasons, because we let him.

Including you?

Including me, of course. The only positive thing I can say for myself is that at one point I said to myself: Enough, I can’t go on doing this any more.

Read next week on the NT website about Vladimir Putin, events in the Ukraine, the prospects for the Russian economy, oil prices, and whether Mikhail Khodorkovsky is going to be creating his own party.You can read the previous interview that Khodorkovsky gave The New Times 17 hours after release in No. 43-44(310) of 25 December 2013. Likewise published on the magazine’s website is the video recording of the talk and its full transcript.