October 24, 2013 6:26 pm

One day in the life of Mikhail Khodorkovsky

He is Russia’s most famous prisoner, the former oligarch who built Yukos oil and was seen at Davos and the White House – until he dared to cross Vladimir Putin
Khodorkovsky as a free man, left, and during a partially successful appeal for a reduced sentence at Russia’s Supreme Court on August 6 2013©Reuters

Khodorkovsky as a free man, left, and during a partially successful appeal for a reduced sentence at Russia’s Supreme Court on August 6 2013

The last time I interviewed Mikhail Khodorkovsky, I came away fearing for his life. Russia’s one-time richest man was standing in the defendant’s cage in a Siberian courtroom. He had been on hunger strike for nine days and looked gaunt, his skin sallow under the harsh strip lights.

It was February 2008 and we were in Chita, a frigid outpost on the Trans-Siberian Railway 3,800 miles from Moscow. Once Khodorkovsky had been a regular at Davos, a visitor to the White House, his fortune estimated by Forbes at $15bn. Now he was in effect a political prisoner, sentenced in 2005 to eight years for fraud and tax evasion; Yukos, the oil company of which he was chief executive and biggest shareholder, had been seized and sold off. Most Russians had few illusions about the real reason: he had dared to cross President Vladimir Putin. So, like some 19th-century revolutionary, Khodorkovsky was banished to Siberia.

Now he was in court again for a pre-trial hearing linked to new, faintly surreal, charges that could extend his term for years. Prosecutors accused him of embezzling $27bn of Yukos revenues – alleging, in essence, he had stolen its entire oil output over several years. Khodorkovsky was refusing food in support of Vasily Aleksanyan, one of two dozen other Yukos executives also in jail. Aleksanyan, terminally ill with cancer and complications of Aids, claimed authorities were withholding treatment unless he testified against his ex-boss.

There still seemed faint hopes of change. A young lawyer, Dmitry Medvedev, had been handpicked to succeed Putin as president at elections a few weeks later (Putin, barred by the constitution from serving more than two consecutive terms, would become prime minister). Medvedev had pledged to tackle what he called Russia’s “legal nihilism”.

The three judges left the court to confer. I held a microphone to the bars of the cage and – expecting guards to intervene any moment – managed to conduct one of the few face-to-face interviews since Khodorkovsky’s 2005 conviction. I asked him about Medvedev’s chances of restoring the rule of law.

“Tradition, and the state of people’s minds, and the lack of forces that could support any movement towards the rule of law – everything’s against him,” said Khodorkovsky, his reedy voice sometimes faltering. “So, may God grant him strength. All we can do is hope.”

Khodorkovsky was right. Today, Putin is back as president, pro-democracy protests that flared in winter 2011 have waned; Medvedev is yesterday’s man. Khodorkovsky is still in jail, found guilty of the new charges in 2010. Aleksanyan died in 2011, two years after being released from jail. The rule of law in Russia seems in many ways weaker than ever.

Has ever a businessman experienced such a dizzying ascent to fortune, then such a headlong plunge from grace?

Neil Buckley (left) interviews Khodorkovsky in the defendant’s cage during a court hearing in Chita, 2008©Tatyana Makeyeva

Neil Buckley (left) interviews Khodorkovsky in the defendant’s cage during a court hearing in Chita, 2008

Khodorkovsky used money from setting up a small business in Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika era to found a bank, Menatep, which benefited from big deposits of Russian government budget funds. The profits helped buy a stake in Yukos in the infamous “loans-for-shares” privatisations of 1995, when the businessmen who would become oligarchs loaned money to a near-bankrupt government and were allowed to buy state assets at knock-down prices. Within years, the couple of hundred million dollars he spent gaining control of Yukos had become billions.

Khodorkovsky was the first oligarch to realise the way to real wealth was not by simply selling oil but by adopting western governance standards to boost the Yukos share price. He was the first, too, to reinvent himself, like the US robber barons a century earlier, as a philanthropist, launching the non-profit Open Russia Foundation to run educational projects.

His fallout with Putin had many causes. Khodorkovsky dared to confront the president with a thinly veiled allegation of top-level corruption in a televised meeting in February 2003. He tried to build a private oil pipeline to China, contravening state policy. He engaged in aggressive lobbying against increases in oil taxes. He negotiated to sell a stake in Yukos to America’s ExxonMobil. He was simply too independent. He refused to take his place in the matrix of competing interests and clans, of state and private oligarchs, held in check not by rule of law but, as Russians say, po ponyatiyam, “by understandings” – with Putin as arbiter.

As a prisoner of conscience, Khodorkovsky is a flawed figure. He used dubious schemes to squeeze minority shareholders out of Yukos; investors who tangled with him are still vitriolic. His philanthropy was motivated partly by a desire for share price-boosting respectability.

But never underestimate the redemptive power of a prison term in the Russian psyche. Russians don’t necessarily feel Khodorkovsky is an innocent man. Yet they feel he has suffered enough. Back in 2008, I felt Dostoyevskyan echoes in the tale of the wealthy businessman who clashed with an over-mighty tsar, then purged his soul in the camps. This summer Russia’s most respected pollster, the Levada Centre, found one-third of Russians supported his early release; only one in six was against. Some 60 per cent thought the real reason he was still in jail was either because freeing him “could cause problems for those who expropriated Yukos”, or “because he criticises the government” or because “high-level state officials are personally hostile” to him.

Freedom may, finally, be in sight. Khodorkovsky’s second sentence ends next year and, though a third set of charges to keep him behind bars even longer cannot be ruled out, time to launch them is short. Russia may, too, not want the negative publicity as it prepares to host next February’s $50bn Winter Olympics in Sochi. His family are quietly hopeful he will be coming home.

The Segezha prison colony where Khodorkovsky is currently held©http://khodorkovsky.ru

The Segezha prison colony where Khodorkovsky is currently held

But with the 10th anniversary of his arrest on October 25 2003 approaching, I contacted his legal team this summer about a written interview from the Segezha prison colony where Khodorkovsky is now held in the forests of Karelia in northwest Russia. Two sets of answers popped, weeks later, into my email inbox. The voice from inside the modern-day Gulag, frank and thoughtful, was unmistakably his. I asked him first to describe a typical day in what Russians call “the zone”.

[FT] Can you describe a typical day?

[Khodorkovsky] A long, long, ring of a bell and the night orderly’s bone-chilling roar, “Everybody up!” Another day begins. Another pointless day out of the thousands I’ve already spent, first in prison, and now here in the general regime [low security] colony 100km from the Finnish border.

Young men, 18 to 30 – the main population of “the zone” – leap quickly from their bunks. The inspector can come in immediately after the bell, and if someone’s too slow he’ll end up in solitary. I too get up. I’ve not been asleep for some time already anyway. It’s a habit. Half an hour to an hour before reveille is a time when I can be alone with my thoughts, undisturbed. There won’t be another opportunity like that for the rest of the day.

Ten minutes to shave and wash with cold water, exercises and then the first “formation”. For breakfast. Quite a few more times today we’ll have to fall into formation. The canteen is nearby but our walk there is long and slow. That’s “how it’s done”. Breakfast is filling and unappetising – porridge, bread. Ten minutes and then off to work.

Again we fall into formation, again a funeral procession, only now to the checkpoint. A body search. The workshop. An empty, huge, cold hangar that has certainly seen better days. We occupy a small corner, where we assemble paper folders. A machine would do this work better but you need to have something to keep the prisoners busy. We get paid $10-$15 a month, “cash in hand”. You can spend it once a week in the local commissary, where that much can get you 1kg-2kg of candy, or four tins of food, or five packs of cigarettes. There’s really not much else. Though they do have apples on occasion. I like apples …

The bell – “formation”, a search, lunch. Fifteen minutes. Balanda [a thin gruel] and potatoes. Filling, but it’s best not to look at what you’re eating. You might get upset. And do I need that? I’ve had my refuelling, what more do I want?

Formation, search, the workshop. Folders. The bell. The end of the work day.

Formation, search, the barrack. You can watch TV for an hour. I read or write. Nobody bothers me. The bell, formation, supper. Potatoes, bread.

Formation, the barrack. If my lawyers don’t come, I watch the news on the only available channel, and read surrounded by a hundred more inmates. You can have a snack, if you still have anything left from the package your family are allowed to forward to you once every two months. And so passes the day. There are 10 years behind me, and another year still ahead. A long bell and the roar, “Lights out!”

What are conditions like at the camp?

We have “barracks-style” imprisonment – the dormitory isn’t divided up into locked cells. One barrack block holds 100-150 people. It’s warm. Rooms inside have ordinary doors without locks.

Vladimir Putin (left) and Khodorkovsky (right) Moscow, May 2001©Getty

Vladimir Putin (left) and Khodorkovsky (right) Moscow, May 2001

In our room there are 20 people; the floor area is maybe 30-40 square metres. Right now the occupancy rate in the camp isn’t high, so most of us (including myself) sleep on the lower bunk. The walls are painted but you can wallpaper them if you so desire. The floors are wooden. This is Karelia; there’s plenty of wood.

The barracks have ordinary windows. The view is of the neighbouring barrack and the wall between us, topped with barbed wire. There’s a room with a TV and kettles. There are 10 barracks in “the zone”. Besides these, there’s a canteen, a school, office facilities, rooms for longer visits, and an industrial zone with workshops – the hangars. Beyond the fence, there’s forest. You can see the smokestacks of the cellulose plant.

The number of books you can have among your things is restricted – 10 pieces together with magazines. There’s a library but there’s no good literature there, and they don’t allow me to pass books on to it. Lawyers order books for me. They take a month to arrive, and then they lie in the storehouse, and I can exchange what I have read once a week. Of course, such a regime doesn’t allow you to work with reference books. “E-readers” are banned, as are computers.

Can you communicate with the outside?

There are three ways: telephone calls (up to 15 minutes once a week); letters (they take 7-10 days to get to the lawyers); and orally through my lawyers (but there is official video – and unofficial audio – recording of our meetings).

Four long visits (of three days each) and six visits of four hours through a glass partition are permitted per year. I get visited by my wife, children and parents but few here are as lucky as me. During the longer visits, you have to spend the whole time in a not very large room or in the kitchen in the common area. This is very difficult for people who have come in from “the outside”. And what can you say about travelling over a thousand kilometres for the sake of four hours through glass? But compared with Chita, which my people had to travel 6,500km to reach, this isn’t bad at all. Except my parents are not getting any younger …

Officially, the laundry room in the bathhouse washes things once a week. In a general heap, from socks to undershirts to work clothes. If you want to launder your things in a normal way, you need to get creative. But the problem is then there’s no place to dry them. There’s a communal shower room, where you can bathe once a week. If you work at a dirty production facility, they allow you to take additional showers, after your shift.

The colony has its own pigsty, so they do give you the 30-40 grams of meat or lard you’re “entitled” to, adding it to the soup or porridge. You get vegetables – besides potatoes and boiled cabbage – perhaps 10 times a year (cucumbers, onions – things that grow in greenhouses).

In the morning there are compulsory exercises for 10 minutes. I always do them; otherwise I’ll certainly strain my back at work. After work we’re allowed to play sport for half an hour to an hour. I usually don’t have the energy but the younger ones play volleyball or “pump themselves up”.

We get regular medical examinations, especially for tuberculosis. Everything else – except when a person appears to have been beaten – is of little concern to anybody. You need medical attention? Knock yourself out trying to get it. They’ll send you to the prison service regional hospital – a pretty sad sight. But if they suspect you have tuberculosis, they send you off to a tuberculosis zone. I’ve not been there but I’ve heard horror stories.

The weather’s better here than in Krasnokamensk [the Siberian camp where Khodorkovsky was held from 2005 to 2007]. Over there, it was minus 45C in winter and plus 45C in summer, open steppe right to the horizon. Here it’s Finnish weather: minus 20C or 30C in winter, up to plus 25C in summer.

How do inmates treat a former billionaire businessman?

The attitude towards me has changed somewhat over these 10 years. In prison they respect age (I’m now older than most people here) and term (10 years is a lot). Of course, renown is important, things you can boast about to your acquaintances (“I served time with such-and-such a person!”).

Everybody’s past is different here, and is rarely discussed. People are more likely to be interested in hearing about a “different life”. And, of course, any substantial fact – opposition to the powers-that-be, non-admission of guilt. This allows those around to talk without fearing possible denunciation.

Yukos’s Khodorkovsky (centre right) and Sibneft’s Roman Abramovich (left profile) agree a $36bn merger, April 22 2003, six months before Khodorkovsky’s arrest©Bloomberg

Yukos’s Khodorkovsky (centre right) and Sibneft’s Roman Abramovich (left profile) agree a $36bn merger, April 22 2003, six months before Khodorkovsky’s arrest

But in general, it’s not difficult for me to find a common language with anyone, besides those I hold in deep contempt. There are people like that here but not many. I’m unable to conceal this feeling, but to overcome my attitude towards rapists, for example, is hard. Although they are people too, of course …

There are informers here, as in any zone. But this is classified a “red” zone, a model zone, so there’s a particularly large number of informers. There are sometimes whole queues lined up to see the prison staff. What do they tell them about? About minor violations, as a rule. Real or imaginary. Someone was talking while in formation, someone refused to do clean-up, someone was smoking at an inappropriate time, things like that.

Ratting is a useful thing: you can get some kind of privilege, such as permission to wear “outside” [civilian] shoes, you can increase your “authority” among the prisoners and even extort various things. But there are risks as well, since someone can also rat on you, they can beat you up during a staging [transport between institutions] or even kill you. Such things do happen, albeit rarely.

I’ve not observed any kind of particular cruelty in the camps and the prisons. If anything, it’s less dangerous here than on the outside, since people usually don’t drink and don’t have access to drugs.

Nobody needs problems. But they do happen (since many people here are the kind who don’t think with their heads), when people receive the command to “punish”; it’s not important whether it comes from their colleagues or from the administration. For privileges or some miserable pittance of a reward. The consequences can be very serious. I’ve observed it more than once. Otherwise, in ordinary camp life, people are all sufficiently restrained. Although, as in any male collective, there are clashes. But without cruelty. Just throwing a few punches around.

The administration employees, as opposed to the guards, are right among the prisoners, on the camp territory and unarmed. There are only truncheons and handcuffs. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen them used in my presence.

In this model camp, the employees come to work sober. In Krasnokamensk, and in other camps as well, the situation is different. They speak politely with adults here. With me they even use the Russian formal “you” – “Vy”. With younger people – it depends, but boorishness and humiliating treatment are a rarity. In general, if you want to stand up for your dignity, you have got to be ready to fight and to suffer losses. Just like everywhere else.

How had prison life changed Khodorkovsky? He told me it had made him more restrained, slower to rush to conclusions. He was more tolerant of human weaknesses and mistakes (a quality some Yukos employees say he lacked in his go-getting heyday) but quicker to cut people off “if they cross the line”. (In prison, “softness is not understood and not excused.”) I asked him more about his life.

What can you read in the camp?

I find it important not to lose ties with the reality beyond the fence. Every day I try to read 100-200 pages of informational materials sent by my lawyers, the many newspapers and magazines to which I subscribe. As a rule, I manage. I’m a fast reader. But then very little time is left for all other literature. It was easier in prison. It was there I began to delve into history and philosophy. And also, for recreation, I read historical fantasy. An absolutely wonderful genre, in my view.

Do you fear the authorities will bring a third set of charges against you? And how do you cope mentally with not knowing exactly when you will leave prison? Do you suffer bouts of depression?

I know there are those trying to convince Vladimir Putin to do this; if the “command” is given, there’ll be a “case” and a conviction. The storyline the prosecution presents hardly matters. I personally don’t fear prison. I’ve become accustomed to it. I do fear for my family, my parents, my children.

In 2007, when I received the completely nonsensical charge of having stolen all of Yukos’s oil, I forced myself to come to terms with the notion of endless imprisonment. When President Putin declared in 2012 that I would get out after having sat out this term, it was hard to believe him.

So now, if he “changes his mind”, this will be tough for me, of course, but it’s not going to drive me to depression. I’m not the only Russian prisoner who’s had to learn to live with uncertainty about the time of his release.

You told a Russian journalist that if you’d known 10 years ago what would happen to you, you would have killed yourself. Were you serious? You could have left Russia before you were arrested …

Vasily Alexanyan, another jailed Yukos executive, Moscow, 2008©Tass

Vasily Alexanyan, another jailed Yukos executive, Moscow, 2008

[She] asked me not about the arrest, for which I was prepared, and not even about imprisonment, but about if I’d known everything straight away: about the death of Vasily Aleksanyan, the hostages [arrests of Yukos employees to put pressure on senior executives on trial], the forced emigrations. About the demolition of the company, the demolition of my illusions about the judiciary, about the powers-that-be (and I did have them), and so on. I wasn’t prepared for that kind of knowledge then. Everything’s different now. Perhaps the prison experience has helped me survive the sense of personal responsibility. Had I left the country, I would have “eaten myself alive”.

What was the hardest of all those things to bear?

When you are getting your fingers smashed with a hammer, which one hurts the most? Perhaps the first one. But more likely it comes in waves: it seems you’ve got used to it, and then suddenly the pain comes again. But after five years the acuteness of perception declines. No question.

How do you feel about the economist Sergei Guriev, who participated in an experts’ report that criticised the second case against you, and felt compelled to flee Russia this year?

I consider the situation with Sergei Guriev to be typical of Russia’s way of “applying the law”. But that doesn’t make it any less revolting. The Yukos chief counsel, Vasily Aleksanyan (Guriev made reference to him), did indeed pay first with his health and freedom, and then with his life, for refusing to bear false witness. Such offers, backed by threats of unlawful persecution, were made to many who worked at Yukos, including foreign citizens. I personally read one such interrogation record.

These were striking statements from a man who in his months sitting in defendants’ cages seemed to possess extraordinary inner calm. I switched track, to ask about Russia’s system, and the nascent Russian opposition, including Alexei Navalny, the charismatic protest leader. Last month Navalny finished second in elections for Moscow mayor but, like Khodorkovsky, was convicted this summer of dubious embezzlement charges.

For you, what is Putinism?

Putinism is authoritarian state capitalism based around one leader. It’s an attempt to control society and the state apparatus through kompromat [“dirt” about a person used to keep them in line], and through arbitrary law enforcement. It’s the consistent annihilation of the substance of independent state and civic institutions. It’s an attempt to run a huge country in “manual mode”. That’s no way to build a modern country.

What do you say to those who suggest the roots of Putinism lie in the 1990s; that the way the “oligarchs” abused the political and judicial system in part paved the way for today’s system?

It’s hard to speak to naive people who believe in myths by the name of [Boris] Berezovsky [one of the most flamboyant 1990s oligarchs, who later fled Russia and died this year]. The “oligarchs” had significant influence only in Berezovsky’s head and in myths created by him.

The so-called oligarchs never had a fraction of the power over the judicial and law enforcement system that Putin’s circle has today. Even if we take just the economy and compare, for example, Yukos and Rosneft [the state-controlled oil giant that bought many Yukos assets], the scale of their influence on the state apparatus is incomparable.

Until the beginning of the 2000s we were building a democratic state, with all its early-stage shortcomings. The US in the 1930s to the 1950s provides some very similar examples. From 2001 on – and especially after the Yukos affair began – an analogy to early fascist Spain is closer: “To my friends, everything; to my enemies, the law.” The fork in the road is obvious.

But didn’t the fact that a few people made billions in the 1990s while most people’s living standards plunged contribute to popular disillusionment with “democracy” and “capitalism” that persists to today?

The origins of the Putin regime can be found in 1993, when the Chechen war started, when separation of powers was eliminated and the president received dictatorial powers. It was at this moment that we made a mistake.

In those years I spent a lot of time out in the regions; I worked side by side with ordinary workers on drilling rigs and in the oil fields; at times we even ate “from the same pot”. For them, the question of who owned the business was not relevant. And in general, for residents of a small town the difference between me and [President Boris] Yeltsin was not very significant – we were all just “the bosses”.

What really worried them was whether these “bosses” could guarantee a job and a salary, whether they knew how to talk to people, to listen and to hear. Even in terms of consumption, nobody compared themselves with the “oligarchs” in faraway Moscow – only with local entrepreneurs, those who lived nearby, in the flat or house next door. Despite all the aggressive propaganda about social discord, I never had any problems in my relations with people.

That doesn’t mean that privatisation could not have been conducted more fairly, in the interests of a greater number of citizens. It definitely could and should have been. However, when we offered to correct the situation through a compensatory tax, it turned out that the powers-that-be were interested in maintaining the antagonism. Our project was buried.

The idea of capitalism in Russia is alive and well today but, as for liberal democracy, they have indeed made a bogeyman out of it, ascribing to it all the costs of poor-quality authoritarian governance. Explaining this to people will take a lot of work on our part.

How do you answer Russians who, initially at least, used to say “Khodorkovsky got what he deserved”?

It’s hard to feel sorry for a rich person. This is hardly something unique to Russians. But it’s hard to convince people that what you “deserve” needs to be established by an independent court, and not by envious people and a flunky of your opponents. It’s gradually getting through to people that complete lawlessness towards a powerful person will turn into even greater and wider-scale lawlessness in relation to ordinary people. Not for nothing has a fair judiciary now come to the forefront of society’s demands.

Do you believe Russia’s “managed” democracy could evolve into something more “real”? Or will it require a new revolution?

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny at a rally in Moscow, September 2013, after he finished second in elections for Moscow mayor©Getty

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny at a rally in Moscow, September 2013, after he finished second in elections for Moscow mayor

I’d like to believe in the path of reforms. There are people in Putin’s circle who are attempting to get a civic dialogue going, as we can see from Moscow and Yekaterinburg [where opposition candidates were allowed to participate in mayoral elections in September]. But the siloviki [hardliners around Vladimir Putin] are more influential for now.

Putin doesn’t have much time left – five to 10 years, maximum. Any powerful crisis, given the current state of state institutions and dialogue with society, could result in the bounds of the current system being breached.

How do you believe the next handover of power will occur?

Of course I’d like it if Vladimir Putin were to gradually divide presidential power between an honestly elected parliament, an independent judiciary and a coalition government, and a new president became a compromise figure, not an authoritarian one, the guarantor of citizens’ rights. The likelihood that events will develop that way is sadly not high. More realistic, after Putin leaves, is a brief period of rule by the new “heir”, and then an inevitable political crisis and a “relaunch” of how the country is run, a shift to a constituent assembly.

We’ve seen a clampdown on opposition and civil society since Putin returned as president. Will people just submit, or will it lead eventually to a new explosion?

It’s possible – though not very likely – that Vladimir Putin will keep the screws tightened until the end of his rule [another presidential term could take him to 2024] though I think he’ll leave earlier than that. However, as the quality of the administrative class declines, the protest potential that has already built up – and this tendency is growing among the youth – makes a political crisis practically inevitable. The “purging” of the political “field”, the curtailing of social mobility, the ageing of Putin and his entourage, the inner circle’s way of running things by arbitrating constant conflicts between them, the refusal to engage in dialogue with society, all create a powerful breeding ground for politicians and radicals from outside the current system.

To what extent do you think the protests since winter 2011 reflect a clash of generations between the Soviet and “post-Soviet” generation?

I’d say the division is different – between people who feel fully dependent on the state or its bureaucracy, and independent people, ready to take responsibility for their own fate. Of course there’s more of a feeling of independence in the post-Soviet generation but there’s nevertheless no clear dividing line. Most likely it’s a question of individual personality traits. The main thing I like about the “dissenters” is their sense of their own self-worth, which sometimes comes to a person only in later years. And this is remarkable!

Despite his conviction, do you believe Alexei Navalny could be a future Russian leader?

There’s no doubt Alexei Navalny has the ambitions and charisma of a leader. However, if he wants to base himself on the independently thinking part of society, then as well as building up management experience, he’ll definitely have to demonstrate he refuses simply to perpetuate authoritarian-type leadership. But that’s not at all easy.

Still, I think the path to being [Putin’s] “heir” is closed to him. He’s a stranger to today’s elite. Will Navalny be able to – will he want to – offer a version of democratic leadership? Assuming the situation develops peacefully, his political prospects depend on the answer to that question.

Do you mean you’re concerned about Navalny’s nationalist links? Could rule by Navalny lead to nationalism?

I consider Alexei Navalny a fairly reasonable person, so I don’t expect nationalism or chauvinism from him. But at the same time, turning away from strong-man rule demands a lot more ideological fortitude. Many supporters of any popular Russian politician long to see in him a strong-man leader. And what happens is unlimited presidential powers and yet another round of authoritarianism.

Navalny, unlike Khodorkovsky, recently had his five-year jail term commuted to a suspended sentence that nonetheless bars him from public office. But since Putin’s return as president last year, the ex-Yukos boss has been joined by other “political” prisoners including members of the punk band Pussy Riot, and protesters who clashed with police last year. I asked him finally what the west could do – and what he would do when he got out.

How can Europe and the US usefully respond to what’s happening in Russia?

I’m convinced the current regime’s legitimacy in many ways rests upon its recognition by the west. I think the west should recognise only state institutions that really do exist, and clearly renounce simulacra like the dependent courts and the pseudo-parliament. But in conversations – with the president, his administration, state corporations – it’s imperative to strive for recognition of all European values, or at least a part, as the basis for co-operation. Otherwise, as experience has shown, peaceful coexistence on our continent will not last long.

What will you do once you’re released? You’ve said you don’t plan to go into politics, or back into business. But if people asked you, would you consider a political role?

I know how strongly the powers-that-be fear my release, which is why I’m not making any plans. My priorities are my family, parents, children. Returning to business is of no interest to me, and I’m not attracted to government service, fighting for the votes of a paternalistically attuned electorate and political intrigues. I’m prepared to stand up for the interests of self-dependent people who possess a sense of their own self-worth. I understand them, and they understand me. Unfortunately, there are not that many real citizens in Russia for now but there will certainly be more. For this reason I’ll continue to be engaged in civic activity.

Do you think Russians would now accept you in a political role?

I know many of those I spoke about above will support my efforts in the struggle for human dignity and a law-based state. Some don’t like parts of my past, the fact I worked in the Komsomol, the Communist youth league, or that I participated in privatisation, or fought on Yeltsin’s side. But now we’re together, and this is the only truly important thing.

Russia’s economic growth is slowing sharply. Is business confidence being damaged by the political situation?

The blow to business people’s confidence in the protection of the law has found reflection in the constant outflow of capital and people, in a fall in the number of long-term projects not financed out of the state budget, and in the insane embezzlement of state property and corruption that are already eating up more than 10 per cent of GDP.

I think that with another approach, a country as endowed with raw materials as we are and with our low – by European measures – level of consumption and quality of infrastructure could show not 2 per cent but 6 to 7 per cent growth rates for another decade or two, and attain Canadian quality-of-life indicators. (Canada is comparable in its natural and climatic conditions and population density.)

Some people say Russia’s history, culture and Orthodox religion mean it can never become a western-style democracy …

It’s hard for me to agree. Russia really for the past 400 years has had an absolute monarchy, although with fairly powerful local self-government that was not destroyed until Stalin, in the transition to totalitarian practices. Until that moment, the territory of today’s Russia was inseparably connected with the west and was going along the same path – albeit with something of a time-lag and in its own particular way. From all appearances, nothing has changed today.

Neil Buckley is the FT’s eastern Europe editor and former Moscow bureau chief.

To watch Neil Buckley’s 2008 interview with Khodorkovsky from 2008 go to ft.com/putinsrussia

To comment on this article, please email magazineletters@ft.com

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Letter in response to this article:

Puzzled by source of funds for Yukos assets/ From Mr J Buchanon

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