Listen to this article
My Fellow Prisoners, by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Penguin, RRP£4.99, 96 pages
In 2003 Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then Russia’s richest man, was arrested for fraud and spent the next 10 years in camps and prisons. At his second trial in 2010 he gave a speech of great force and clarity, which sounds even better now, when the arbitrariness and mendacity of the present regime is more evident. “I am ashamed for my country,” he said, adding that millions in Russia and in the world were hoping that “Russia will, after all, become a country of freedom and the law, a country where the law will be above the bureaucrat. Where supporting opposition parties will cease to be a cause for repression . . . Where human rights will no longer depend on the mood of the tsar, whether good or evil.”
The suppression of writers and thinkers in Russia has a distinguished lineage: from Pushkin’s exile in the 1820s through Dostoevsky’s imprisonment in the 1850s to the Soviet zeks – Varlam Shalamov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov – to pick out only the globally known.
Khodorkovsky is hardly in that circle. My Fellow Prisoners is a very slim volume – the sketches of a few of his fellow inmates only echoes of the depictions of the “gentle brutes” whom Dostoevsky encountered in Siberia and put into The House of the Dead; and even more distant echoes of the tortured souls in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and In the First Circle.
Khodorkovsky is neither an intellectual nor a writer: as he puts it, he was “an out-and-out technocrat . . . [who] always regarded reading as primarily an essential tool for obtaining the information I needed”. Unlike most oligarchs, he had been a model Young Communist League activist, through which he began to establish increasingly ambitious private businesses as Mikhail Gorbachev’s economic liberalisation opened the road to enterprise in the late 1980s.
In the 1990s, he and his partners built up the first big financial group, Menatep, and the oil company Yukos: in one meeting with him, together with the then FT editor Richard Lambert, I heard him explain earnestly that companies like his had to stay close to state power, since that was the Russian tradition.
But this view changed. Khodorkovsky developed an increasingly radical critique of Russian society, which saw him use some of his wealth to fund civic activism. The pursuit of that critical vision had led to his arrest, as President Vladimir Putin, whom he had grown to despise, saw in him the quintessence of independent action backed by great wealth – an existential threat to Putin’s centralisation of all power in the Kremlin. His 10-year stretch in the grim, but no longer (usually) deadly, Russian prison system would only deepen the radicalism of his view of Russia.
These years also allowed him some time to scribble stories and ideas on bits of paper (he writes about how, since being freed last year, he now luxuriates in tapping on a computer keyboard). Slight as they are, the sketches in this new book are vivid, humane and poignant: Sergei, drug pusher and thief, who refused a deal to shorten his sentence since it involved confessing that he robbed an old woman in order to clear the case off police books; an aged convict who “lacked the will or readiness to fight for his own fate – so crucial if you’re to keep your head above water in today’s cruel world”; the prison investigator Yuri Ivanovich, who tries and fails to expose corruption among his colleagues. Of the last of these, Khodorkovsky comments that his inevitable resignation from the job points to the fact that all decent people get out of the system, leaving “idiots and lowlife – great material for building up the machinery of state. And yet this is indeed our state.”
“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” wrote Dostoevsky in The House of the Dead. Khodorkovsky’s testimony is that here is a corrupt system with little or no effort to do more than coop up the hopeless, the drug-addicted, the vicious – and the occasional visionary.
His vision is that Russia “will ultimately take the road of European civilization”. As this is written, the secretary-general of Nato is warning that Russia is trying to “carve up Europe into new spheres of influence”: Khodorkovsky’s vision will take time – and may be realised in harsher ways than he hopes.
John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor and a former Moscow bureau chief