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Prison Exchange: Mikhail Khodorkovsky Looks Back On His Choices

Photomontage of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya
RFE/RL's Russian Service, together with "Novaya Gazeta" newspaper, recently published excerpts from correspondence between Russian novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya and imprisoned former Yukos chief executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2008-09. What follows are passages from an extended translation of some of those exchanges. (Or read the more complete, Russian-language version.)

Ulitskaya to Khodorkovsky

Dear Mikhail Borisovych! I am glad I have a chance to talk to you. [...] How are you dealing with your present situation? […] To what extent has your system of values changed? Which things that seemed important [while you were] at large have now lost their meaning in jail? [...]

Sincerely, Lyudmila Ulitskaya

Khodorkovsky to Ulitskaya

Dear Lyudmila Yevgenyevna! Thank you for your interest.[...]

Early in life, I wanted to become a "factory manager." It is not surprising, since my parents worked all their life in a factory. A kindergarten and summer camp belonged to the factory, so the factory manager was the boss everywhere.

My parents did not truly support Soviet power, yet they tried to keep me outside their influence on this question because they thought that otherwise they could ruin my life. As a result, I grew up as a "true" komsomol. [...]
Because of Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin] I did not oppose [Vladimir] Putin, even though I had my own views about him.

I considered myself a member of Yeltsin's team. That was the reason I defended the White House in 1991 and the city hall in 1993. That was exactly why I joined the informal preelection staff in 1995-96, probably one of the most dangerous undertakings in my life. Because of Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin] I did not oppose [Vladimir] Putin, even though I had my own views about him.

As for the so-called "oligarch group," I never favored such generalization. We were all different people -- [Vladimir] Gusinsky and [Boris] Berezovsky, [Kakha] Bendukidze and [Vladimir] Potanin, myself and [Mikhail] Prokhorov. We had absolutely different goals and perceptions of life. One could differentiate between oil and metal dealers, mass-media people, and bankers -- not a very accurate categorization, either.

I would define myself as Voltairian, an adherent of freedom of speech and expression. Yeltsin was my ideal in this respect, and before him Yagodin. Working with them, I did not feel any inner protest. My first important Rubicon was the 2001 crash of NTV, the crash of a team rather than the property transfer. [...]

Sincerely, M

Ulitskaya to Khodorkovsky

[...] Where do you draw the line? Which ideas from your youth did you preserve? Which ones did you lose? [...] I have singled you out among other oligarchs, after having been to a children's colony equipped with a computer room that you sponsored. Afterwards, I came across several other examples of "Open Russia" activities.

A few years after your imprisonment, I visited the "Korallovo" lyceum and got acquainted with your parents. There, I saw an "amazing island" for young orphans. I haven't seen anything similar in Europe. It was also organized with your help. [...]

I have another difficult question on my mind. If NTV had been kept, do you think you could have gotten along with the Kremlin? Is it true that the conflict in your case was not about the diameter of an oil pipeline but rather of an information [pipeline]? This would suggest to me that, being a pragmatist and a practical person, you nevertheless kept your romantic illusions.

Sincerely, Lyudmila Ulitskaya

Khodorkovsky to Ulitskaya

Dear Lyudmila Yevgenyevna! [...] I was overwhelmed by [Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's] "One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich." I hated Stalin, because he sacrificed the Party's affairs for the sake of a cult of personality. My attitude to [Leonid] Brezhnev and [Konstantin] Chernenko was humorous and dismissive since they were gerontocrats who harmed the Party. I respected [Yury] Andropov despite his excesses in some situations. [...]

I am not impartial when speaking about Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin]. I could see all his shortcomings. In 1999, I believed he should leave, even though I did not welcome Putin as a [presidential] candidate, and Putin knows about that.

Yet Boris Nikolayevich was a figure. He was a real Russian tsar, with all his pluses and minuses of the guise. He has done a lot of good and a lot of bad things. Yet I am not in a position to judge what prevailed. Was it possible to change Russia more deeply and better than he did? Could he have done without "thermidor," "new stagnation," without the comeback of "old comrades from structures," without the Chechen war, and the White House assault? Certainly it was possible, but we didn't manage. Not only did he not manage -- [it was] all of us. So what right do I have to judge?
Could [Yeltsin] have done without 'thermidor,' 'new stagnation,' without the comeback of 'old comrades from structures,' without the Chechen war, and the White House assault? Certainly it was possible, but...[n]ot only did he not manage -- [it was] all of us. So what right do I have to judge?

I was in favor of the creation and consequent privatization of big scientific-industrial complexes like GazProm. We called it an active industrial politics in the government [...]. When my ideas were rejected, I left and warned them that I would use their writings against them, including freely tradable [privatization] vouchers.

I told them that it would not end well and that the Czech model was better ("closed funds"), but they always pointed to my lucrative interests. It is not clear what interests they meant. Yet I did not argue with them.

Here I can answer your question about drawing the line. I was using every single possible loophole in the legislation and always told the members of the government personally which loopholes I would be using or was already using. I admit that it was small revenge -- perhaps a vanity sin. I should note that they behaved [properly]. They sued me and closed the loopholes with new laws and regulations. They were angry, yet never accused me of unfair play. This was our constant tournament.

I do not know if I was right. On the one hand, I was objectively raising the level of industry; on the other, I tripped up not-the-worst government. I was effectively investing all available funds into industry. I did not live in style and did not allow others to do so. Yet I did not care much about social responsibility or people beyond my fairly numerous staff. [...]

One of the main reasons for a shift in my personal principles in the social-entrepreneurial sphere was the 1998 [ruble] crisis. Until that time, I treated business exclusively as a game. [...]

I had already come across problems before 1998, but I bore no personal responsibility for them. Then came 1998. First, it seemed fun and I was sure we would survive; then came August and a catastrophe. The oil price fell to $8 for barrel, while its prime cost was $12 per barrel. There was no money to repay debts and no money for salaries. People had nothing to eat and I was personally responsible for that. Nobody in the country was buying oil, and exports were blocked.

Credit institutions threatened to block our accounts abroad. In Russia, banks did not process payments. Berezovsky gave me a credit at 80 percent per annum in foreign currency. People in the factory understood everything, they did not protest, just passed out from hunger. [...] There were no walkouts after August 1998. As a result, after the crisis was overcome, my principles and values started to shift.
I'm not a revolutionary. If NTV had been retained, then perhaps I would have paid less attention to other events. I...would have left "politics" to more active "comrades," as I had done in the past.

In 2000, we created "Open Russia." I have never considered and still do not consider the position that "everybody has violated the law" sufficient justification. If you violated the law, then you must be held accountable for it. I believe our legislation (as well as the legislation of any other country) leaves many "gray areas," space for interpretation by courts. In the case of Yukos, a separate selective interpretation of the law is being applied that is not being applied to other subjects in similar legal relationships. By and large, our laws are standard; they are neither better nor worse than in any other country. The only catastrophic problem is its application by the courts. [...]

Universal values took a long time to reach me. I think as soon as they reached me, I rose in rebellion. This happened in 2001, with NTV. It was then that the question arose, within the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, of whether property or freedom of expression was more important? The debts of NTV to Gazprom were real. So I came to the conclusion that there's no one thing without the other. I gave $200 million to NTV and was later accused on this charge.

I am not a revolutionary. If NTV had been retained, then perhaps I would have paid less attention to other events. I mean, I would not have stood out and would have left "politics" to more active "comrades," as I had done in the past. In this case, I could not. I could feel a noose around my neck.

From this viewpoint, prison is more definite and less oppressive. Although in other regards, it's no walk in the park. Of course this turn of events was not my goal, but I was backed into a corner from which there was no other honorable escape.

A wise person most likely would have avoided such a fate.

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