Poignant pen from prison cell of Russian oligarch

Eight years ago today, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested on the tarmac at a Siberian airport. Since then, he has been behind bars and has undergone an extraordinary transformation from a ruthless businessman and the richest man in Russia, to a pensive prisoner smuggling out handwritten literary sketches of life behind bars.

Sentenced to eight years in jail for money laundering and fraud, Khodorkovsky would have been released today were it not for a second trial that concluded last year and extended his sentence until 2016. Khodorkovsky’s son Pavel, who lives in New York, told The Independent yesterday that he believed that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who recently announced that he will return to the Kremlin next year, holds a personal grudge against his father.

“Until the second verdict we were looking forward to this day, the whole family couldn’t wait for this day,” said Pavel Khodorkovsky. “But Putin is really intent on keeping my father in jail for as long as he’s in power.”

Khodorkovsky is following a long tradition of Russian exiles, prisoners and camp inmates by putting pen to paper. He has written lengthy exchanges with contemporary Russian authors and has penned opinion pieces on the state of Russian politics for leading newspapers. Recently, however, his writings have taken a more colourful turn, writing a series called “Prison Folk” for the weekly magazine The New Times. His style is matter-of-fact, laced with a light irony and moments of compassion.

“After so many years in prison, I’m certainly not going to idealise the people I meet here,” wrote Russia’s most famous prisoner in one of the columns. “But many of the inmates do have principles.” Khodorkovsky writes about a young prisoner called Kolya, behind bars for drugs-related offences. The police, keen to up their quota of solved crimes, suggest that he admits to another crime he didn’t commit. Kolya agrees on condition that he can choose to serve his time in a prison near to his family. However, when they tell him he has to admit to robbing an old lady, he refuses and ends up harming himself in protest.

“I look at this man who has been to prison many times, and think with bitterness about the many people on the outside who sell their honour much more cheaply, and wouldn’t think it a crime at all to take a couple of thousand roubles off an old woman, but would cover their crime with clever words,” Khodorkovsky wrote. “I can’t help but be proud of Kolya.”

The jailed businessman’s son says the columns show how much his father has changed in prison. “He has gone from a pragmatic, efficient businessman who only judges people on the work they do to being a much softer, more compassionate person,” he said.

Shaun Walker, The Independent



About Marc Leprêtre

Marc Leprêtre is researcher in sociolinguistics, history and political science. Born in Etterbeek (Belgium), he lives in Barcelona (Spain) since 1982. He holds a PhD in History and a BA in Sociolinguistics. He is currently head of studies and prospective at the Centre for Contemporary Affairs (Government of Catalonia). Devoted Springsteen and Barça fan…
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