Insights into democracy, refined in a Russian prison

International Herald TribuneDecember 26, 2013 

Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks during a news conference in Berlin, Sunday. The former oil baron and prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was reunited with his family in Berlin on Saturday, a day after being released from a decade-long imprisonment in Russia.


BERLIN – “I tried to look at my situation pragmatically,” Mikhail Khodorkovsky said quietly, trying to explain how he kept himself going for 10 years in prison and labor camps.

“I said, OK, so they got me; OK, so the situation is bad. But it has certain possibilities.”

So he used the time to write, and think, and review his life. He did not succumb to a longing for revenge, he said, or regret for the loss of his business empire. And he did not dream too much of the future, just in case there was none.

Thirty-six hours after his release from a Russian labor camp, Khodorkovsky, now 50, was speaking to a small group of reporters Sunday in the Checkpoint Charlie Museum in Berlin. The museum is all about the dissident heroes of the Cold War, the victims of the East-West division that the Berlin Wall so starkly symbolized, and their successors today. Among the exhibitions is one dedicated, in fact, to Khodorkovsky.

Once the best-known and richest of Russia’s oligarchs, his arrest in 2003 and trial were widely perceived as a personal vendetta by President Vladimir Putin – the same man who abruptly released him by presidential decree last week – and transformed him from ruthless oligarch to a symbol of the arbitrariness of Putin’s Russia.

Yet on Sunday, dressed formally in a dark suit and white shirt, Khodorkovsky was often self-deprecating, and consistently reluctant to don the mantle of dissident hero or opposition symbol. Nor did he see his release as a sign of better things to come.

“My release is a ‘symbol’ of the fact that the authorities and President Putin are seriously concerned about the image of Russia,” he said. The impending Winter Olympics in Sochi was one factor, another is the damage that Russia’s negative image is doing to its international standing.

Was he grateful to Putin for releasing him? Khodorkovsky paused.

“It’s not so simple. In all these years, all the decisions about me were taken by one man: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. So today it is hard to say I am grateful. I have thought quite a bit about what words would express what I think. I am happy at his decision – I think that’s it.”

But Putin is not the problem in Russia, he said.

“The problem is that the large majority of our fellow citizens do not understand that they must take responsibility for their own fate. They entrusted their fate to Vladimir Vladimirovich, then they will entrust their fate to someone else.” Democracy, he said, will become real only when people learn to choose structures, political parties and representatives they control.

Khodorkovsky said that in prison he avoided thinking too much about his future, “to preserve my psychological stability,” since he did not know whether he would ever be released. In his appeal for a presidential pardon, he said, he wrote to Putin, telling him that he had no intention of returning to business, or of fighting for the shares in his dismembered oil company, Yukos, or of entering politics.

“I have earned one right for myself, at great cost: I have the right not to say what I don’t believe,” he said. “This precludes politics.”

Serge Schmemann is the editorial page editor of the International Herald Tribune.

The News Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service