Het Spectrum, Amsterdam
Howard Roark, Moscow
Ajakirjade Kirjastus, Estonia
On 25 October 2003 Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a founder of what was until recently the largest Russian oil company, Yukos, now 48 years old, was arrested. His first trial lasted almost a year, the second one and a half years. Khodorkovsky spent a year in a prison camp in Chita (Siberia), and the rest of the time in prisons, in a constantly lit cell under 24-hour video surveillance. He will be jailed at least until 2016. At the moment he is jailed in a prison camp in the Russian Republic of Karelia.
Khodorkovsky has never admitted his guilt - neither in the case of tax evasion which he was accused of, nor in the case of the oil which his company Yukos supposedly stole - and in such an absurd quantity that the quantities allegedly stolen correspond to the total output. He has never appealed for clemency, asked for leniency or entered into deals and compromises with the authorities to be freed from prison - that would have meant admitting guilt, which he is not ready to do.
Why a book by and about Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the most prominent prisoner in Russia? He is the most intelligent of his generation, the only oligarch who neither went abroad nor submitted to Putin, the only one who has a vision of a different economy and a different society, concepts with which Russia would clearly have been better off in recent years than under the current government. He is the greatest threat to Putin and embodies the civil society counter-model to the latter's myopic power politics, a bearer of hope for the post-Putin/Medvedev era - provided he survives his personal "Robben Island".
While Khodorkovsky has already published several journal articles and corresponded amongst others with Ludmila Ulitzkaya, in this book he reveals for the first time very personal information. It has often been said of him that he is more computer than human, but for all the self-possession that distinguishes Khodorkovsky, here he reveals his fears, concerns, and hopes. He describes what led up to his arrest, who was responsible for it and what their aim was, what his years of imprisonment were like for him and how he faces the allegations against him. And he describes his meetings with judges and prosecutors, with guards and fellow prisoners, who include psychopaths and idiots, intelligent and interesting people, and with whom the exchange is worthwhile so as to survive and not to sink into solitude. This book shows clearly where he gets his strength from - books, which he reads everywhere and in every situation, play an important role - without which he would not have survived the seven years of his captivity.
Who is he, this man who at forty was the richest businessman in Russia? How did he get there? What part did his Jewish ancestry play? Who are his friends and enemies? Was it a coincidence that he was put in prison at precisely the time he was about to found - as planned with Chevron Texas - the world's largest oil company? Did he have serious political ambitions? Why did he prefer to go to prison, even though he could have settled abroad, as other shareholders of the company did? How did he survive the Russian Gulag? How did his will remain unbroken, where does he find the power still to plead his innocence before the courts, better than any lawyer? What does he hope for? What does he believe in?
Khodorkovsky is an "atypical" oligarch. He was quick to promote the search for alternative energy sources, and established the "Open Russia" fund to advance the IT networking of the country and the development of a civil society. Does he pose a threat to those in power in Russia who come from the KGB? Does he want to take revenge for the fact that his company has been taken away from him and that he has been deprived of his freedom for years? Has he changed over the years he spent behind bars? Does he hope for a political career if he is freed? How important is his family to him - his wife, his children, his parents? After seven years in prison, is Khodorkovsky still the same, or has he become a different person?
The questions go on. We know little about Mikhail Khodorkovsky as a person. Like most major Russian businessmen, he is a rather closed, analytical and pragmatic man, whom it's difficult to move to an open discussion. The idea of writing this book first came to Natalia Gevorkyan after Mikhail Khodorkovsky said he was ready for such a conversation. For reasons well known, this conversation is difficult to achieve. Khodorkovsky is either in prison or on trial, where there is no opportunity to put questions to him. Nevertheless, the dialogue has been begun. Sometimes Gevorkyan is surprised by Mikhail Khodorkovsky's openness, then once more by his reserve.
Out of the planned twelve chapters of the book at least five will be written by Khodorkovsky, while in the others Gevorkyan will present further quotations from him (printed in italics), none of which have yet been published elsewhere. In prison Khodorkovsky writes under extremely difficult conditions, and the risks he runs should not be underestimated - every time he publishes an article, or if his wife or his mother give an interview, he ends up in solitary confinement in a cold, bare room, with only bread and water.
This book is above all about Khodorkovsky. But it is also about Russia, about power in the country, about Putin and Medvedev, and the relationship of power and money. It's not just about the past, but also the future of the country. This will emerge just when we know whether Khodorkovsky is sentenced to another twenty years in prison or whether the authorities choose to show a "human face" and release him on expiry of his first sentence, which would be in October 2011. Paradoxically, Khodorkovsky's fate will be an accurate barometer of the political decision that Putin and Medvedev must take on the eve of the presidential election campaign in 2012.
This story, which is heading for an optimistic or tragic end, began on the eve of the 2004 presidential elections as a PR stunt by the secret service man in the administration, who played off the people's hatred for the so-called oligarchs. These were people who had become rich in the nineties, while the majority of the population of had to contend with the consequences of the reforms. This story too will end before an election campaign. But the cry "Down with Putin!" is now heard more frequently at demonstrations, and according to polls 63 percent of Russians believe that Khodorkovsky was imprisoned not because of his unpaid taxes and stealing his own company's oil, but because a group of officials and business people from Putin's circle wanted to acquire his group - which was certainly not to the financial detriment of the long-time president and current prime minister.
Khodorkovsky's accounts are supplemented by the revelations of other participants in this drama - from the major shareholders of the former company Yukos, to those by whom they were deprived of their business, their freedom and their homeland. Even Igor Sechin (between 1999 and 2008 deputy chief of Putin's administration; leader of the Kremlin's Siloviki faction, a statist lobby gathering former security services agents) will be questioned, the man Khodorkovsky considers to be the main culprit of his fate. Similarly, Vladimir Putin, who openly displays his antipathy for Khodorkovsky. A discussion is also planned with Alexander Voloshin, who at the time of Khodorkovsky's arrest was head of the presidential administration, as well as with Khodorkovsky's former partner, Roman Abramovich. Gevorkyan will also interview Khodorkovsky's relatives as well as academics and experts in Russia and abroad with whom he has worked.
Natalia Gevorkyan is the ideal partner for Khodorkovsky on this book project. Born in Moscow in 1956, she studied journalism at Moscow State University and worked for ten years in several East European countries. In 1989 she returned to the Russian capital out of enthusiasm for Gorbachev's perestroika and worked for the Moscow News newspaper. In 1991 she received the American "Freedom of Press" prize, and in 1992 she published "The KGB is alive". Since 1996 she has written for the respected Russian newspaper Kommersant, first as a special correspondent for politics and large-scale business, later as the newspaper's Paris correspondent. In 1998 she received the "Golden Pen" journalism prize, the Russian equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, for her interview with General Pinochet. She has interviewed most of the oligarchs, and in 2000 published the first book of interviews with Vladimir Putin.
Khodorkovsky met her in the early nineties, and when Putin came to power, they met more frequently, in the last year before his arrest in one-on-one meetings. Khodorkovsky would have been excited to discuss new ideas on economics and politics with an experienced journalist, and he appreciated her ability to listen and her willingness to exercise discretion. So developed a relationship of trust on which they can now build. The star journalist has excellent networks and is familiar with all the major figures in politics and economics - the ideal conditions to shed light on the background of the Khodorkovsky case.