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Moving Letters from a Jailed Russian Oligarch


April 29, 2012


Thank you very much for the book with your dedication. I hope that soon I’ll be able to read the book in its entirety. Like many of my countrymen, I know your extraordinary biography and the history of your fight and your accomplishments. I know that you followed my trial attentively; I saw you in court, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support.

I do not believe in the victory of ideological parties in Russia—our country is too colorful. Mikhail Prokhorov could create an American-style party and a mechanism for cumulating and coordinating the actions of opposition party leadership and the majority of the electorate. Whether he will want to do so, is a different question. And whether he will understand is still something else. For now, the situation is ripening, and as soon as a social crisis hits, general discontent will spill far and wide, and—unlike in 2005—the intelligentsia will support it and give it structure.

I think that Putin has some difficult years ahead. I find it hard to empathize with him, of course, since he brought all this upon himself. Our task is to build a framework that will halt the disintegration of the system. And there is such a possibility. Putin’s regime favors radicals and punishes moderates, expecting that this will discourage intellectuals from resisting. But he will not be able to hold anything or anyone back. If anything, we will have to hold ourselves back, so that we don’t end up following in the footsteps of the radicals.

I would advise staying focused on the problem of legality and the judicial system: people who work in this sphere turn, when it is required of them, into a gang that carries out the orders of political authorities, while on a day-to-day basis, like a Tatar-Mongolian horde, they graze upon Russia’s vast expanses....

July 2, 2012


I would like to join in the initiative of our Russian friends and be among the authors of a book inspired by your reflections, which is currently being prepared. Led by this intention, I’m sending you my essay about Vaclav Havel.

Your indomitable attitude in prison and during the trial, your refusal to emigrate and to capitulate, the system of values perceptible in your articles and interviews—all of this reminds me of the life and work of Havel, writer, citizen, political prisoner, and president. I hope that you will find some things in common with him as you read my reflections.

Vaclav Havel was my friend. We met during our dissident years, in the summer of 1978. Our friendship lasted until the very end, until Vaclav’s death. I admired him for his courage and determination, for the clarity of his thinking, for the sense of dignity and freedom that he exuded. Just as I admired Andrei Sakharov, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in October 1989.

Today I admire Mikhail Khodorkovsky and I do not wish to hide this admiration. When President Dmitri Medvedev announced his modernization policy, I happened to be in Moscow and had an opportunity to express publicly my opinion that, just as Mikhail Gorbachev’s phone call to Sakharov, and the subsequent release of Sakharov from prison, symbolized perestroika, so today the release of Khodorkovsky would be such a signal. Without it, declarations about modernizing Russia will remain empty platitudes. And so they have remained.

In court you declared: “I’m proud that, over the course of seven years of harassment, among thousands of Yukos workers, there was no one willing to become a false witness, to sell his soul and conscience. Dozens of people were subjected to threats, separated from their families and loved ones, thrown into the dungeons. Some were tortured. But while losing their health and years of their lives, these people preserved what they saw as most important—their dignity.” Havel also thought this way.

August 3, 2012


Thank you very much for your letter and your essay about Havel. I regret that I never had an opportunity to meet him and speak with him. Nor was I able to speak with other of our great contemporaries, including Andrei Sakharov. I therefore value first-hand testimony and impressions all the more.

How many centuries has it been already that my country has been grappling with revolutions and authoritarian governments? For how many centuries have we been unable to create a functional constitution and defend human rights on the basis of functioning law? I have encountered people who are convinced that the Russian nation is not fit for normal democratic rule, that Russians must have a tsar over them, that they are incapable of democratic self-organization. What is most amusing—or saddest—is that such pronouncements come not only from professional Russophobes who equate Russians with half-savages, but also from distinguished representatives of our own government.

Years of world wars, civil wars, and Stalinist repression deprived my country not only of many talented, honest, and dignified patriots, but also of self-organizing communities, which could educate us in the spirit of citizenship. The intelligentsia has been either decimated or thinned out in cities such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, and Samara. And yet it proved impossible to break the nation’s moral spine. In the most difficult of times, extraordinary people suddenly appeared—Dmitri Likhachov, Nikolai Vavilov, Sakharov, and many others—who for us were examples of moral victory, of the readiness and the ability to oppose dictatorship.

I believe that our nation has a right to a decent life. Unfortunately, by itself the right will not suffice—it has to be secured. It is necessary to “come out of the trenches.” Events in the winter and summer of 2011 and 2012 proved that in today’s Russia there are people who want this.

There is also another problem: limping Western democracy. There has been an accumulation of many mistakes that must be analyzed. Reflection is underway, and it will no doubt bring some results. Today many people doubt the universality of the democratic model, and underscore the achievements of authoritarian regimes that have liberalized their economies—China and Singapore, for example, but not only these.

We thus need honest, thoughtful answers to questions about the genesis of Russia’s authoritarian spiral, the advantages and disadvantages of the authoritarian model relative to the democratic one, and the limits of the principle of national self-determination—limits that make it possible to achieve and maintain not only economic but also social competitiveness.

I extend a handshake with unwavering respect and hope that we will soon meet in freedom.

January 26, 2013
Adam Michnik's Open Letter to Mikhail Khodorkovsky


I made many attempts to start this letter, but draft after draft landed in the wastebasket. It is difficult to write an open letter to a man who is himself locked up.

I asked many Russians—politicians and journalists, writers and scientists, businessmen and artists—about your trials. They all said the same thing: they were political trials, acts of revenge against Khodorkovsky. There was only one Russian who gave a different answer, and it was Putin. I described that interaction in the pages of Novaya Gazeta. Putin told me then that you have blood on your hands, and he suggested that if you agree to certain conditions you might be able to leave prison. Evidently you did not accept the offer. I congratulate you for your courage and your determination.

I read quite a bit about your involvement as a young man in the Komsomol. It is an experience that for many years I did not understand. Natalia Gevorkian, the co-author of your autobiography, Putin’s Prisoner, writes: “If fate would have made me cross paths with Khodorkovsky during that time, I would have probably tried to stay as far away from him as possible. As a matter of fact, I would have stayed away from any Komsomol activist. They always aroused my astonishment and distrust. I saw in them people who chose the Party path as careerists.” Things were similar with me. Rather early, as a sixteen-year-old, I entered the path of opposition; when I was eighteen, I got into trouble with the government for the first time. I regarded any career that involved the Communist Party apparatus or Communist Party membership as something morally reprehensible: it was the path of defenders of the dictatorship and lackeys of the authorities. Yet over time I would meet people who broke with the party apparatus and joined the opposition—which rather complicated my Manichean vision of the world.

Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images
A member of the Russian opposition bears an image of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

I was even more unsettled by the changes after 1989, when Polish society became internally conflicted in a very different way: the language of hardline anti-communism and nationalism was transformed into a purely political enterprise, and became the rhetoric of reaction, intolerance, and private score-settling. These people were not looking for allies in building a democratic Poland. They wanted to incite a countrywide hunt for red witches. They were—as I referred to them—“anti-communists with a Bolshevik face.”

In Poland, as in any other post-communist country, there are people like that. They may speak right-wing language or left-wing language, but envy is what they have in common. I think this is a very human trait. But it will hound you for the rest of your life, it will poison your life—and it will be proof that you did something that deserves the greatest respect, something that none of these small jealous types will ever be capable of doing. Fear or ineptitude condemns them to envy. Thus they will ascribe base motivations and vile deeds to you, as they have already done.

In the book, Gevorkian declared that “I had to write this book to understand why Khodorkovsky chose prison.” I, too, became fascinated by your choice. I never thought highly of the so-called oligarchs. You wrote: “I am ashamed that until 1998 I didn’t notice people.” This, however, is the very nature of the oligarch: he is interested only in money, in stock-market results, in corridors of power. He is a cynical sybarite who wishes constantly to increase his wealth. And you, too, were portrayed as “a cynical, smooth-talking Komsomol functionary”—aggressive, greedy, power-hungry.

You have described the mechanism for promoting political candidates from various parties, both ruling and opposition, which involved arrangements with the Kremlin. Deputies are sometimes bought and sold. The openness with which you describe this sordid arrangement is difficult for me to grasp, because in Poland interactions between business and politics are condemned by public opinion—but they remain concealed, even though they occur disconcertingly often. This is one of the great traps at the intersection of a parliamentary democracy and a market economy.

I observed the behavior of some oligarchs—Boris Berezovsky, for one—who amassed unimaginable fortunes as a result of the peculiar “prykhvatization” process. Claims that they were pursuing political power did not seem absurd to me. The state cannot function without money, but money cannot become the sovereign emperor of the state. That is why I had mixed feelings about the first phase of Putin’s war on the oligarchs. It was only your fate and the fate of Yukos that made me (and not only me) realize where the politics of Putin and his government were headed.

Your observations about Putin seem accurate to me. Yeltsin was “a leader of change, a man with a flexible mind,” whereas Putin is “a bureaucrat with a great memory, able to listen and arouse sympathy.” But he has, as you say, “a fixed understanding of the world. If your ideas fit in with his—great. If they don’t—he will not be swayed by any kind of evidence. Putin is the ideal figure of a stagnation leader.” Moreover, he “is an adherent of conspiracy theories. He knows how to listen and to accommodate his conversation partners, he learns quickly, but ... he attempts to fit other people’s viewpoints into his own inner model of reality. If you don’t fit the model—you’re out.” In another passage, you write: “I could not accept Putin, who is wise, powerful, and evil.... Putin does not empathize with people. Not in the least. He has his personal goals, and these determine his actions. All he sees is the game, where there are pawns instead of people.” You also write that you were once similar to him, but you “grew up.” This is perhaps the most interesting (because it is the most personal) aspect of your biography: the story of how you matured to become your present self. This certainly sets you apart from Putin, whom you persuasively portray as “a common, normal man who was profoundly influenced by his upbringing, both private and professional. He trusts no one except ‘his own’ men,” though even they do not get all that much trust.

As I was reading these reflections, I thought about Poland. Lech Wałęsa, Solidarity’s celebrated leader, was a bit like Yeltsin, even though he came from among the Gdańsk shipyard workers, while Yeltsin emerged from the ranks of the Sverdlovsk party apparatus. Observing Yeltsin, I felt as if Pugachev had arrived at the Kremlin after a successful rebellion. I regarded Wałęsa similarly. Putin, on the other hand, reminds me of Jarosław Kaczyński: the same ruthlessness, the same cynical capacity for cruelty, the same predilection for power. And is Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, any different?

They also share a vision of the state. “Putin,” you write, “prefers centralized rule that effectively combines legislative and judicial powers.... He believes in single-handed management—he does not believe in a state governed by law.... Putin believes that mobilization, control, and order can help create a country that will be respected by neighbors, a country where citizens will be satiated and therefore satisfied.” You observe that these are “archaic views,” that such a system of government works “only in a society that is like a herd of sheep.” I see it similarly. But I am troubled by the possibility that this archaism is a degenerate form of modernization—that Putinism may be a way of adapting the Chinese model to Russian realities. If Putin—who, by the way, plagiarizes Lukashenko—finds like-minded believers who share his political practices (Hungary, Romania, Poland, Ukraine ... ), isn’t this a tendency that could engulf a large part of Europe and the world? For what is Putin’s “sovereign democracy”? It is the conviction that he, Vladimir Putin, can put Khodorkovsky, Lebedev, and Magnitsky in jail, and no Brussels or Hague is going to interfere. Isn’t that also the stuff of Berlusconi’s dreams?

In your book, you describe your time in prison and in a labor camp. This locates your sober and calm account in the tradition of prison and gulag literature, and it simultaneously creates a framework for understanding the spiritual condition of the author. There is no exaggeration here, no excessive emotion, and no lament—so frequent among prisoners—over your own fate. The time of your imprisonment has become a time of moral and intellectual liberation for you. I believe that one day you will repeat after Solzhenitsyn: “blessed prison.” Putin made you—a Russian oligarch and billionaire—into a voice of conscience, the conscience of a Russia that is free, noble, and indomitable in its loyalty to reason and democratic values. Your attitude consistently demonstrates that, besides Putin’s Russia, there is a Russia of noble spirits and liberated minds. You remarked that you have always had the temperament of a leader, and now, in your ninth year in prison, you are again a leader—a leader of a moral opposition against the Putinist “sovereign democracy” that propagates barbarity and the police state.

Today Russia stands at a crossroads. It is a country characterized by the steady disintegration of democratic state institutions. It is also a country of powerful corruption, which you describe as something that “becomes the aim of entire business projects; their obvious meaning.... It may seem as if it’s about a road, a pipeline, or an ore deposit, but this is only a pretext to ‘rip someone off.’ Such corruption demolishes the economy.” And you put forward concrete proposals for preventing corruption. Your project for Russia is as banal as it is revolutionary. You declare that “I am deeply convinced that all political positions should be represented in the parliament, but only a strong, influential opposition, regardless of its political hue, is capable of securing the effectiveness of the ‘feedback loop’ between the government and society, and thereby preserving the stability of the state apparatus.” You differentiate—rightly—between lobbying and corruption. But you add, about Yukos, that “our company supported those deputies who represented ‘our regions’—and they defended our interests essentially out of a sense of responsibility. We were, however, the largest employer in the region. We financed their electoral campaigns and their philanthropic projects.”

This model—I’ll be honest—seems problematic to me. I know that these practices occur everywhere. But I think that the members of a parliament should represent not companies but parties, and their constituencies, and the common good. Yet it seems to me that this kind of thinking does not dominate your new project for Russia. It is an essential aspect of your project—if I understand it correctly—that Russia relinquish imperial thinking and the authoritarian model for the sake of embracing the nation-state, civil society, and parliamentary democracy. You insist that this means opting for Europe. “The most important task of the nation’s elites”—you write—“is to awaken in society a sense of responsibility for its fate and the creative potential associated with it.” Your project is attractive, sensible, and realistic. It is so good that—unlike so many Russian democrats—you are not a pessimist. Instead you stubbornly build hope and point to a light in the Russian tunnel.

You have written that “I realize there’s a large probability that I’ll never be let out. That’s why the questions ‘What will my children say about me? What do I live for?’ are so important to me.” It is difficult to read these words without being moved. For me, what you say about a “debt to pay,” about honor and love for Russia, should be hewn into Russian stone. In prison and in the labor camp, you were able to build a structure of inner freedom, and whether you lose or maintain that structure is solely up to you. Your persecutors are the natural descendants of those who hounded the best Russians; they are like scorpions or poisonous snakes; bad people. And yet you are not a radical. You are not considering revenge, you harbor no hatred or contempt. That is why your words have such power.

The great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert used to say that truth is where there are contradictions. You, Misha, are a perfect contradiction: that is your life’s path, from Komsomol activist to billionaire to political prisoner to the conscience of your country. I don’t know what future awaits Russia and what awaits you personally. As an old anti-Soviet Russophile, I am an optimist. I agree with your diagnosis: Putinism is archaic, and a system of stagnation. I believe that a thorny road to democracy awaits Russia, just as Western democracies followed a path of thorns. I do not believe that your role will be limited to giving unsolicited advice to future reformers. Your project will certainly become the centerpiece of many important debates. You are one of those people who change the world instead of adapting to it. That is why I am certain that you have already entered the pantheon of the most eminent figures in Russian history. Happy is the nation who has such people in its pantheon.

Herbert once remarked that one should go against the current, since only trash flows downstream. In the most difficult moments of their history, Poles have repeated: nil desperandum—let us not lose hope. And they have added: let us do what we should do, things will be what they can be.

Misha, please accept these words of brotherly solidarity from a Pole who knows the taste of prison bread very well.

Adam Michnik

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian oligarch, has been in prison in Russia since 2005 on charges widely regarded as politically motivated. Adam Michnik, a leader of the anti-Communist opposition in Poland in the 1970s and 1980s, is the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza. These letters have been translated by Agnieszka Marczyk.