Khodorkovsky: Putin Sent a Message That He’s Stable and Not Afraid

December 26, 2013
Mikhail Khodorkovsky after a press conference in Berlin on December 22, 2013 (AFP/File, David Gannon)

This is the second part of the first interview that Mikhail Khodorkovsky has given since his pardon last week. In this installment, he talks about Putin’s motives for freeing him, as well as his next steps now that he is a free man. — Ed.

Read part 1: Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “I Will Return to Russia”


YA: And now there’s Berlin, a five-star hotel, and you come into the room. What was the most surprising for you – the shower? The heated toilet? Or the ability to open the refrigerator? Or that you don’t have to rise on a schedule?

MK: You see, for me, it’s as if these ten years had never existed.

YA: What do you mean?

MK: Just so.

YA: You have become grey.

MK: Yes, possibly. Both grey, and some habits have been lost, and on the contrary, some habits appeared. But in the sense of everyday life – it’s as if these 10 years didn’t exist. Nothing stresses me. Nothing inspires me particularly. Should I say I’d really like to drink some champagne? I had told you that I’d like 100 grams [a glass] of ice-cold vodka, which I haven’t drunk yet, but given that you brought it, I think I can convince someone to freeze it for me and then I’ll drink it. But even so – likely this will sound strange, but I will tell you, and you try to believe me. I am absolutely indifferent to living conditions. 100 percent. I am absolutely indifferent to food. I could care less.

YA: Was it always like that or just now?

MK: It’s hard for me to say whether it was always like that. I have this characteristic of my memory: I very quickly forget what is not significant. But here my relatives come to visit me. I make a request for them to bring this or that. I make a request, so that it will be nice for them. But for me, it does.not.matter. I come away from the visit, go to the cafeteria, and eat the grub there. Most likely I shouldn’t tell this because most people won’t believe me, they’ll say I’m making this up. But it’s true. I could care less. What really did bother me, truly…I don’t know how much our government was aware of this – it was the pointlessness of existence. Here I go to work for eight hours, and taking into account the builds and rebuilds, taking into account the start-up, the wind-down, the approach, this was 10-11 hours a day (I worked as required), I am doing nonsense. You understand, I’m just wasting valuable time.

YA: You were gluing folders?

MK: I was gluing folders, or sewing mittens, it’s not important. I was wasting valuable time. I knew that if I wanted to write something good – it wasn’t important, a letter or an article or something else – I had to do this in the first half of the day, while my brain was still working well. I am an early bird. But that was the time I was gluing envelopes. It was exactly for that reason that I liked prison better – there, when the trial wasn’t in session, from morning on you could carve out three hours for yourself for a bit of a book or an article of some sort. The colony didn’t give you that opportunity. And that was the worse thing.

Life on a schedule absolutely didn’t bother me at all. I’m a conservative by nature, and for me to get up every day at 6:00 am was a good thing. If I eat something at 6:00 pm every day – that’s great. But to lose time, and in fact so fundamentally, by years…to kill time…that, of course, was bad.


YA: You warned Platon Lebedev that you would be submitting a request for a pardon? Did he know?

MK: No one knew.

YA: Will he submit a request?

MK: No, he said that around the 25th of the month, he and I would discuss this. Here, in my view, there are pluses and minuses. Let’s put it this way, in a certain sense, perhaps it would be simpler to serve out his term.

YA: And Pichugin?

MK: (Sigh). I can repeat what I said once. Wars do not end until at least one living soldier returns home. I’m in absolute agreement with that maxim. It can’t be said that the topic of YUKOS is closed, but until now, this problem isn’t resolved.

YA: But what can you do, Mikhail Borisovich?

MK: That’s a question which I won’t discuss. I want to establish that for me it is not solved, and this problem will never be solved. I can also say the hell with the assets for ten years…

YA: Are you serious – about the assets?

MK: I’m serious, and for me personally, that issue is closed. But I will never say that the problem is closed while Pichugin is in prison.


YA: What do you think, when Putin let you out of prison, what signal did he want to send to the country? What did he want to say with that?

MK: Knowing Putin to the extent that I can know him (and I’m an impertinent person and can say that likely it’s about 15 percent of the explored territory), I can say that above all, he wanted to send a signal to those around him – stop screwing around. Apparently, he can’t instill order there in some other way, without resorting to arrests, without such a fairly strong means. I would put it this way: to bring order to the turmoil he was wrought around him, he could only lock up Serdyukov for about 10 years or let me out. I’m glad that the second decision was taken.

YA: So above all, this was a signal to his guys: you’ve gone too far?

MK: And second, this is a signal to the public, and the main thing, the world, saying “I feel I’m sufficiently stable. I’m not afraid.” That’s the signal that he wanted to send, in my view. But I could be one hundred percent wrong, because we are dealing with questions of psychology here.

YA: We never talked about this when you were in prison, but now I will be so bold as to ask: why didn’t they kill you, although in labor camps and prisons that would be easy to do?

MK: First, I am firmly convinced, that if Putin gave the command to kill me, I’d be killed. But Putin for some reason forbid doing two things regarding me: he forbid them to touch my family and he forbid them to use force against me. There was an absolutely strict prohibition imposed on that.

YA: Why?

MK: Well, let’s not have me be Putin’s psychoanalyst…

YA: But in the first labor camp, in Krasnokamensk, they did try to stab you, even so…

MK: That was an excess, I assure you…I immediately tried to evaluate the situation, from where it came. And realized that they cannot use violence on me.

YA: Why did Putin pardon you? Someone said that after he learned about your mother’s illness, he indulged in sentimentality.

MK: The fact that he pardoned me doesn’t prove that at all. Perhaps he did take account my personal circumstances, but for him it was an absolutely pragmatic calculation.

YA: So that you would leave?

MK: I don’t know.

YA: Sochi?

MK: I don’t know.

YA: What aim is he pursuing?

MK: Now it is entirely obvious not only from the example of my fate, but from the example of what he is doing with the news agencies [closure of RIA Novosti and reorganization of state news outlets under Rossiya Segodnya—Ed], he has become involved in management of the reputational component of his regime. And now for some reasons he has become concerned about this. Whether it’s Sochi, or the desire to use “soft power” in some situations, or the desire to balance the European and the Chinese vectors, whether he felt that too great a stake has been made on the Asian direction, and if we lose Europe, then the Asian direction, especially the Chinese comrades, will squeeze more out of us than we’d like…I just don’t know what reasons are the basis for him, in order to start to try to manage the reputation of the regime – and the country as a whole, but the regime as well. Nevertheless, that’s what he is involved with today.

YA: Why did they have to stage this hysterics over “Khodorkovsky’s third case,” when – as we now understand – your letter and your request already lay on Putin’s desk and Putin was reviewing it? A famous politician told me that individual elements of the system began to work independently of each other. And that has a terrible history. That’s how it was obviously with the NKVD… [Stalin’s secret police—Ed]

MK: The thing is that as soon as he felt that he is not an arbiter for part of society, he simply took that part of society and put it out of bounds.

YA: You mean—us?

MK: Uh-huh. He simply put it out of bounds. And said that the role of arbiter is more precious to him than representative of everyone. It is a certain technological choice by a politician. Beyond all this, I believe, is concealed only one serious problem: we are all people and all of our lifespans – both political and personal – are finite, and consequently when that lifespan is over for Putin, the unfolding of the situation on the basis of brutal conflict inside [Putin’s] entourage will lead to a time of troubles.


YA: You have been in freedom for only 24 hours, and you already have an iPhone. How do you like it?

MK: You know, in the life sense it’s as if the 10 years never happened. I got out, I found it. I manage it worse than the young people do, but people are helping me.

YA: Everyone wants to know: will you open a Facebook account? And a Twitter account? Instagram?

MK: (Laughs) I will tell you this: naturally I will discuss this with my respected colleagues, but it’s wrong to spend more than an hour a day sitting on the Internet.

YA: You’re just like Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin) who believes that the Internet is a garbage dump.

MK: No, no. I think he doesn’t believe that and undoubtedly he uses it. Personally or not. I can’t imagine a professional spy who would see such an information field, and then wouldn’t begin playing on it.

I believe that the social networks, even so, are to a large extent chatter. I am not saying that you don’t need that. But to spend more than an hour a day on it I consider unproductive. Unlike politicians who have to get elected somewhere, I can allow myself to talk to those people and even represent the interests of those people who I like.

YA: How are we to understand you? You’re not going to get involved in politics, you are not going to get back the YUKOS assets, you don’t want to run for president…

MK: Without any doubt, I will be involved in civic activity. I will become involved in civil society. Without a doubt, I will advance the idea not for the sake of which, but with which I went to prison: that Russia needs either a parliamentary, or at least, a presidential-parliamentary republic. I will try to convince people that this is necessary.

YA: What plans do you have? What will you do?

MK: I didn’t make plans, and for now I will look around for a while. I will listen to people, because of course, I want to know their opinion. Not only information, but opinion. I’ve been cut off from a significant portion of the flow, after all. After that, I will make some decisions for myself. But it is entirely obvious that politics – in the sense of election to some government bodies – is not interesting for me to get involved in. I don’t want to lead bureaucrats. I don’t want to get involved in business, either, I have already passed through that topic. As for what form and what type of civic activity I will become involved in – I will think about it.


We are still awaiting the Russian transcript of the rest of the interview (on Navalny, the North Caucasus, nationalism, and other topics) in the New Times. The videos of the entire interview are now available in Russian in five parts at