MOSCOW, January 27 (Kevin O’Flynn for The Moscow News) – Former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky has spoken about his life in jail in detail for the first time in a wide-ranging interview published Monday in daily newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets.
President Vladimir Putin freed Khodorkovsky last month after a decade in prison on tax evasion and fraud charges in a surprise decision that some have attributed to a hope for a public relations boost ahead of the Winter Olympics.
Khodorkovsky thinks there was a very different reason.
“My version is more conspiratorial,” he told the paper, saying that his release was a way to strike at certain people in Putin’s circle.
“He had two equal choices: Either give [former Defense Minister Anatoly] Serdyukov 10 years in jail or release me. One or the other would have about the same effect,” he said.
“We are talking about very specific people. It showed them that they don’t have the right to influence all the president’s decisions. That is very important to them,” said Khodorkovsky, adding that some of those people only learned of the decision about his release from media reports.
“I think that was the lesson for that public: Some decisions he makes himself,” he said.
Khodorkovsky listed no names, but his words seemed to hint at more hardline Putin supporters such as Igor Sechin, a long-time Kremlin insider who heads state-run energy company Rosneft and was closely involved in Khodorkovsky’s prosecution.
Most of the interview deals with the time Khodorkovsky spent in jail.
“There are three types [of camps] … black, red and regime. An average camp is a regime one. There they follow the law from A to Z. In the black ones, the criminals rule,” he said, adding that there is no hard alcohol or swearing in such camps.
“In the red zone, it’s the reverse. There the prison officials use the prisoners to act against the other prisoners. ... There is no rule of law. It’s a ‘political regime,’” he said.
Khodorkovsky talked of the different castes in prison and how everyone is strictly divided into one or the other. The majority refuse to deal with prison officials in any way, he said, but added that there are also those who work with them, ratting out other prisoners.
Khodorkovsky says that he spoke civilly to officials and wrote legal complaints – neither of which the first caste is allowed to do – but that he was not a snitch.
“They simply decided that I was an alien. And can you deal with an alien?” he said.
He recalled one incident that brought him face-to-face with the camp officials and the criminal authorities. A photo taken by another prisoner surfaced in Russian media, and Khodorkovsky was called in by camp officials, who asked him who took the photo.
“I said, ‘How do I know?’ They understood that they couldn’t do anything. They threatened me, but what could they threaten me with? After some time, I was called to the Kremlin.”
This wasn’t the Moscow Kremlin, Khodorkovsky explained to the surprised Moskovsky Komsomolets journalist, but the name used for the hut of the camp’s chief criminal. In prison camps, the chief criminal is called the “smotryashchy,” or the “overseer,” and his hut is called “the Kremlin.”
When Khodorkovsky went to “the Kremlin,” he met the “overseer,” who had the nickname of Pasha-Mongol. He asked Khodorkovsky who took the photo, but Khodorkovsky refused to tell him.
“Here he goes into a stupor (cognitive dissonance). It is impossible for someone to refuse to answer an ‘overseer’ in a black zone prison. But it seems it is possible. We stood and looked at each other, and he said, ‘Well, OK, let’s go and have a tour of my hut.’”
When asked what he saw in prison that has changed his view of the world, he said: “How terrible vodka and drugs are!”