10 Years In a Russian Labor Camp: Mikhail Khodorkovsky

The former Russian oligarch talks openly about Vladimir Putin, the election hacking, and the country Churchill referred to as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Jeff Cunningham
5 min readNov 5, 2017
Mikhail Khodorkovsky in a cage in a Russian courtroom (image: Business Insider)

Mikhail Khodorkovsky is the former CEO of Russian oil company Yukos, a company that was seriously in debt when he took over in 1997. He transformed Yukos into the country’s second-largest oil producer, and by 2003 he was the richest man in the country.

Later that year he was jailed by the Russian government and imprisoned for 10 years after publicly criticizing endemic corruption. He was confined to a Russian labor camp until German president Angela Merkel intervened with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Putin gambled that in releasing Khodorkovsky, the former oil oligarch would disappear quietly.

It didn’t quite turn out that way.

Interviewing Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Jeff Cunningham: Take us back to the morning of October 2003 when Secret police commandos stormed your plane. Yet, you said you felt total relaxation?

Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Over a span of several months, there was the expectation that this arrest was about to happen.

I was resisting the political drift of my country at that time. I wasn’t the only one, but I was the focus of the attack. It was clear which way things were going: they had arrested an employee of my company and then a friend. It was obvious they were preparing to arrest me. They allowed me to leave the country hoped that I would stay away. But I felt I had to return, and once I did, the countdown started. So, yes, you could say a certain weight lifted off my shoulders when I was finally arrested.

JC: You left Russia and then returned. Did you have any idea how tough it was going to be?

MK: I talked with friends before I returned. We were guessing that I would spend from two to four years in jail. It’s not that I was looking forward to it, but I was ready to do that. When it turned out to be 10 years, I would say that was a bit excessive.

JC: How did the ten years in prison change you?

MK: It’s very hard for me to distinguish between how I changed from being in prison and how I changed simply because I got ten years older.

In jail, I also met people who never want to leave jail. Some people in Russian jails tattoo prison cell bars across their face, as a sign that they refuse liberation, refuse to be free. But the overwhelming majority of the people I saw in Russian prisons are very young. These are people that need to be worked with because the prison system de-socializes them as people.

JC: What is the biggest problem facing former prisoners?

MK: The biggest problem they face is that after prison, they’ve been out of the workforce for several years, and it’s hard to get back.

But really the most important thing is that these are young people and what is being beaten into the heads in prison is “You don’t need to think. Do not think.” The authorities do all your thinking for you. Now, this person gets released. The military won’t take him even though the military’s a place where ‘Don’t think” might actually be a useful skill. Nobody’s going to hire them for any decent job because everybody needs independent thinkers.

“Don’t you realize you’ve created a factory for producing gangsters?”

JC: Where can they go?

MK: The only place is to go is into crime, where they play the role of foot soldiers. You go to work for a criminal organization. There, “Don’t think, just do” is exactly what is required. Some guy tells you, “Go and beat that person up.” You don’t think. You just go and beat that person up. I spoke with the prison authorities on many occasions. I asked them, “What are you doing? Don’t you realize you’ve created a factory for producing gangsters?”

Their answer, “What can we do? These are our instructions.” I think this is something that absolutely has to be changed.

JC: When you were released from prison, you said, “It was all like autumn rain, an unpleasant phenomenon, nothing more.” What did you mean?

MK: This is just how I perceive things. But I am not so calm about everything. There are people for whom I have strong negative feelings. One of these, Igor Sechin, I would call my bitter enemy. If I can do something to ensure that he ends his life in jail, I’m going to do that. Why? Because he crossed the line and made it personal.

JC: How did he cross the line?

MK: A young lawyer who worked for my company died because of him. It wasn’t just by accident. This was intentional murder. It was a horrible death. In one year in jail, this person went from stage one AIDS to stage four because they refused to let him have medicine. The reason they weren’t letting him have the medicine was that they wanted him to give certain testimony against me. That’s personal.

JC: While you were in prison, your mother, Marina, said, “It is hard to stay strong, but people should tell the truth and should not be afraid.” Did those words inspire you?

MK: For myself, what my parents think of me is important.

There is time back when I was working in the Young Communist League and my mother said to me that she’s ashamed that her son is working in the Young Communist League. I didn’t understand it then, but it certainly had an impact on me. When my mother told me “you have to remain strong and I’m proud of you,” that really had an impact on me.

For the complete interview with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, click here.