The Mask of Submissiveness

Review: Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s ‘My Fellow Prisoners’

Mikhail Khodorkovsky
Mikhail Khodorkovsky / AP
• February 14, 2015 5:00 am


Mikhail Khodorkovsky learned to sleep lightly in Russia’s prison camps.

One night, he bolted upright after hearing what sounded like choking. It came from the bathroom:

The light bulb on the toilet wall is protected by a heavy-duty grille, some two and a half to three meters above the floor. Attached to this grille I see a cord made out of a torn bed-sheet, and hanging from the cord—Artyom. By the look of it, he’s clambered on to the toilet and jumped off, but the cord has stretched a bit and so his feet—the very tip of his toes—are just touching the ground as the rope bounces up and down.

He’s wheezing, clearly no longer aware of what’s happening. I dash toward him and grab him, lifting him up with one hand and attempting to pull the cord off with the other. I can’t do it. You wouldn’t think he’d be that heavy but he’s like a dead weight and I just can’t lift him.

Grabbing him with both hands I just manage to hoist him up a little so that he can breathe, and then I call in a hoarse whisper (so that security don’t come running): ‘Guys, help me!’

This minute locked in an embrace with a semi-corpse feels like one of the longest in my life.

Khodorkovsky and the other prisoners were able to slip the noose off Artyom and revive him. The camp authorities denied him early parole as punishment for his attempted suicide.

Artyom’s story is a common one in Russia’s system of labor camps, which is little changed since the days of the Soviet-era Gulag. Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon who has become one of Putin-era Russia’s most prominent dissidents after a 10-year stint in prison, tells their stories in his latest memoirs, My Fellow Prisoners.

According to Khodorkovsky, Artyom received an eight-year prison sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. After obtaining a job at a new construction company, his bosses went on leave for weeks. Investors called and said $8 million was missing. He had no means of cobbling together the one million—in rubles—demanded by the police officer to avoid jail. Instead, the local authorities seized his car and most of his possessions. His wife only visited him once in prison.

Artyom complained to the other prisoners that, "his children are too ashamed to look him in the eye because ‘Dad’s a swindler who robbed people,’" and that "the truth is irrelevant if you haven’t the money for a bribe," Khodorkovsky records. But no one else really listened. Everyone had a similar story, and at some point you had to grapple with those problems yourself. Only Artyom couldn’t.

One in every 100 Russians is currently in prison, and one in 10 males spend time at the camps for some part of their lives. Many are imprisoned for petty crimes such as drug possession or stupid drunken acts. Half of those freed eventually return, devoid of purpose in the outside world and longing for the familiarity of the prison walls. All have been debased to "statistical report fodder" by what Khodorkovsky terms the "bureaucratic-police state," where people are "kicked to death" and courts "cover up crimes and convict the innocent."

Some find that engaging in corruption is the only way to survive. Khodorkovsky meets a shepherd who tended his local state farm and sold some sheep on the side to finance his daughter’s education. Was his nine-year prison sentence worth it, Khodorkovsky asks? "Of course," the man replies.

Others are more fully coopted by the state, becoming "ordinary decent servants of the current regime." In prison, these are the inmates enlisted by the camp administration to keep the others in line. Some enjoy the ephemeral sense of superiority as they beat their fellow prisoners, others not as much. But better to follow orders and not suffer the abuse yourself. After awhile, these men become unrecognizable as human beings—even to themselves.

"What happens to those of us who are too frightened to stand up for our rights, who adapt and hide behind a mask of submissiveness?" Khodorkovsky writes. "Does this protective mask not morph to become our real face? Do we not gradually turn into slaves, silent and unresponsive, but prepared to commit any abomination if so ordered from on high?"

Yet even in this grim environment there are moments when conscience rises above fear. In another vignette related by Khodorkovsky, Lyosha was a young shepherd from a small village who landed in the camps after killing a thief. He was a hard worker who mostly kept to himself at the prison’s sewing workshop.

When called as a witness for one of Khodorkovsky’s endless hearings, Lyosha did the unexpected. He told the truth. He pointed to the camp’s head of operations, who gave him two packs of cigarettes and instructed him to lie about Khodorkovsky. Lyosha’s admission could have earned him severe retribution. But the other prisoners now respected him, and the camp administrators were scared to touch him.

"You haven’t done anything bad to me," he tells Khodorkovsky after the trial. "I couldn’t do it."

Khodorkovsky says, "we make a deal with our conscience," often choosing not to speak out against injustice. "How will we know when ‘the other party’—our conscience—has refused it? Is it only when we end up facing adversity ourselves?"

Some of Khodorkovsky’s descriptions are poignant, like the despondent drug addict Oleg who shovels snow, "a gangly, sad figure against a white swirling background." Others are effective, if crude: "You either come to terms with it and enjoy the benefits, and feel like a piece of shit, or else you fight it, in the realization that they’ll cover you with shit from head to toe."

Khodorkovsky sees the downfall of Russian President Vladimir Putin as inevitable. He resurrected his advocacy foundation, Open Russia, after his release from prison in December 2013. The loose network of journalists and activists is mobilizing supporters for the 2016 parliamentary elections, and one ally is even crafting a constitution for a post-Putin democracy.

But some like-minded Russian democrats have serious misgivings about working with Khodorkovsky. Russian liberals have never really forgiven him for the way he made his billions—by turning the state oil enterprise Yukos into a highly profitable venture through price manipulation and offshore accounts. Yukos prospered in the chaotic Russia of the 1990s and early 2000s, when a cadre of oligarchs privatized portions of the state economy but shunned democratic reforms to the political system.

Khodorkovsky eventually came to argue publicly that more transparency in the system was needed if Yukos was to remain a profitable company after the financial shocks of the late ‘90s. But Putin would have none of it. Khodorkovsky had his spoils, now Putin and his allies wanted theirs. When Khodorkovsky reportedly raised concerns in 2003 to Putin about a deal where an old KGB friend of the president’s appeared to profit, Putin riposted: "Yukos has excess reserves, and how did it get them?" Khodorkovsky was arrested months later.

Whether Khodorkovsky can unify Russia’s fragmented democratic opposition or not, it remains unclear how many other rank-and-file Russian citizens would join him. Thousands protested Putin’s re-election in 2012, but he now enjoys some of his highest approval ratings ever following the annexation of Crimea and his support for separatists destabilizing Ukraine.

Russians still find comfort in appeals to stability and nationalism, especially after the turmoil of the 1990s. But Putin’s brand of nationalism is a false one—a form of irredentism that another famous Russian dissident, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, would have said is "devoid of a higher perspective" and "puts national self-assertion above a humble attitude toward God’s heaven."

Even Khodorkovsky admits that the Russian people might not be ready for a new political system. But that won’t stop him from trying, as he recently told the New Yorker.

"The only way to improve things is through violent methods," he said. "You—we all—are not ready for these methods. So then let’s agree that we’re going to use the methods we can use in order not to worsen our situation."

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