“As a Russian citizen I am proud of Misha. As his mother I fear for him every day.”
Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s mother Marina Philippovna talks to Anna Zebrowska of the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza (17 March 2008).
“They call it ‘three hours, including access’. The clock starts as soon as you go through the prison gates. It’s an enormous place. First I go to the director, and wait for him to write out my pass. Then they give me an officer who escorts me to the meetings room. We go through one building, up a staircase, along a corridor, down a staircase, across a courtyard, then another building, corridor and courtyard. You must return to the prison gates within the space of those same three hours.”
When Marina Philippovna last visited her son it turned out that the prison director had retired. His replacement asked the duty officer a great many questions about the conditions under which the country’s most famous prisoner received such visits — as a result, the time left for that visit was reduced to only two hours.
“When he finally signed my pass I almost ran,” says Marina Philippovna. “The staircase is steep and I had to go up to the second floor. I’m short and I was wearing a winter coat. It was impossible and I asked the prison warders to let me have a rest. I took a Validol tablet and tried to calm down.”
Can you hold Misha’s hand during your visit?
“Officially it’s not allowed. We sit on opposite sides of the table and can only look at each other and talk. To one side sits his guard. If the conversation strays onto forbidden subjects he must intervene.”
Do you have a list of permitted subjects for conversation?
“The lawyers explained everything to me. For the most part we talk about family matters. But we also touch on politics if there has been something interesting in the newspapers or on television. And about the articles Misha writes, since there have been no warnings previously that this is forbidden.”
The school in Koralovo
[...] “Papa, let’s set up a school for 20-30 children in Koralovo,” suggested Khodorkovsky to his father Boris. “A school for orphans, there are so many of them now. You take charge of it.”
“Are you crazy? It’s a big responsibility, looking after children.”
“You’ll live there with Mama and work at the school.”
“No.” “You’ll be looking after orphans!” “No, I won’t!”
“Think of your own childhood ...”
In the 1940s Boris Khodorkovsky’s father went missing, presumed dead, on the outskirts of Moscow. To this day no one knows where he is buried. His mother worked two or three factory shifts at a time and did not come home for weeks. Eight-year-old Boris was left to look after his little 4-year-old sister. He found food scraps on rubbish heaps and begged at the city’s rail stations.
The school is only forty kilometres from Moscow but it’s not easy to get there. When we reach the end of the Rublyovskoye Highway, along which the New Russians drive to their fancy country houses, we turn off down a side road. It’s muddy and the trees on both sides look dead.
Finally we see a sign, The Podmoskovny Lyceum, and gates with a guard post. Before Khodorkovsky was arrested journalists were not allowed into Koralovo — the school did not want publicity. This time Marina Philippovna also phoned to request that we do not disturb the children. They have already had enough disturbing experiences in their lives. Beyond the gates lie an old park and buildings in the classical style. Snow covers the ground like an eiderdown and laps about the yellow stucco walls. It’s a fairy-tale scene! As though we were not in Russia. A grey-headed woman comes out of the nearest house. She is short, attractive and bears herself with dignity.
“There was a children’s home here after the 1917 Revolution and before the collapse of the USSR it was a rest home. The 18th century gentry house was left without door frames or doors, the ceilings had fallen in and birches were growing on the roof,” she says as she escorts us into the house. In the office hangs a portrait of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In the sitting room there are photographs of those who have graduated from the school since 1994: long dresses and suits, happy proud faces. Seventeen children joined the school when it opened that autumn, thirteen years ago. Now it has 250 pupils and the plan was to increase the number to one thousand.
“That’s Zhenya,” says Marina pointing to a boy in one of the photographs. “His mother drank and he was taken into care. His father was a professional thief and died in prison. Zhenya has since graduated from a military academy. Today he’s deputy commander of a border guard unit. We saw Lyosha on television. A boy was crying in the ruins of the apartment building blown up in Kaspiisk [terrorist atrocity in 1999], the only one in his family to survive. We found him in a children’s refuge. For six months he hardly spoke a word. When Lyosha laughed again we all cried. Now he’s studying at the Gubkin oil and gas institute.”
Ten-year-old Tanya was brought to the school by her father from war-torn Tajikistan. “Please take her, otherwise they’ll kill her there or rape her.” During the night Tanya cut the hair off all the dolls in the school. But she was not expelled. One of the carers who had made fun of her Armenian origins was immediately given the sack. Whatever problems the teenagers at Koralovo might face there was no room there for ethnic conflicts. [...]
Formally, Marina Philippovna is on the board of trustees. “In practice, I’m grandmother here. We have children who were caught up in terrorist attacks, such as Nord-Ost and Beslan [theatre and school sieges, respectively, in Moscow and the North Caucasus]. Psychologists work with them but they find it easier to complain to granny. When Misha used to visit his only request was that we brought the children up to be educated and without complexes.”
The Decembrists had it easier
After Marina Philippovna has shown us the photographs, she gives us tea and cakes. Boris Khodorkovsky is still recovering from an operation and we do not see him. “It’s our golden wedding anniversary in October. If we live that long.”
The most important day in her life is 26 June, the birthday of her only son Mikhail.
How did she celebrate his birthday last year?
“I went to see him in Chita.”
Chita is in east Siberia, beyond Lake Baikal. Once the Decembrist rebels of 1825 were banished there. Today it’s an 8-hour flight from Moscow. This is the third place Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been imprisoned. He was held in Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina prison, then he was transferred to Krasnokamensk, a penal colony a night’s train-ride away from Chita.
“In the centre of Chita stands a statue of Lenin, in a square with a fountain. Around it are apartment buildings. Beyond there begin wooden houses and plots of land. It’s a very run-down city. Only the hotel is in a more or less respectable condition. They give me the best room without even asking to see my passport.”
On her last visit Marina Philippovna did not stay at the hotel. In autumn 2007 new charges were brought against her son and it was more convenient, and cheaper, for his defence team to start renting a flat there.
“Every day, apart from Saturday and Sunday, Misha is driven from the prison to the prosecutor’s office. There from 10 am to 6 pm he and one of the lawyers read through the case materials. They do not take a break for lunch or for a walk since the documentation fills 130 volumes. The lawyers work in shifts, replacing each other every few weeks.”
The Tsarist authorities permitted the wives of the Decembrists to go and live where their husbands were imprisoned. Khodorkovsky has the right to two “three-hour” visits each month. His wife and parents take it in turns to visit him at the Chita detention centre.
A small cross from Jerusalem
Marina Khodorkovsky comes from a well-to-do family. Grandfather Petrov owned a brewery and a landed estate in the Ukraine. During the October Revolution he escaped by a miracle from the clutches of the Cheka [forerunner of the KGB]. He moved to Moscow and whenever the name of Lenin was mentioned he would cross himself and mutter: “Devil take you! (May the saints preserve us.)”
“He was a well-known engineer. He studied in Russia and Germany and even when retired he was asked his professional opinion about different engineering projects. My father and I also became engineers.”
In her childhood Marina Petrov joined the Young Pioneers. Before taking the institute entrance examination she became a member of the Komsomol, otherwise she would not have been admitted to higher education. Boris Khodorkovsky was a fellow student in the same year.
“My husband has Jewish, Ukrainian and Polish roots. The family were assimilated and, like my parents, no longer religious.”
“But you wear a cross?”
The cross became famous when Marina Philippovna took it off in court, declaring that if God existed he would not have permitted such blatant injustice: “Evil must not triumph.” All the newspapers carried her words.
“This cross was a present from Mikhail, he brought it from Jerusalem. But I don’t even know if I was christened.” [...]
When Khodorkovsky’s parents decided that they would help to set up such a school, Marina Philippovna and Boris Khodorkovsky had to wear boots for two years wherever they walked at Koralovo. There were piles of building rubbish and the trucks constantly stuck in the mud. The former staff and workers of the old children’s home went on living in the ruins, drinking themselves to death. More than twenty families.
“We had nowhere to go until Misha paid for a new building in Yezhovo, the neighbouring village. As well as a flat the employees each received 0.10 hectares of land — what would peasants do without a bit of land but take to the bottle? The old gentry house and the estate were restored, while the park and the lake were tidied up and cleared. New buildings were added, among them a dormitory with four-bed rooms, baths and kitchens. I was particularly concerned that there be kitchens although there is also a dining room. I used to work at a factory which took young girls for work experience from the colleges attached to children’s homes. They were wholly undomesticated: they couldn’t fry an egg or sew on a button. Even our lads can do that, and some of the girls make their own graduation gowns under the direction of a tailor. You should just see them!”
Children are accepted from the age of eleven onwards. They study for five years and follow an extensive curriculum: they learn to dance, sing, play in a string orchestra and acquire a great deal of information science. School leavers receive a certificate, a diploma as a computer programmer and have quite good English. [...]
Her two maids
When did you realise that your son had become a rich man, that he was now one of the oligarchs?
“Everyone asks me that and I don’t know how to reply. Nothing changed that I could see and it did not affect Misha in the same way as the others. If he wanted to go skiing then he’d only go to somewhere like Kurshavelo. He went on living as before.”
Did Mikhail buy his parents a new apartment?
“Why should we need two flats? My husband always earned a good living. We had a dacha outside Moscow which we sold and then built another near Koralovo in order to be closer to the school. What changes could you expect in the lives of a middle-aged couple? The only difference, perhaps, is that before I could not have gone with a friend to see Paris but in 1997 we did so. When people ask how many maids I have I hold out my hands and say, There they are: right and left!”
The press have written a great deal about Mikhail Khodorkovsky and often it is very negative: a heartless businessman, they say, who drove some to bankruptcy, others to their death ...
“Most important for me was what I knew for myself. Of course, it was unpleasant to read that he had bought himself a Rolex and then sold the watch to a friend for 500 times the price. After that article I rang Misha but he was out so I talked with his wife. ‘Misha came back late last night with that article. We read it and laughed so loud that our neighbours banged on the walls — it was 2 o’clock in the morning.’ I wanted to go the newspaper and talk to the journalist concerned but Misha said: ‘Well, she didn’t have anything else to write about! Don’t pay it any heed.’”
How do you regard such articles?
“Perhaps his competitors paid for their publication. I don’t know. All I can say is that they are not true.”
Khodorkovsky’s parents have a radio in every room, even the bathroom. “When I wake up I immediately turn on Echo Moskvy. I was always afraid that freedom in Russia would come to an end. When Putin became president I expected bad news every day.”
On 25 October 2003 Marina Philippovna overslept. She was woken by a telephone call from her husband’s sister. Misha had been arrested in Novosibirsk. Why didn’t her son flee abroad? [Russia’s media magnates] Gusinsky and Berezovsky had left the country and Pichugin and Lebedev from Yukos had already been arrested. “I also wondered about that. Misha would not hear of it. Even today he says, ‘It’s a good thing I didn’t go. That would have meant I agreed with the accusations against me. But I don’t agree and I’m not ashamed to look my children and my staff in the eye. I may be in prison but people in Russia respect me.’”
The market in Odintsovo
Marina Philippovna has no clear memories of their first meeting in prison. She was in a state of shock. She wrote down things she wanted to ask Misha so as not to forget a thing. However, the warder on duty did not permit her to keep the note.
“’We don’t have much time, Mama. I’ll quickly tell you everything so that you don’t get upset. Then you ask about the things I haven’t mentioned.’ Those were Misha’s first words when I entered the room. I was afraid that they had broken his spirit but when I looked into his eyes I breathed with relief. It was the same son I knew. He behaved like a man who knows what to expect.
“He had lost weight, his hair had turned grey and he was pale because he was scarcely allowed out in the fresh air. He didn’t complain, however, but said that he’d known worse in Young Pioneer summer camps. When I visited him in prison he always asks, ‘No one says hurtful things to you or bothers you?’”
To reassure her son Marina Philippovna told him about a dress she had bought at the wholesale market in Odintsovo. She took a liking to the dress, asked how much it cost, tried it on and when she paid for it suddenly noticed that they had given her too much change. She wanted to give the extra back but they said “We talked it over with the suppliers and decided we’d give Khodorkovsky’s mother a discount.”
A grandson far away
Marina Philippovna has four grandsons but she only sees them rarely. The eldest Pavlik is 22 and lives in the USA. He went to study there when he was 14.
“He’s a very warm-hearted lad, he has his father’s character, just as Misha resembles me. Pavlik spent a lot of time with us because his parents were then still students. Today he’s a specialist in information science and wants to come back to Russia: he doesn’t feel very much at home abroad. We dissuaded him because when the businessman Mikhail Gutseriev did not go to the prosecutor’s office as instructed, but instead sought asylum in London, his son died in unexplained circumstances. ‘You better remain where you are,’ we told Pavlik, ‘your father won’t worry and you’ll be safer.’ Mikhail has three children from his other marriage: Nastya who is 16 and eight-year-old twins Ilya and Gleb. ‘His second wife Inna has always been very reserved and now she is even less communicative. Boris and I think of 1937 [the height of the Terror under Stalin]. For Inna the arrest of Misha was a catastrophe.”
Of treachery and faithless friends
How did Khodorkovsky’s partners react to his arrest?
“Shakespeare could have written a play about such treachery and betrayal. Those whom he considered his friends behaved worst of all. Some of the ordinary employees from Yukos, on the contrary, offered to help and we made some true friends among them. I feel sorry for the team of specialists who lost their jobs but they were the best in their profession and many immediately found employment with other oil companies.”
Which of the other oligarchs offered to help?
“Not a single one of them.”
Vladimir Potanin owns Norilsk Nickel and finances Nashi, the pro-Putin youth movement. He has no problems. The governor of Chukotka Roman Abramovich bought himself Chelsea football club and the largest yacht in the world and enjoys life.
“They decided to play by the rules. Misha wouldn’t. At a televised meeting with Putin my son told the president about the appalling corruption among the Russian president’s staff, which was holding back the country’s development. Putin was furious because all Russia heard this criticism. It was from that moment, Misha believes, that the persecution of Yukos began.”
It wasn’t the case that Mikhail Khodorkovsky himself wanted to stand as president? And that was why he funded opposition parties?
“I asked him about becoming president and he said: ‘I know how to organise industry. Politics isn’t my business.’ He used to say that he would focus on business only until he was 45. Then he would devote himself to the Open Russian Foundation.”
‘Those who set up this foundation to support the young and entrepreneurs want them to develop their potential, working and earning a living here in Russia. In this way they will help our country reach the level of the world’s leading economies.’
Excerpt from the Foundation’s programme. Open Russia closed in 2006 after the courts froze its accounts.
Gas, oil and civil liberties
When you get up in the morning ...
“If I manage to get to sleep, then I wake early and wait for a phone call from Misha’s lawyers. They tell me how he’s feeling and what he wants me to send in the next parcel. After that, I get on with school business ...”
Russia supports Putin. Neither did the West seem particularly outraged by Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s arrest.
“A servile psychology dominates Russia. As for the West, it puts a much greater value on our gas and oil than our civil liberties.”
At his next trial Mikhail Khodorkovsky could receive an enormous prison sentence, up to 22 years behind bars.
“Misha will be imprisoned until the present regime changes. I think he realises that.”
What gives him hope?
“He thinks that his situation will stir part of society out of its lethargic state. That hope gives him the strength to keep going.”
Mikhail Khodorkovsky went on hunger strike in support of Vasily Aleksanyan, the gravely ill Yukos lawyer. Then they moved Aleksanyan to a hospital.
“As a Russian citizen I am proud of Misha. As his mother I fear for him every day. The last few years have been like a horrific nightmare. The situation has an even greater effect on my husband Boris. He has aged terribly and is a sick man. During my last visit Misha said, ‘Wait for me. I want you both to live to see that day!’”
According to the sentence of the Moscow City Court, Mikhail Khodorkovsky will be released in