In October 2003, Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested at gunpoint, becoming the latest Kremlin critic to feel the wrath of President Putin. Once Russia’s wealthiest man, Khodorkovsky was convicted of fraud and tax evasion alongside his Yukos business partner Platon Lebedev and was sentenced to ten years in prison. Amnesty International declared Khodorkovsky a prisoner of conscience and many campaigned for his release. In December 2013, after a decade in the notoriously brutal Russian prison and labour camp system, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was released after receiving a pardon from the Kremlin. My Fellow Prisoners is his brief yet fascinating account of everyday life in the corrupt and unforgiving Russian prison system.
Firstly, it is worth mentioning that those hoping to read of Khodorkovsky’s innermost thoughts on the Yukos case and his relationship with arch enemy President Putin are sure to be disappointed by this book. At no point are any personal attacks launched on the Russian President nor are any ‘top secrets’ regarding his case and subsequent treatment revealed. In fact, Khodorkovsky mentions very little about himself and his ordeals at all. He sees himself not as a victim but rather as an ‘interested observer’ and uses this book to depict the corruption and hopelessness which permeates the entire Russian prison system and destroys the lives of those who fall victim to it. It is the plight of the characters he meets during his time in prison which takes centre stage in this book. This is not a book about Khodorkovsky.
Instead, My Fellow Prisoners is a collection of short prison stories which aims to provide the reader with a brief insight into the tragic lives of those who Khodorkovsky encountered throughout these ten years in prison. We meet the cellmate who has an unshakeable faith in the law enforcement authorities and has an overwhelming belief that ‘the investigation will get things straight’. We also meet ‘The Nazi’ who denies the holocaust and idolises Hitler, as well as ‘The Rat’ who gets caught with a pile of stolen food.
There are however, two themes which link all of these different characters together: moral principles and hopelessness. Firstly, there are many prisoners described in the book who despite their crimes have a stronger moral compass than those on the outside world. Take Kolya for example who refuses to take the blame for the robbery of an elderly woman (despite the obvious benefits such a fake admission of guilt would entail) and instead cuts open his stomach in protest, preferring to keep his self-respect. However, despite many of the prisoners described being willing to stand up for the rights of others so as to honour this moral code, they find it difficult to stand up for their own rights and are trapped in a sense of hopelessness and despair regarding their own fate. It is this selflessness and humility which shines throughout this book in spite of the harsh brutality and corruption of the environment in which these prisoners are trapped.
Finally, although Khodorkovsky writes very little about himself in this book he does reveal his vision of future Russia to the reader- ‘a Russia that we will be able to feel proud of without a trace of shame- the Russia that will ultimately take the road of European civilization’. I hope that Khodorkovsky’s vision of modern Russia soon comes true and if it does I have no doubt that Mikhail Khodorkovsky will be an integral part of this transformation.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, ‘My Fellow Prisoners’ (Penguin Books, 2014)