Dear Misha

Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Photo: Sergey Ponomarev / AP

Dear Mikhail Borisovich, dear Misha,

I have made several attempts to write this letter but each new version landed in the bin. It is difficult to write an open letter to someone who is under lock and key.

I have asked many Russians – politicians and journalists, writers and scholars, businessmen and artists – about your trials, and they’’ve all said the same thing: these are political trials, an act of revenge against Khodorkovsky. Only one Russian gave a different answer – Putin. I have written about it in Novaya Gazeta. Putin said, without trying to hide his emotions, that your arms are covered in blood up to your elbows, and suggested that you might be released from prison if you agreed to certain conditions. Apparently you have not accepted this offer. I take my hat off to you for your courage and determination.


I have read a lot about your youth in the Komsomol. It’’s the kind of experience I wasn’’t able to understand for many years. Natalia Gevorkian, co-author of your autobiography Putin’’s Prisoner, has written: If fate had brought me together with Khodorkovsky in those days, I’’m sure I would have tried to stay as far away from him as possible, just as from any other Komsomol activist. People like this have always filled me with wonder and distrust. I just assumed that people who chose the party path were simply opportunists. My feelings were similar. I embarked on the opposition path fairly early on, as a 16-year-old, and by the time I was 18 I got into trouble with the authorities for the first time. I thought a career via the party system or membership in the communist party was something morally repulsive. It was the path chosen by the supporters of dictatorship and minions of the powers-that-be. But sometimes I would meet people who had broken with the system and joined the opposition, complicating my Manichean worldview. What affected me even more profoundly were the changes following the year 1989, as Polish society was riven by other kinds of conflict and the language of harsh anti-communism and nationalism turned into a political project and the reactionary rhetoric of intolerance and the settling of private scores. These people did not seek allies with whom to jointly build a democratic Poland – they wanted to unleash a nationwide witchhunt against people with party tickets. They were, as I called them, anti-Communists with a Bolshevist face.

People like this can be found in Poland as well as in other countries’ post-communist parties. They may use the language of the Left or the Right, but what they have in common is envy. I think this is a typically human feature – it will follow you until the end of your life, it will poison it and fill it with a stench but it will only prove that you’’ve done something worthy of the utmost respect; something none of those envious people will ever manage to do, their envy driven by fear or incompetence. And so they will ascribe you the meanest motives and the most despicable actions. As they always have.


Gevorkian confessed: I had to write this book to understand why Khodorkovsky has chosen imprisonment.

I, too, was fascinated by your choice. I have never thought much of the so-called oligarchs. You have written: I am ashamed that before 1998 I took no notice of people. But that is in the nature of oligarchs: they are interested in money and in their scores at the stock exchange and in the entourages of power. They are cynical moneybags, constantly striving to increase their wealth. And you were additionally regarded as a cynical smooth-talking Komsomol official: aggressive, greedy and hungry for power”.

You describe how you promoted members of parliament from various parties – both ruling and in opposition – in agreement with the Kremlin. In Ukraine, too, members of parliament are bought and sold. I am shocked by the openness with which you talk about it because in Poland the links between business and politics are concealed and pilloried by public opinion. Although that happens alarmingly rarely. This is one of the great traps of parliamentary democracy and the market economy.

I have watched the behaviour of some oligarchs, such as Berezovsky, people who have amassed immense fortunes as a result of the dubious privatstealization. Claims of their aspirations to political power did not strike me as absurd in the slightest. State cannot manage without money, but money cannot rule the state like an autocratic emperor, and that is why I felt ambivalent about the first phase of Putin’s war against the oligarchs. Until your fate and the fate of YUKOS made me – and not just me – realize what Putin’’s and his team’’s policy leads to.

Your comments on Putin seem apposite. Yeltsin was a leader of change, a man with a flexible mind, while Putin is a bureaucrat with a long memory, who can listen and be likeable, but has a rigid view of the world. If your ideas are in harmony with his – that’’s great. If not, no amount of argument will convince him. He will make his move. Considering his specific life experience and the fact that none of us is getting younger, Putin is ideally suited to become the leader of stagnation.

Putin is an adherent of conspiracy theories. He can listen and be in tune with his interlocutor, he learns easily, but (……) he tries to adjust other people’’s views to his internal model of reality. If you don’’t fit in with this model, you’’re out. And elsewhere you write: I could not accept a Putin who is wise, powerful and evil. A demon. Putin has no sympathy with people. None whatsoever. He follows his personal goals, which determine his actions. He sees only a game, with pawns instead of people. And you also write that you had been similar to him but have grown up.

This is perhaps the most interesting feature of this book, being the most personal one – the story of how you grew up to be your present-day self. This is what distinguishes you from Putin. Putin – as you write – is an ordinary, normal man, who has been strongly marked by his upbringing – both in the streets and on the job. He does not trust anyone except “‘his own”’, although he does not find “‘his own”’ too trustworthy either. Reading these reflections made me think of Poland. Lech Wałęsa, the brilliant Solidarity leader, the man who did so much for Poland, was a little bit like Yeltsin, although the former had his origins in the Gdańsk shipyards while the latter in the Sverdlovsk party machine. Looking at Yeltsin I thought I was seeing Pugachov in the Kremlin at the end of the victorious uprising. I felt something similar about Wałęsa. Putin, however, reminds me of Jarosław Kaczyński: a similar ruthlessness, cynical knack for cruelty, love of power. And what about Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister: isn’’t he the same?

They also share a similar vision of the state. Putin – you write – prefers centralized power, de facto holding the competences of legislative and judicial power in the same hand (……) He believes in the rule of one man and does not believe in law and order. (……) Putin believes that mobilisation, control and order can bring about a country that will enjoy the respect of its neighbours, whose population will not go hungry, and thus be satisfied.”

You have written that these are archaic views, that this works only in a society that is like a flock of sheep. I agree. Nevertheless, I am concerned that this archaism might represent a degenerated form of modernisation; that Putinism might be a version of the Chinese model adapted to Russian conditions. If Putin – otherwise a Lukashenka plagiarizer – can find kindred spirits (in Hungary, Romania, Poland, Ukraine…) who share his political methods, is this not a trend that might spread across a large part of Europe and the rest of the world?

For what is Putin’’s sovereign democracy? Essentially, it is the conviction that I, Putin, can lock up Khodorkovsky, Lebedev or Magnitsky and no Brussels or The Hague can stop me. Is this not a situation Berlusconi might also dream of?


In your book you give an account of your imprisonment. This locates your sober and cool narrative within the genre of prison and camp literature, at the same time providing a framework for understanding the author’’s spiritual condition. There is no exaggeration, excessive emotion or lamenting your own fate, so common in prisoners. You have challenged fate and the period of imprisonment has become a period of moral and intellectual liberation for you. I am convinced that one day, like Solzhenitsyn, you will praise blessed imprisonment. Putin has turned you – a Russian oligarch and billionaire – into the voice of conscience of a free, noble and indomitable Russia, one that is attached to reason and democratic values. Your stance has consistently demonstrated that, apart from Putin and Igor Sechin [a friend of Putin’’s and Kremlin’’s eminence grise] there is also a Russia of noble spirits and liberated minds.

I don’’t have the slightest doubt: prison has changed you for the better. You used to have a creative approach to the letter of the law”; now, in prison, you have been creating a vision of Russia without political prisoners. I think that one of you former critics and current supporters is right when he says: He matured as a human being once he lost everything, when he suffered and had to go through all this. And he has held out. He added: At the end of his second trial, after hearing his closing speech, I left in a state of shock. It was one of the greatest political speeches I have heard in my entire life. Second not even to Sakharov.

What more can I say?

Perhaps only this: you said you have always had a leader’’s temperament. Now, after nine years in prison, you have become a leader again; a leader of spiritual resistance against the regime of Putin’’s sovereign democracy promoting barbarity and a police state.


These days Russia is a country at a crossroads. On the one hand it is a country with the institutions of a democratic state that is being continuously destroyed. It is also a country of massive corruption, which, as you say has become the target of business projects, their obvious purpose. You clarify: ostensibly they might be talking about a road, a pipeline or a mineral deposit, but this is just a pretext for “‘ripping someone off”’. This kind of corruption destroys the economy.

You offer specific plans for preventing corruption. Your project for Russia is as banal as it is revolutionary. You say: I am deeply convinced that all political views must be represented in parliament, that only a strong, influential opposition, regardless of its political hue, can ensure an effective “‘feedback loop”’ between government and society, and thus the stability of the state machinery.

You distinguish – quite rightly – lobbying from corruption. However, you say: Our company helped those members of parliament who represented “‘our regions”’ and they, in turn, were obliged to defend our interests. After all, we were the largest employer in the region. We financed their election campaigns as well as their charitable projects.”

To be honest with you, I find this model dubious. I know that this happens everywhere. But I believe that deputies in parliament are not supposed to represent companies but their parties, their constituents and the common good. Otherwise parliaments would represent companies and not society. However, I don’’t think that this kind of thinking dominates your project for Russia. A key aspect of your project – if I understand it right – is the idea that Russia trades the imperial idea and the authoritarian model for the nation state, civil society and parliamentary democracy. You underscore that this means choosing Europe. These days the key task of the national elites – you assert – is to awaken in society a sense of responsibility for its fate and the creative potential that goes with it.

Your project is attractive, sensible and realistic. And luckily, unlike many Russian democrats, you are not a pessimist, as you uncompromisingly inspire hope and point to the light at the end of the Russian tunnel.


You have written: I realize that it is quite likely I will never walk free. That is why the following questions are so important to me: what will my children think of me? What am I here for? I find it hard to read these words without being moved. Everything you say about a debt you have to pay, about honour, your love of Russia, all this should be carved into a Russian rock. In prison and in the camps you have managed to create a structure of inner freedom and it depends solely on you whether you will lose it or preserve it. And your persecutors are the natural heirs of those who had poisoned the best sons and daughters of Russia like scorpions or poisonous snakes. These people are evil.

In spite of this you are not a radical, you don’’t brood about revenge, you don’’t harbour hatred or contempt. That is why the following words of yours are so powerful: I could have taken no notice, or convinced myself not take notice of what was happening around me, demonstrating moral flexibility. But it’s hard not to notice if someone sticks you face into shit.

You were asked in an interview about your relationship to religion and you evaded the question. I am sure that Father Józef Tischner, the late Catholic priest and philosopher, would have said: we don’’t know if Mikhail Khodorkovsky believes in God but it’’s certain that God believes in Khodorkovsky’’s soul.

Truth is found where there is contradiction, the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert used to say. You, Misha, represent the perfect contradiction, it has been your life’’s trajectory. From Komsomol activist to billionaire and from billionaire to long-term political prisoner who has turned into the conscience of an unvanquished Russia – I don’’t know if there has been a Christian saint who has passed through such a trajectory.

I don’’t know what kind of future awaits Russia and you personally. As an incorrigible anti-Soviet Russophile I am an optimist. I agree with your diagnosis: Putinism is archaic, it is a system of stagnation. I believe that Russia will have to negotiate a thorny road to democracy, just as Western democracy has had to negotiate its own thorny road. I don’’t believe that your role will be limited to offering unsolicited advice to future reformers. Your project is bound to become the subject of many a serious debate. You are one of the people who change the world instead of adjusting to it. That is why I am convinced you have already entered the pantheon of the greatest figures of Russian history. Blessed is the nation whose pantheon can boast people like you.

Herbert once said that one has to go after the sources swimming against the current, for only rubbish flows with the current. In the most difficult moments of their history the Poles have repeated: nil desperandum – we must not lose hope. Adding: let’’s do what needs to be done, and what can be, will be.

Dear Misha, please accept these words of fraternal solidarity from a Pole who has also tasted prison bread.

Adam Michnik

Translated by Julia Sherwood
The open letter appeared on 2 February 2013 in Magazyn Świąteczny, the Sunday supplement to Gazeta Wyborcza.