Oligarch on the Rocks; It's Hard Time in the Gulag for Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Newsweek International, June 20, 2005 | Go to article overview

Oligarch on the Rocks; It's Hard Time in the Gulag for Mikhail Khodorkovsky


Byline: Kevin O'Flynn

A year or so ago, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was worth some $15 billion as head of Yukos, one of the world's biggest oil companies. The Russian oligarch still has close to $2 billion, according to Forbes magazine. That probably makes him the richest prisoner in the world--restricted to spending less than $100 a month.

Convicted of fraud and tax evasion and sentenced to nine years in a prison colony, Khodorkovsky faces a completely different experience after the 18 months he has spent in a small but (by Russian standards) luxurious cell for four in a Moscow pre-detention jail. The colony world is a harsh, isolated one, governed by its own rules fashioned over decades in the gulags of the old Soviet Union. Camps remain divided into three types: "red," "black" and "gray." Red prisons are under control of the camp administration, marshaled by prisoners who report every move of other prisoners. Black prisons are those where the criminal bosses rule the roost. Gray are a precarious balance between the two, says Valery Abramkin, a former dissident who spent six years in jail in Soviet times and now campaigns for prison reform. Khodorkovsky is almost certain to go to a red prison, where the Kremlin can keep an eye on him.

It will be a novel experience for everyone, from Khodorkovsky himself to the camp warden and down to the rank-and-file guards and prisoners. However diminished, the former oligarch's income far exceeds most camp's budgets, and Khodorkovsky thus would normally be a much-wanted guest. Camp chiefs would compete for him, knowing he could help pay for repairs or buy that much needed gym, says Naum Nim, editor of Nevolye, a magazine dealing with prison life.

Of course, in Khodorkovsky's case nothing will be normal. Russia's prison officials insist that their celebrity inmate will be treated like any other prisoner. "Nobody will give him a double bed and a Jacuzzi," a Justice Ministry official told Komsomolskaya Pravda, speaking anonymously. But it's clear that Khodorkovsky's every move will be scrutinized. That will most likely begin with the strict enforcement of a 2,190 ruble ($77) limit on how much he can spend each month. "Usually, criminals can pay to get [in a camp] closer to home," says Abramkin. …

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