How do you make a dissident? For 10 days after his sentencing, Khodorkovsky disappeared. Finally, on the 10th day, his wife, Inna, received a letter saying he was in a Siberian prison camp 3,100 miles from Moscow. He was sent there by train, the sole passenger in a special wagon. Only after 100 hours, when the train pulled into the small city of Chita, did he learn from the station loudspeaker where he was. From there, it was another 14 hours to the prison in Krasnokamensk. And from there, it was only a matter of weeks before he resumed the stream of prison statements that have come to define modern dissent in Russia.
Once closed to foreigners, Krasnokamensk is so remote there is no plane service, and the streets have no names. Even the camp's name, YaG 14/10, came from the Gulag, when it was reserved for prisoners sentenced to "harsh regime." Khodorkovsky was the only white-collar criminal among the zeks, Soviet-era slang for prisoners still used today. It was as if he had landed on another planet. "The first thing he asked me: 'Is there Internet in Krasnokamensk? Are there cell phones?'" recalled Natalya Terekhova, a lawyer and the first outsider to see him. "He didn't even know how far from Moscow he was."
As soon as permitted, his mother made the trip. She packed 14 bags -- sheets for the suspect Siberian beds, pots and pans to fry up Misha's favorite potatoes, plates to serve them on. "We didn't know whether they had dishes," she shrugged. "We brought everything."
Marina's question was the same as everyone else's. Assuming they were bugged, she scrawled it in a notebook.
Why didn't you leave? Do you regret it?
No. If I hadn't stayed I wouldn't have been able to look honestly into my children's eyes.
"He whispered that," Marina recalled. "You could whisper there."
As Khodorkovsky settled into Barracks No. 8, he realized anything he did wrong, real or invented, invited punishment. He was sent to isolation for seven days for having tea in an unauthorized area. He was fined for taking his shirt off to sunbathe near a window. In the isolation cell, prisoners could not lie down or sleep except at night, and there were no chairs. "You can only squat or sit on the floor," said Terekhova. Khodorkovsky began studying the prison rules to defend himself. But then he was sent to isolation for having an unauthorized copy of the rules.
"Putting me in isolation was an obvious attempt to break me, to humiliate me, on top of the original injustice," Khodorkovsky told us. "Whose will is this? Where does it come from? I don't know. I know somebody called from Moscow from the federal prison authorities. The rest we can just guess." But he said he has adjusted. "I am becoming harder facing injustice, and I fight using all available tools.
"Right now," he added, "I don't have too many tools available."
One night in 2006, Khodorkovsky bolted awake from a slashing pain on his face. "It was dark," he remembered. "Blood was running. I could hear the steps of someone running away." Khodorkovsky stumbled to a bathroom and saw a bloody gash on his face. He had been stabbed as he slept.
Five stitches were put in. His attacker, a fellow prisoner, was caught and brought to him.
"I asked him why he did it," Khodorkovsky told us.
"I didn't have a choice," the man answered.
The assailant later claimed to be rejecting unwelcome advances from Khodorkovsky, but a Russian court dismissed the assertion. Khodorkovsky's lawyers said the man wanted to be sent to isolation to escape his own prison enemies and attacking the most famous inmate would do it. Everyone knew Khodorkovsky was watched carefully.
"People were afraid of him because they realized something strange was going on around him," Khodorkovsky's bunkmate, Roman Starodubtsev, told us. "As soon as he made a wrong step, the administrators immediately punished him. So it was dangerous even to talk with him. If you talked with him for five minutes, 15 or 20 minutes later they called you to the administrators to ask you everything you were talking about."
Conditions were brutal, from 40 degrees below zero in winter to over 100 degrees in summer. At first, Khodorkovsky was put to work stitching police uniforms, but he was constantly in trouble for sloppy craftsmanship. When not working, he read voraciously; unlike his Gulag predecessors, he was allowed to subscribe to as many as 174 newspapers and magazines at a time, arriving by truck a week late.
In our correspondence with Khodorkovsky, it was the terrible unpredictability of life as a prisoner -- and the coarse immorality of the criminal justice system -- that provoked his most emotional response. "Just like in the past, it remains a criminal school for a person who gets into it. Lies, provocations, mean intrigues are the usual everyday routine for its inhabitants," he told us, scrawling out answers in his glass cage.
His fury leapt off the page. Lack of meaningful work made prisoners "evil," he said. Lack of visits "destroys families." Bureaucrats ban everything from care packages, "even salt." What grated most was "the impossibility to predict my future, even in the most primitive, trivial ways. Clocks are banned in prison, so nobody would ever be able to tell when and where you are taken out of jail. 'With documents.' 'Without documents.' 'Dress according to season.' That is the most information you can rely on. I learn only 10 to 15 minutes before I am supposed to take a walk or take a shower (and that is only once a week)."
This was not a billionaire resigned to his fate. "I realized," he wrote sarcastically, "that all I have to do is 'relax' and take life the way it is, whether that includes 24-hour observation of me, searches obvious and not, or many other 'pleasures' of prison life." Sure, he concluded, "compared to the Gulag, which physically destroyed millions of my fellow citizens, today's Russian prisons are a huge step forward." But it was, he said, "Gulag Lite."