Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s first press conference following his release after 10 years of imprisonment was held at the Berlin Wall Museum on December 22, 2013. An English translation of the conference’s transcript can be read below:
Opening remarks from Mikhail Khodorkovsky:
I want to express my deepest gratitude, from the very bottom of my heart, to all of you who have come here today. I understand that everybody wants something different and everybody has different interests, but to some extent I regard all these different interests as an interest in both me and my country. And for this I am grateful. The main thing I want to do today is to express gratitude. I understand perfectly well that I wouldn’t be here today if not for the efforts of a great many people, both in our country and throughout the world.
Not the least of the reasons why my release became possible is thanks to the mass information media, including those media outlets that you all represent. A big thank you to you all. I firmly believe that media attention is allowing many people unfairly imprisoned in Russia today to stay alive and healthy and not lose hope that they’re going to be released. Please accept gratitude from me and from us all for this.
Naturally, I myself am very grateful for the support I’ve received from my friends, my business partners, and of course, most importantly of all, from my family. For all these ten years. It would have been hard for me to get through it all if I hadn’t felt that I had this support. I’m very grateful to Mr. Hans-Dietrich Genscher. It was through his efforts that we’ve gotten to the point where maybe the “YUKOS affair”, which has resulted in dozens if not hundreds of broken lives, …where at last we might be seeing the beginning of the end of the “YUKOS affair”. At last. After a decade. I’m very grateful to Frau Angela Merkel; I learned about the role that she played in securing my release only after I was already here, and I have the chance to use those sources of information that are probably the most ordinary thing in the world for most of you by now. They’re all new to me, all those Facebooks and Twitters. None of this existed at the time when I was jailed (laughs).
A great many people and organizations have all played a role in this whole process. I’m eternally grateful to every one of them, and I’m sorry that I can’t thank them all individually, if for no other reason than because I don’t even know all of them. I do want very much to thank the Berlin Wall Museum and its esteemed director Alexandra for receiving us here today, and for not forgetting about me and my comrades in adversity all these years. A big thank you to you. And thank you for today’s tour of the museum, it was an absolutely unforgettable experience—and not only in the section that you devoted to the “YUKOS affair”. Thank you, and thank you again.
Thanking all of you here one more time, I would like at the same time to say that unfortunately I won’t be able to go into much detail when answering your questions today. I’ve still got colleagues left in jail, my comrades in adversity: people like my friend Platon Leonidovich Lebedev and Alexey Pichugin. Many people still find themselves in a situation—in fact, I was reading about this just today, that unnamed representatives of the siloviki security agencies are saying that they’ve still got questions they’d like to ask those people who remain in Russia today—to be perfectly honest, I’d really hoped that the whole question of a “third case” had become ancient history after what the president said at his press conference. But apparently not all the siloviki in Russia see it that way yet.
And other political prisoners remain in Russia as well, not just the ones connected with the “YUKOS affair”. You should not regard me as a symbol that there aren’t any political prisoners left in Russia any more. I ask you to regard me as a symbol that when civil society wants to accomplish something, its efforts are capable of bringing about the release of even those people that nobody ever imagined could be released. We just need to continue to work towards the goal of ensuring that no political prisoners remain in Russia, and indeed in other country in the world either. At any rate, I fully intend to do everything I can towards achieving this goal.
There are probably many people who would like to ask me what I plan to do now. As strange as this may sound—or maybe it doesn’t sound so strange in our fast-paced age—I was given my freedom only 36 hours ago, and I didn’t deem it possible to make any kind of plans for the future because the one thing that completely knocks a prisoner down is when you’re hoping for something and at the last minute it ends up not coming to pass. So the whole question of what I’m going to do now and how I’ll do it is something I’ve still got to think about and discuss with my friends. And you can be sure that I’m going to do just that.
Thank you once again. If you’re able to ask questions, I’ll try to answer them…
The press conference:
Question from Anastasia Rybachenko: Mikhail Borisovich, hello. I’m one of the figurants in the “Bolotnaya affair”. I’m in hiding over here, but they’ve amnestied me. My question is the following: a campaign of support for you started up and spread throughout the world when they locked you up, and perhaps you’ll be able to share your very personal experience, how a person sitting in jail today (I’m talking first and foremost about the prisoners of the “Bolotnaya affair”, of course), how can each of them, being in jail, fight for his release?
I believe that those people who are in jail now on unfair charges (including the prisoners of the “Bolotnaya affair”) need to first of all look after taking care of themselves, their health, and their minds. That’s the main thing. Fighting for their release is something that we should be doing—those of us who are at liberty. That’s my point of view.
Question from the German information agency DPA: Mr. Khodorkovsky, you’ve already said that you haven’t yet made a final decision where you’re going to live in the future, but I’m interested how long you’re going to remain in Germany? And a second question. You’ve already touched upon the political situation, Mr. Putin, whom you did not thank now, what would you recommend to the western democratic countries—how should they talk with Mr. Putin in the future?
It would probably be far too presumptuous of me to start giving advice to experienced western politicians about how they should conduct themselves in talking with such a far from simple person as the president of my country. And I’m not going to do this. I very much hope that the politicians of western countries, when they’re talking with president Putin, will remember —merely remember, that’s all—that I’m not the last political prisoner in Russia. As to what they’re going to do and how, that’s something they know best. And as concerns my sojourn in Berlin, I’m afraid there’s nothing I can tell you right now; I haven’t even had a chance to consult with the people close to me yet. We’ve had so very little time. The visa I was given is valid for a year, so at any rate I do have long as a year (laughs).
Question from the BBC: Two questions. Do you intend to return to Russia or do you want to remain in exile? And are you going to be encouraging people to attend the Sochi Olympiad or are you recommending that they not go?
I didn’t have any choice at the stage of my release. When the chief of our camp woke me up at two o’clock in the morning, I was told that I was going home. Then in the process of the journey I learned that it would end in Berlin, and the convoy [prisoner transport guards—Trans.] left the moment the hatchway of the German airline’s plane was shut. At the same time, Mr. Peskov, the Russian president’s press secretary, said that nobody is standing in the way of my returning to Russia at any moment. Unfortunately, as of today I don’t have any guarantees that afterwards I’ll be able to fly out wherever I need to on various matters (and right now I regard family matters as my top priority). From a formal standpoint, in order for me to have such an opportunity, the Russian Supreme Court has to confirm a decision of the European Court of Human Rights that a legal claim in the first “YUKOS case”—it’s for some 500 mln dollars—has been lifted from me and from my friend Platon Lebedev. Until and unless this happens, and from a formal standpoint as well, if I return to Russia I might already not get back permission to leave.
As concerns Sochi, I’d have to say that I’m a supporter of the position that this is a celebration of sport. It’s a celebration for millions of people, and we probably shouldn’t go and spoil that. It’s another matter entirely that we shouldn’t go turning it into a celebration of president Putin personally. This would probably not be the right thing to do either. But I wouldn’t go spoiling the celebration for millions of people.
Question from the Italian news agency RAI: Do you think that your presence in Germany is going to impact negatively on relations between Germany and Russia? Have you discussed the possible repercussions with the ministry of foreign affairs, with Mr. Genscher? Did you discuss this with him when you decided to come here?
I want to say right from the start that I’m grateful to Germany and grateful to German politicians for their involvement in my fate. And that the last thing I’d want to see happen would be for some kind of problems to occur for those people of that country to which I’m grateful as a result of this human participation here. They have assured me that as of today there are no such problems. I have no intention of getting involved in political activity (which I said in a letter to president Putin and have confirmed numerous times already). I intend to engage in civic activity. To put it another way, the struggle for power is not for me. Well, and beyond that, it’s not for me to decide, after all.
Question from «Deutsche Welle»: I would like to ask two questions of Mr. Khodorkovsky. You’re saying that you were woken up at two in the morning and told that you’d been released. What kind of thoughts did you have in connection with this? Had you thought about such a possibility, that you’d be released before your term was up? And a second question. You’ve always said that you wouldn’t submit a request for pardon, why did you do it all the same? …was the FSB involved in this? Some quantity of rumors exist on that score. How could you comment on this.
There’s nothing secret about any of this. The first I heard about such a possibility was from my lawyers on 12 November, when they came to see me at the colony and said that Mr. Genscher was saying that president Putin isn’t insisting on admission of guilt as a condition of my release, and that all I’ve got to do is write a request for pardon without admitting guilt. I want to bring to your attention that my personal position has always differed from the position of those who were doing the commenting. I’ve never had any problem with writing a request for pardon, inasmuch as it was clear that my fate, and the fate of my colleagues—it was in the hands of president Putin personally one way or the other, and whether I got released by way of a pardon or I got released at the end of my term—either way, this would either happen or not happen on Putin’s direct instructions. Nobody’s going to be taking this decision without him. That is, looking at it from this point of view, a pardon was just a formality as far as I was concerned. But admission of guilt—now that was not a mere formality. Because by admitting guilt of non-existent crimes, I would be playing right into the hands of those who were saying that the 100 000 YUKOS employees were an immeasurably large organized crime group that first sold oil fairly and squarely but didn’t pay taxes; then it turned out that it wasn’t selling the oil, but had stolen everything; and later still it turned out that it hadn’t stolen, that this money had come to the company, but that they stole later—and all these things simultaneously, all at one and the same time. I couldn’t do that to people who weren’t guilty of anything. And it’s only for this reason that for probably five years already I’ve been answering with a refusal to offers for me to write a request. Precisely because of the phrase about admitting guilt. This is my position, and let the commentators say all the rest. I’m sure they’ll always be able to think of something (laughs).
Question from the Associated Press: You’re talking about how you support the release of other political prisoners. How would you comment on this? And a second question. Do you intend to get involved in business again in any way?
I don’t have any plans to return to business. I feel I’ve managed to achieve everything I wanted to in the course of my business career—that is, I ran a large, successful company (the second largest in Russia). I ran it successfully enough, judging by what the investment analysts thought back then. It’s not interesting for me to repeat this success. My financial situation means I’m not facing the need to work for the sake of earning money, and from this point of view I’d basically like to devote the time I’ve got left for active business life to repaying debts to those people who are worse off than I am (that is, those who still remain in prison) and to that society, our Russian society, for which it is very important to change just a little so that we in Russia could have a better life. This is what I’d like to be doing, but as concerns concretely how I intend to do it, give me a little more than 36 hours to mull this question over.
Question. Good day. My name is Natalia, a Ukrainian journalist. You’ve called the participants in the “Bolotnaya affair” heroes, right now there are thousands of people who have already been protesting for a month in Ukraine, the movement has already been given the name “Euromaidan”. Do these events interest you? Perhaps you too will pay a visit to this place before long. And another thing. Yulia Tymoshenko, who is being called the Ukrainian Khodorkovsky, is sitting [in jail] in Ukraine, do you believe that the unexpected turn in your fate, could somehow affect the story with her too?
I wish Yulia Vladimirovna the quickest possible release, from the bottom of my heart. I very much hope that president Yanukovich, who’s been associating with the president of my country often enough in recent times, will basically take an example from him in this local question—the release of a political prisoner. Even just one would be good for a start. As concerns the general situation in the Ukraine, I’m certainly not indifferent to what’s going on there—some of my relatives even live in the Ukraine—but as of today I just don’t wield the information I’d need to be able to say anything on the subject.
Question from a Swiss newspaper: There is a feeling that Vladimir Putin made a mistake. In your opinion, is he going to be in power in Russia for a long time still?
Our law allows president Putin to remain in power—if, of course, people elect him—over a span of 10 more years. He was recently asked the question (I read about this), does he not consider it necessary to be made president-for-life. He answered it concisely enough—no. I hope he doesn’t change his point of view.
(on Vladimir Putin’s mistake, about which the journalist had asked) Vladimir Putin was mulling over the question of my release over a span of 10 years; I hope he’re [probably “he’s”—Trans.] not going to regard a decision taken after such lengthy reflection as a mistake, but on the contrary, as an example of how he ought to act in the future. This is what I’m hoping for this.
Question from an Azerbaijani television channel: You’ve spent 10 years in prison, I think, many people are interested in the question of what you feel personally in relation to Vladimir Putin? Do you have a feeling of hatred or were you somehow able to forgive him inside?
I was quite aware, even in that moment when I was involved in big business, that I was playing a tough game of hardball. Of course, in relation to me this tough stance I’m talking about was expanded somewhat as compared to the usual practice, but at the same time I should note that this situation basically never did touch my family. That is, the attitude towards my family was always loyal. And this was precisely what allowed me not to take this…—let’s call it a standoff—too emotionally. It was precisely for this reason that I—because everything was normal with the family, they treated the family decently—that I kept the problem of mutual relations in squarely the pragmatic sphere. And pragmatics don’t make allowance for such an un-pragmatic thing as revenge, hatred, etc. So these are the rules of the game. Okay, I don’t like them; okay, I’m trying to persuade you that the rules ought to be changed—well there’s nothing that can be done about it.
Question from the room: But isn’t Alexanyan a reason to get emotional?
Alexanyan. Vasily Alexanyan—that’s a gigantic problem. I’ve studied this problem very seriously, very seriously indeed. And I’m not convinced that I know everything 100 percent, but it’s still perfectly clear that the executors [those following orders from above—Trans.] had gone way beyond the pale in this case. I think we know who the executors were. I would name them publicly but, in stark contrast with Russian traditions, I prefer to have more exact and documented information before making such very serious and unpleasant accusations.
Alexanyan is a cross that I’m going to carry for the rest of my days.
Question from a Swiss information agency: I sincerely congratulate you upon your release. You’re the foremost person in Berlin, but I was flying from Switzerland today, and your portrait’s on the front pages of all the newspapers. Everybody’s congratulating you. You’ve thanked the German political circles for your release and for their involvement in it, but what about Swiss political or economic circles, did they take part in this in any way? And a second question: they say that Switzerland is a country that you like very much and it is connected with your family, with your business connections…
I said right at the very beginning that very many facts connected with my release are unknown to me. I’m grateful to Switzerland and to Swiss justice because this is the country where the topic was studied in detail by judicial instances for the first time in the course of the “YUKOS affair”, and Swiss judicial instances at the very highest level declared that the case was political and that Switzerland was not going to help the Russian services in this matter. This was a very serious step, and I’m very grateful for it. A second step, for which I’m grateful once again, is that a Swiss deputy [member of parliament—Trans.] (please excuse me, but I’m not even going to try to pronounce the person’s name; I’m sure I wouldn’t get it right) came to me in the prison, and spoke with the administration about those conditions in which I was found, and it was precisely this specific show of attention that basically didn’t allow those people who would have liked to make my situation even worse to do so. I’m very grateful for this.
Question from German television: Why did you or your lawyers turn specifically to Mr. Genscher for help?
I don’t have this information. I was asked if I was prepared to defer to having Mr. Genscher get involved in this question. I already knew him from before, so I said: “Yes, of course. He’s a very respected person, and maybe he won’t succeed in making things good, but he certainly isn’t going to make things bad.” I’m glad I was wrong in the first part of my sentence and that he did manage to make things good (laughs).
Question. <Why was the Berlin Wall Museum chosen as the place for the press conference>? Could you recount some kind of amusing episode for us that happened with you in the past 36 hours, i.e. since the moment of your release.
I understand that a certain symbolism comes up, but for me personally, this is a place where I was helped a lot psychologically at one point when I was still in jail. I came here specifically because I’m very grateful. I didn’t come wanting to make some kind of political speech, I came because I wanted to say thanks. Thanks to both the museum and thanks to those people who have come.
Without putting any kind of emphasis on the cold war?..
It seems to me that you’re making all this way too complicated.
What about the strange moment? Has the world changed?
36 hours—that’s too little. The main thing that amazed me, astounded me, was of course the level of attention to this case. I did expect that there would be attention, of course, but still… I find this astounding. And I do apologize that I haven’t been able to speak with everyone personally. I did want to, because I truly am grateful, but please do understand me—I haven’t been with my family for 10 years, I haven’t been a free man for 10 years. So [won’t you let me have] just a tiny little bit of private life, please, just a tiny little bit is all I ask…
Head of the Berlin Wall Museum Alexandra Hildebrandt speaks (she is conducting the press conference): We didn’t expect that Khodorkovsky would come to us to do a press conference, but we’re delighted that Khodorkovsky and his family found the time today to spend some time with us. Our museum is doing what it always does: we are fighting for clarification of the fate of Raul Wallenberg, we did an exhibit on Mikhail Khodorkovsky, because we believed that this would help release him…
Question: The majority here considers that your imprisonment was politically motivated. Can you say very briefly what they locked you up for? And a second question: to the best of my knowledge, you’re the one who coined the expression “a turn to the left” [sometimes also translated as “a left turn”—Trans.]. How in this light, how do you regard <…> privatization in Russia in the ’90s? And what did Putin in particular have against you?
Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t have a reliable answer to this question. I don’t know all the facts. The fact with which any one of you can acquaint yourselves (it’s a public fact) is that on 19 February of 2003 a meeting took place at president Putin’s, and that a sufficiently harsh talk took place there (it was being recorded by television companies and is available on the Internet to this day), and two weeks after this meeting the first criminal case was initiated in relation to employees of the YUKOS company. That’s the fact that I do know. Everything else is conjecture for me.
As concerns the “turn to the left” and privatization, I believe that private business is always more efficient than state business. I’m sorry, but this is just my point of view. But in a modern society, a business that doesn’t have a sense of social responsibility doesn’t have the right to exist. And this is also true.
Alexandra Hildebrandt: We’ll end on that. I’d just like to say one more thing: my late husband, who founded this museum, sat in a nazi jail for 17 months, and he used to say that <all prisoners have> one and the same wish—some voice is going to say: “You’re free”, the door will open, and freedom will come. Mikhail Khodorkovsky has gone through this experience. And we’re very fortunate that he is now free, we’re fortunate that he can work, that he can do something. In any direction. There is so much that a person can do in this world. There are some things that simply have to be done. And this is why we wish him all the very very best, all the very best, above all with his family. And to all those present here we wish a Happy New Year and Christmas and see you again next time.