Is an Imprisoned Russian Oil Tycoon the Victim of KGB Tactics?

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The Kremlin may have hoped that by jailing Mikhail Khodorkovsky on tax evasion charges, they would eliminate any political challenge represented by the oil tycoon. Instead, the prison experience may be honing Khodorkovsky's credentials as a future challenger to President Putin — and, say his lawyer and a former KGB man who worked for his oil company, prompting the authorities to resort to some old Soviet tricks to stop him.

Khodorkovsky could be forgiven for feeling like he'd been thrust back into the Soviet gulag: Sentenced to eight years in a Siberian labor camp at Krasnokamensk, Khodorkovsky has been denied access to any intellectual activity. Access to books has been denied, and television is available only in the facility's recreation room, where other prisoners prefer watching soap operas. Khodorkovsky spends every day from 6 a.m. till 10 p.m. doing senseless manual labor and taking courses on glove-stitching. He is under constant monitoring by a team sent from Moscow of officials from the prisons department and the FSB (the security service that succeeded the KGB). He has twice been locked in solitary confinement, once for being in possession of a copy of camp regulations published in a newspaper, and once for having a cup of tea with Alexander Kuchma, 22, occupant of the neighboring bed in his 100-person barrack. These charges, says Khodorkovsky lawyer Yuri Schmidt, enable the authorities to deny the prisoner a more lenient regime and eventual parole. (Indeed, state prosecutors still threaten to press money laundering charges that could add another decade to Khodorkovsky's prison term.) But on Wednesday, a Krasnokamensk court ruled his first lockdown unlawful, and his lawyers are appealing the second charge.

Khodorkovsky's prison experience turned bloody last Friday at 3 a.m., when the tycoon's nose was slashed with a cobbler's knife by a fellow prisoner, later identified as Kuchma. "I wanted to cut his eye out," Kuchma said, when interrogated by the camp administration. "But my hand slipped." Kuchma said he assaulted Khodorkovsky because he was afraid of an imminent transfer to a different barrack, where he would have been in trouble with other prisoners — he hoped the assault would result in his being placed in solitary confinement until the transfer situation dissipates. After the assault, he was indeed sent to solitary confinement for ten days. A source in the Federal Penitentiary Agency (FSIN) told the Interfax wire agency that afterwards Kuchma would be transferred to another penal colony. Khodorkovsky referred to Kuchma as "unstable."

FSIN Director Yuri Kalinin immediately denied that the knifing had occurred. He insisted that Khodorkovsky's wounds had been sustained in a brawl with Kuchma. Then, five days later, Kalinin blamed Khodorkovsky for the assault. "Now I can say that Khodorkovsky to a certain extent has provoked this situation himself," Kalinin told the press. "He should not have grown so attached to young prisoners, brought them so close to himself, or been so affectionate to them." Kalinin ordered Khodorkovsky into solitary confinement to ensure his own safety. Following Kalinin's insinuations, the Interfax wire agency quoted an unnamed FSIN source as saying that Kuchma had submitted a written statement accusing Khodorkovsky of sexual harassment. Comments Schmidt: "They have cynically used the assault at Khodorkovsky to isolate him under the excuse of protection, and apply Soviet tactics of character assassination."

One expert in Soviet-era prison tactics sees a familiar pattern in the assault on Khodorkovsky. Alexei Kondaurov, a retired KGB major-general, a former official of Khodorkovsky's oil company, Yukos, and current member of the Russian legislature, recalls how other convicts, often mentally unstable, were recruited as agents and placed around a target prisoner. They don't need orders to assault a prisoner singled out by the administration for harsh treatment, Kondaurov says. "They just do it to seek lenience and rewards."

One reason for turning the screws on Khodorkovsky may be that in prison, his political star seems to be rising. Recent opinion polls have shown growing sympathy for Khodorkovsky even among sections of the public that had previously dismissed him simply as another unscrupulous oligarch. "The Kremlin fears that Khodorkovsky will emerge from prison to unite left and right democratic opposition groups," Kondaurov speculates. If so, Khodorkovsky may be in grave danger: "He'll either walk out of the camp as the winner," says Kondaurov, "or they'll carry him out feet first."

His persecution may have actually helped Khodorkovsky's image in the eyes of ordinary Russians. Unlike other oligarchs who went abroad with the billions they'd amassed during the Yeltsin years, the Yukos tycoon returned to face a trial widely viewed as crooked, and ultimately prison. In many an eye, that may have transformed him from yet another sleazy oligarch into the latter-day equivalent of that Soviet-era icon of dissent: a prisoner of conscience. "The Kremlin has done free campaigning for him," quips legislator Alexei Mitrophanov.

Now 42, Khodorkovsky may return to Russian society in his prime at 50, toughened by his experience and hungry for action. A charismatic modern leader could emerge. If he survives the camps, that is.