I probably wouldn’t have noticed Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s My Fellow Prisoners were it not for its size. Small and nondescript, it was dwarfed by other books almost twice its height and width in the Russian lit section of P.— Library. Yes, I saw the size first, and the author later. But upon snatching My Fellow Prisoners off the shelf and examining it closer, I discovered that it was the oligarch’s first book to be published after his release from prison in 2013. I almost immediately checked it out, sensing there might be something profound (or profoundly cynical) between those covers. But will My Fellow Prisoners turn out to be a little book with a big message, or will it make me realize it’s a slim tome for a good reason? Let’s find out.
First, a little background on the Yukos trials which resulted in Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment, courtesy of Alexander Mercouris:
Khodorkovsky was formerly and notoriously Russia’s richest man. In 2003 he was peremptorily arrested and shortly after was put on trial with his partner Platon Lebedev for massive tax evasion. This, the first Khodorkovsky trial, ended in Khodorkovsky’s and Lebedev’s conviction. The assets of Khodorkovsky’s company, Yukos, were seized and have now been absorbed by Rosneft, an oil company in which the Russian state has a significant stake and which is headed by Igor Sechin, a former high ranking official of the Russian government. Subsequently Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were tried for a second time on charges of embezzlement and received a second conviction. The sentences in the two cases are concurrent and initially totalled 14 years but have been reduced on appeal to just over 10 years. Prior to his unexpected release in December 2013 Khodorkovsky and his partner Lebedev were due to be released in August 2014.
The effect of Khodorkovsky’s arrest, prosecution and trial instantly transformed him for many people in the West (including western governments) and for some people in Russia into a victim of political repression and a democratic martyr. While I promised not to insert my own political views into the book reviews, and there are plenty of op-eds and forums which discuss whether the trials were fair, I will say right now that I don’t buy into the “democratic martyr” nonsense and hold a low opinion of Khodorkovsky. I tend to view him as a wealthy manipulator, eager to use his riches to warp the political process. Why do I mention this? Because my own feelings did influence my expectations for the book.
I thoroughly anticipated My Fellow Prisoners to follow a predictably pandering, anti-government pattern. Would it be a scathing indictment of the Putin regime? A robust critique of the Russian prison system? A call for the West to unite against Putin’s Russia, much like Kasparov’s Winter is Coming?
There really isn’t that much to say about My Fellow Prisoners. It’s a fairly readable set of chapters about Khodorkovsky’s fellow inmates: how they came to be in prison and how they spend their days there. The chapters are peppered with commentary on the Russian prison system, which is in dire need of reform, like many other institutions in Russia. However, I found none of this informative or moving. The narrative is repetitive, nearly oversimplified and slightly unemotional. And Khodorkovsky cannot resist but put a few over-imposing political notes in the end of each story. Overall, the book felt almost mechanical: “here is a good man. He was not given a fair trial and ended up in prison. Look how he suffers under the present system – how can we sit here and let someone be treated this way by the state? Okay, moving on.”
And it is precisely because of this cold execution, this lack of connection between the book and the reader, that I cannot give My Fellow Prisoners anything more than two stars. It simply underwhelmed.
My Fellow Prisoners by Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Pub. 2014 by Penguin Books Ltd. Paperback, 81 pages. ISBN13: 9780141979816