On “Hope”: Khodorkovsky’s Letter From Jail

It is Kafka-esque, the Letter from Krasnokamensk Jail, circa 2010: The New York Times has run the Russian oligarch’s statement, the statement he delivered in front of his judge, and in front of the Times’s Joe Nocera, yesterday. It is bone chilling. It has precedence. The man who has spent time considering not only his own fate but that of a nation while sitting in jail alleged to have done one thing or another: this has precedence. It is not necessary to compare Khodorkovsky, or his letter, to other human and civil rights leaders; in fact, to do so would be incorrect. Khodorkovsky is not a peacemaker; he is a businessman. But the historical and literary parallels his letter draws on are compelling.

It is not the color of his skin. It is not the religion he practices. In Khodorkovsky’s case, the crime is that a man has been put in jail for having been an entrepreneur; a man with an idea. In his letter he condemns a mind-set, one he feels keeps his country behind in the world. Is it valid? Here is an excerpt from his statement/letter; it falls a few paragraphs after the line, “I want to talk to you about hope. Hope—the most important thing in life.”

I will not be exaggerating if I say that millions of eyes throughout Russia and the world are watching this trial. They are watching with the hope that Russia will still become a country of freedom and law, where the law is above the bureaucrat. Where supporting opposition parties is not a cause for reprisals. Where special services protect the people and the law, and not the bureaucracy from the people and the law. Where human rights no longer depend on the mood of the czar, good or evil. Where, on the contrary, power truly depends on the citizens and the court, only on law and God. Call this conscience, if you prefer.

I believe this will be. I am not a perfect person, but I am a person with an idea. For me, as for anybody, it is hard to live in jail, and I do not want to die there. But if I have to, I will. The things I believe in are worth dying for. I think I have proved this.

And you, my opponents? What do you believe in? That the bosses are always right? Do you believe in money? In the impunity of “the system”

Khodorkovsky claims what was done to him is a symbol, one that will go down in history as something actively suppressing the “hope” of the Russian people. The best line of all was his last, one that could have come as easily from Ibsen as from Kafka, and which both writers would have appreciated. With only the subtlest hint of threat, the prisoner confronted his Judge:

Your Honor, I can imagine perfectly well that this must not be very easy at all for you, perhaps even frightening, and I wish you courage!

According to The Moscow Times, they were crying in the courtroom. The verdict will be delivered on December 15th.


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