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Moscow Times
June 2, 2008
Khodorkovsky's Parents Worry and Remember
By Mumin Shakirov / Special to The Moscow Times

KORALLOVO, Moscow Region When the prison gate opened, Marina Khodorkovskaya rushed toward the gray building, she said.

She was only allowed to see her son, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, for three hours, and she wanted to spend every possible minute with him. Despite the east Siberian chill, she said, she wore a light jacket instead of a heavy coat to allow her walk faster.

Entering the bleak building, the 74-year-old woman headed down a long, dark corridor and ducked through a metal detector. Then she was searched by a female security officer.

Finally, she found herself in a green-walled room with a grilled window, a narrow table, a couple of chairs and a silent prison official, she said. The room reeked of dampness. Everything looked the same as the last time she had visited in November. This visit, in late March, was her eighth in the five years since Khodorkovsky's arrest in October 2003.

When Khodorkovsky entered the room, she hugged him. She said she could feel that he had lost weight during a recent hunger strike but kept quiet, knowing it was useless to say anything.

"He always makes his own decisions," Khodorkovskaya said with a hint of sadness in her voice. "There is nothing I can do. I guess how healthy he is based on which medicine he asks us to bring."

She did not say which medicine her son had requested.

Khodorkovskaya spoke about the meeting and her memories of Khodorkovsky's childhood and his arrest during an interview at Korallovo, an old country estate located 60 kilometers outside Moscow. Khodorkovsky took over the formerly run-down children's home 15 years ago and turned it into a modern boarding school offering free education to the children of slain troops and orphans from Chechnya, Beslan and other places. Once fully funded by Khodorkovsky's Yukos oil company, the school is now supported by Western sponsors.

Khodorkovskaya and her husband, Boris, 75, have served as school directors for 15 years, carrying out administrative duties and overseeing enrollment and the quality of the education. Boris Khodorkovsky keeps an office is in one building, where he and his wife receive guests and journalists. In addition to the office, the one-story building has a cramped hall, a tiny kitchen and a small room with a few paintings on the wall and a wall rug embroidered with Mikhail Khodorkovsky's portrait.

This is Khodorkovsky's third year in the remote YaG 14/10 penal colony in the Zabaikalsky region, near the border with Mongolia and China. Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, has three years left to serve after being sentenced to eight years on fraud and tax-evasion charges that he calls politically motivated. On Saturday, the third anniversary of his sentencing, a small group of protesters carrying portraits of the jailed businessman rallied near Pushkin Square to call for his release.

The flight from Moscow to Chita, the capital of Zabaikalsky region, takes six hours, no simple undertaking for a woman of Khodorkovskaya's age. She spent five days in there and was able to see her son once. Khodorkovskaya said she had gotten used to the presence of the silent prison official at her meetings with Khodorkovsky. She said she knew which topics were taboo: politics and a new money-laundering investigation into Khodorkovsky.

The most recent meeting was important to her. It was their first after Khodorkovsky went on a two-week hunger strike in support of Vasily Aleksanyan, a jailed former Yukos colleague who is dying of complications from AIDS and has accused the authorities of denying him proper medical treatment.

Asked what they had talked about, she said her son was mainly interested in the Korallovo school and whether any new buildings and streets had been built in Moscow.

"I told him about our horrendous traffic jams and how hard it is to commute to Moscow and back," she said.

He also asked about his children.

"His 17-year-old daughter, Anastasia, is the only one who has seen him," Khodorkovskaya said. "She's a college student now. His wife, Inna, does not allow their 9-year-old twins, Ilya and Gleb, to visit the Siberian jail. She does not want them to see their dad wearing a prison uniform."

She said nothing had changed financially for her and her husband since the arrest. She said they have always lived modesty, starting when Khodorkovsky, an only child, was young and they lived in a communal apartment on Prospekt Mira. "We were an average Soviet family with average means," she said.

Both parents worked as engineers at Moscow's Caliber Industrial Plant, which built tools.

She said Mikhail Khodorkovsky was an independent-minded child, comfortable being left at home alone when he was only 7. At the age of 15, he refused to go to a Pioneer camp, saying he was tired of the childish games there. His mother tried to find him a job at the plant where she worked, but Soviet law did not allow young teenagers to work with potentially dangerous machinery. So Khodorkovsky found a job on his own at a local bakery that summer.

Khodorkovskaya said her son did not work because of the money but because he was interested in how the bakery worked. He bought a pair of jeans with his first month's salary and a record player with the second.

She remembered how he took a stand at the bakery, almost getting into a fistfight with fellow workers. Some pigeons spoiled several loaves of bread, and Khodorkovsky refused to put the bread in the display case for sale. The other shop assistants argued fiercely with him but finally relented after he held his ground, she said.

The only time Khodorkovsky was punished was when he and his friends crawled out a fourth-floor window and onto the roof of his school, his mother said. The frightened principal called the boy's father, who spanked him.

"We were not worried about him," Khodorkovskaya said. "We were worried about our neighbor, a very unstable woman who also had syphilis. It was a nightmare! We lived in the communal apartment and had to share the bathroom. I was so relieved when we finally got our own apartment."

The young Khodorkovsky was more interested in books and chemistry than girls, and he got married against his mother's wishes to a fellow student, Yelena Dobrovolskaya, when he was 19. In 1985, the couple had a son, Pavel, who now lives in the United States. The couple divorced soon after the birth, and Khodorkovsky met his current wife in the early 1990s at Bank Menatep, which he ran.

Khodorkovskaya said she never could quite believe that her son was the wealthiest man in Russia, as Forbes magazine ranked him for several years. The last time he topped the list, in 2002, his fortune was estimated at $15 billion.

"I told him, 'Nothing good will come out of this!'" Khodorkovskaya said. "He said, 'Mother, everything is different now.'"

Khodorkovskaya heard the news of his arrest from her husband on Oct. 25, 2003 a day she said she would never forget. "I was at home, and my sister told my husband that Misha had been taken by special forces. It was not at all unexpected, as his business partners Platon Lebedev and Alexei Pichugin had already been arrested," she said. "I immediately went to see my daughter-in-law, Inna, to comfort her and my grandchildren. I stayed with them for some time. We are tough people, but she felt her world was collapsing."

Khodorkovsky's arrest is widely seen as Kremlin retribution for his decision to get involved in politics by funding opposition parties, among other things. Former President Vladimir Putin had told business leaders repeatedly to focus on their companies and stay out of politics.

Asked whether Khodorkovsky should have avoided politics, Boris Khodorkovsky exclaimed: "How can you be in big business in Russia and remain uninvolved in politics? How can this be achieved? Misha talked about it a lot."

He said that in the months before the arrest, Khodorkovsky also spoke about leaving business and dedicating his time to educational programs. "He wanted to see democracy in our country, like in the West," he said. "To achieve that you have to be an educated person and build a democratic society from bottom to top. He never planned to get involved in politics."

His mother said Khodorkovsky has not had any contact with politicians or business leaders since his arrest, only with close friends from his school days. One former girlfriend still carries the torch for him, she said. "Once I ran into an old flame walking with her son," she said. "When I asked what her son's name was, she blushed and said, 'Misha.' 'In Misha's honor?' I asked. She nodded."

Both parents are convinced that their son is innocent. They believe he ended up in prison because somebody wanted to take Yukos away from him and please the Kremlin at the same time. They clearly miss him terribly. Boris Khodorkovsky pulled on a reporter's sleeve at the end of the interview. "I should have had two children," he said. "Back then, we could not afford another child."