“Damn you and all your progeny!” was the chilling phrase that fell from the lips of Marina Khodorkovskaya in Moscow’s Khamovniki Court on 30 December 2010. The normally gentle, grey-haired woman had kept admirable calm throughout the tense proceedings of her son’s second trial. But here, as Judge Viktor Danilkin concluded his reading of the verdict, sentencing Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his friend Platon Lebedev to a further 14 years' imprisonment, Khodorkovskaya broke. Once Judge Danilkin left the courtroom, a deathly silence descended. The entire courtroom – journalists, lawyers, the defendants' friends and relatives – was in shock. The relatives had been hoping for a miracle, a minimum sentence for the defendants, but the Khamovniki Court thwarted all hopes of an early release for Russia's most prominent prisoners. Over the backs of the guards I cast a glance at Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He was his usual calm self, signalling to his family in barely visible gestures through the glass wall that everything was OK.
Marina Khodorkovskaya in Moscow’s Khamovniki Court. The normally gentle, grey-haired woman kept admirable calm throughout the trial, but the sentence broke her
I left the courtroom along with the other journalists soon afterwards, yet my mind kept replaying the dénouement of this drama: the parents' inconsolable grief and Mikhail's nervous, wandering smile “behind the glass”. Everyone was aware of the fact that the second sentence has radically diminished the chances of the elderly couple – both nearing eighty – ever seeing their son walk free.
I decided to go online and look over information on the YUKOS case. It was then that I came across the notorious “Letter of the 50” (link in Russian). This was an open letter “from scholars, cultural and public figures” passing comment the original sentence against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, which appeared in the loyal daily newspaper Izvestia in the summer of 2005. The letter defended the verdict and categorically rejected any claims that the court case against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev had a political background. It was signed by fifty prominent Russians including the astronaut Georgi Grechko; actor and chief director of the EtCetera Theatre Aleksandr Kalyagin; film director and State Duma representative Stanislav Govorukhin; ballerina Anastasia Volochkova; fashion designer Valentin Yudashkin; gymnastics Olympic champion Alina Kabayeva; and singer Aleksandr Rozenbaum.
“What makes people stoop so low, I thought? An idea popped into my head. What if I contacted the “2005 signatories” to find out if the second trial against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev made them change their mind?”
As I was reading this poison-pen letter, I was reminded of other similar libellous letters many leading cultural figures and sportsmen had signed under Khrushchev and Brezhnev. Strange, I thought, that twenty years after the break-up of the USSR, a tradition of public condemnation and snitching under pressure from above seemed to be still alive and well. I remembered how in the Soviet Union in the 1950s the poet Boris Pasternak was subjected to similar persecution and expelled from the Writers' Union; how in the 1960s writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was exiled abroad; and how in the 1970s academician Andrei Sakharov was placed under house arrest. Angry letters condemning so-called traitors of the Fatherland had been signed not only by little-known officials but also by major artists and scholars who had made an enormous contribution to Russian art, literature and the defence of the nation. For example, when the father of the hydrogen bomb Sakharov spoke out for the abolition of censorship, an end to political trials and against the imprisonment of dissidents in psychiatric hospitals, it was his fellow scientists who were the first to denounce him, followed by bohemian artists.
The 2005 "letter of fifty" had analogues in Soviet history. In 1973, for example inventor of the H-Bomb and hero of conscience Andrei Sakharov was denounced as a traitor in an open letter signed by leading Soviet celebrities.
“We, artists of Soviet cinema, having read the letter of the group of scientists published in Pravda, fully support their assessment of the undignified behaviour of Andrei Sakharov. We condemn his attempts to malign our political system along with the the domestic and foreign policy of the Soviet Union”. This direct quote, coming from a public appeal in 1973 was signed by leading lights of the Soviet film industry, including Oscar winner and friend of Federico Fellini, director Sergei Bondarchuk, cutting-edge documentary film maker Roman Karmen and the Soviet “Alain Delon”, heartthrob Viacheslav Tikhonov.
What makes people stoop so low, I thought? Concluding that there was no simple answer to such a perennial question, an idea popped into my head. What if I contacted the “2005 signatories” to find out if the second trial against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev made them change their mind on his case?
“At some point United Russia – this pile of cr*p I once inadvertently stepped on – made me sign this ridiculous document. Later, after the whole country accused me of being against Khodorkovsky, I wept. You know, because I had allowed them to trick me into it”
Ballerina Anastiya Volochkova
The outcome of my endeavour was unexpected and sensational. The very first signatory I happened to call, former Bolshoi Theatre ballerina Anastasia Volochkova, expressed her remorse and even spoke out in support of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
“At some point some people from United Russia – this pile of cr*p I once inadvertently stepped on – made me sign this ridiculous document. Later, after the whole country accused me of being against Khodorkovsky, I wept. You know, because I had allowed them to trick me into it”. She added, sensationally: “this, by the way, may be the reason why I want to leave the f**king party”. Her words, broadcast by Radio Liberty and published on the station's website, caused quite a stir online. A Russian ballerina hurling obscenities at the ruling party was a real bombshell. The nation laughed, and applauded the dance at the same time. United Russia did not leave her statement unanswered, of course. Their revenge came ten days later. Two federal TV channels dropped all programmes featuring her. Volochkova responded immediately, claiming in her blog that the Kremlin, through the Putin regime's main ideologue Vladislav Surkov, had taken revenge on her. And again this row has attracted the interest of the net community. It is clearly as story that will not disappear anytime soon.
The second person I interviewed was the famous singer and showman Aleksandr Buynov. The outcome was just as unexpected as in Anastasia's case . He said: “let's just say 'there are stupid people in this world'. In this case it was me. You have to accept responsibility for your words. But I haven't yet got rid of the Soviet habit of simply going along with everyone else, and that's how I got involved in this affair”. Buynov’s public repentance went viral, just like Volochkova's statement.
The ice-skating Olympic champion Irina Rodina went even further in distancing herself from her signature. The celebrated sportswoman declared she had never signed a letter against Khodorkovsky and went on to offer a public apology to the Chita colony prisoner.
Singer Aleksandr Buynov was another who renounced his signature: “I haven't yet got rid of the Soviet habit of simply going along with everyone else"
Cheered by these unexpected results, over the next few weeks I called half a dozen celebrities who had signed the “Letter of the 50”. They included the Hero of the Soviet Union, astronaut Georgi Grechko; chairman of Russia's Theatre artists Aleksandr Kalyagin, a survivor of Stalin's camps; writer and historian Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko; world-renowned surgeon Leo Bokeria, and others, all individuals whose contribution to the nation can surely be beyond any doubt. None, disappointingly, added to the instances of passionate repentance, though I turned up quite a few “refuseniks”, that is to say, people who denied having taken part in this shady Kremlin project. Surgeon Leo Bokeria; Soviet cinema star Svetlana Svetlichnaya and a couple of others denied that they had signed the letter. Film director Boris Tokarev, actor Aleksandr Kalyagin, fashionable portrait painter Nikas Safronov and astronaut Georgi Grechko, on the other hand, have not changed their views.
Cosmanut Georgi Grechko was a signatory to the original letter condemning Khodorkovsky and Lebedev. He is one of a dwindling number to stand by his original views
“I can say now as I did then: I don't regret having signed this document,” declared Kalyagin. “Each person should be judged according to the purity of their intentions. Or, as the Americans say, nothing is certain except death and taxes”. That said, Kalyagin did expressed some doubts with regard to Khodorkovsky's second sentence, and was quite outspoken about this in the interview. The hugely popular astronaut Grechko, meanwhile, stated that it wasn't just Khodorkovsky and Lebedev who should have been imprisoned: another pair of oligarchs who grew miraculously rich in the mid nineties should also have ended up behind bars, he said. Fashion designer Nikas Safronov did not deny that he signed either, though he tried to justify his action in a more convoluted way: “I have a civic position that everyone should pay taxes. I do, everyone should. That's all. Well, and then someone slipped in this appeal against Khodorkovsky... What can I say? People are often used like this ... and with no explanation.” Safronov concluded his peroration with a philosophical quote from Oscar Wilde: “No man is rich enough to buy back his past.”
Each of the above tried to convince me in his or her own way that they had been right and that the YUKOS case had nothing to do with politics. They claimed that rich people are supposed to pay taxes, that you have to trust Russia's judicial system, and so on. But none of this sounded too convincing. Moreover, the “Letter of the 50” did not appear until after the Court had handed down its original harsh verdict – nine years' imprisonment – on Khodorkovsky and Lebedev in May 2005. None of the signatories was able to offer a coherent explanation as to what the point was of pouring oil onto the fire when the logs were ready aflame.
What did this murky story teach me? That celebrity hullaballoo can attract the attention of millions. That the tried and tested KGB methods of fighting political opponents have not disappeared. That the regime is willing to employ any dirty trick to destroy its enemy. And that individual artists, celebrities and scholars are always willing to play the role of consumables for the sake of material goods or of keeping their place near the throne. Mikhail Khodorkovsky himself was disappointed that famous people – some of whom, in his own words, “he had loved since childhood” – could do such a thing.
Get our weekly email