Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

My Fellow Prisoners

My Fellow Prisoners 
Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky
Moscow + Krasnokamensk 

SUMMARY: My Fellow Prisoners is a collection of vignettes from Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s ten years in prison. The vignettes are each structured around a person he met in prison, though some of the names have been changed to protect the person, and shine a light on how the corrupt Russian judicial system manifests inside the prison walls. Khodorkovsky approaches the prison through different lenses, describing the experiences of a Roma prisoner who sometimes cooks for others, a gay prisoner, Ostap, who gains the respect of his fellow inmates when he attacks a prisoner who disrespects him, and his overseer, Sergei, who both beats and bargains with prisoners to create the conditions that will please his higher-ups. Khodorkovsky also tells the story of Volodya, who in prison is charged with murdering another prisoner that has actually died from the prison staff’s beatings. The social divisions and political corruption that plague Russia bleed into the prison of Khodorkovsky’s vignettes. 

     While Khodorkovsky’s book all comes out of his experience in prison, many of the vignettes describe the backgrounds of prisoners and the processes outside the prison that resulted in their incarceration and re-incarceration. The Russian judicial system teems with corruption, as witnesses are threatened and bribed to give false testimonies, crimes are pinned on vulnerable people, and sentences are manipulated to serve the interests of the state, all so that the politically powerful are free to act without consequences. Khodorkovsky describes how an unaware factory manager reaches out to the authorities when shipments go undelivered and his bosses are nowhere to be seen but is himself charges with the embezzlement his bosses committed and sent to prison. Khodorkovsky himself prevents this man, Artyom, from taking his own life in prison. Another man, eighteen-year-old Alexei, lives with his underage girlfriend and her family but is jailed when local authorities are given arrest quotas, despite the letters from his girlfriend and her family pleading his innocence. One of the most powerful and saddening vignettes is that of Lyosha, a prisoner who serves his time but whose family abandons him and is left with nobody to go to once released. Here lies one of the main problems Khodorkovsky seeks to highlight, as the judicial system is largely accepted by a general population that is either too afraid or unaware of questioning the official narratives that are fed to them. All of these stories and many more lead Khodorkovsky to understand the Russian government as one that abuses, fails, and cripplingly isolates the many unfortunate prisoners that fall victim to the political elite’s corruption. 

ANALYSIS: My Fellow Prisoners points to a lack of empathy as one of the worst causes and tragedies of Russia’s current judicial system. In Khodorkovsky’s eyes, though political corruption is the culprit, the public is not entirely blameless. The abuses that the state perpetrates against its incarcerated population are enabled by the public desire for punishment. Of course, the public outcries are fueled by the limited and intentionally manipulated narratives put forth by the government, but there still needs to be a greater effort to connect to human beings, in spite of the isolating barriers put up by the government. Khodorkovsky describes a naive belief in the system, as well as tragic cases of rejection, such as Lyosha’s in the vignette titled “Betrayal.” Prison is in its essence a physical and psychological barrier between those incarcerated and those outside; the government can tell whatever story suits it, and it is an active and deliberate expression of empathy that is needed in order to better understand Russia’s injustice and its victims. 

     Khodorkovsky’s collection is also a celebration of human dignity. One of the first stories that he tells is that of Kolya. Kolya is rightfully convicted of theft for the second time, but this time the authorities want to charge him with an additional count of theft unrelated to him. This is common, as whichever powerful person wants to see someone convicted or someone not convicted is pleased, and the person they pin it on receives a shortened sentence or perks such as a choice in where to serve parole labor or more frequent visits in return for confessing, which is what is offered to Kolya. Kolya initially accepts the deal, but refuses to go through with it when he finds out the crime he would be confessing to is the mugging of an elderly woman. His pride cannot allow him to confess to a crime that he finds reprehensible and would never commit. In these instances, however, the authorities can proceed without the confession—it is most likely merely an inconvenience. People are forced to choose between their dignity and putting themselves in a better position going forward and perhaps a better position to be around their families sooner. It is likely that even if they do not confess, most will believe they are guilty anyway, but in the case of Kolya his pride would not allow it. Choices such as this are only one of the many ways that incarceration degrades the individual, and it is the resistance against this degradation that My Fellow Prisoners seeks to recognize and champion. 


“I wrote about a future Russia that we will be able to feel proud of without a trace of shame—the Russia that will ultimately take the road of European civilization. A road we all share.” (4) 

“I am left feeling angry and bitter about this hopelessness, about the cruelty of our system, about the cries of people who don’t want to know the truth and demand one thing: ‘Crucify him!’” (14) 

“Just think about how many abandoned young men are languishing in Russia’s prisons! How many of them there are in here only because they were desperately looking for someone to pay them some attention, craving a place in a world where they seemed like strangers even to those closest to them,” (54)

BIOGRAPHY: Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a Russian businessman who was imprisoned on charges of corruption and fraud in 2003 by the government of Vladimir Putin. Khodorkovsky was born into a middle-class family in 1963 to a Christian mother and Jewish father, both of whom were chemists. Khodorkovsky himself graduated from the Moscow D. Mendeleyev Institute of Chemical Technology in 1986. After being denied entry into graduate school, however, Khodorkovsky turned to business. Growing up, he had been very active in Komsomol and the Communist Party, and some of his acquaintances from these organizations would later become his business partners. Khodorkovsky’s business ventures started with a café in 1986, but just the next year grew to include importing and exporting of computers and various other goods. Khodorkovsky in 1988 founded one of Russia’s first private banks, named Menatep in 1990, which was the consolidation of all of his ventures into a single corporation with about eight million dollars in capital. When communism fell in 1991, Khodorkovsky amassed his fortune by purchasing former assets of the Soviet Union, as well as trading in foreign commodities and currencies. 

     His fame and wealth reached remarkable levels when Menatep bought Yukos, the country’s second largest oil company, in an auction in 1955 for $350 million. Menatep, which was not the highest bidder, oversaw the auction in which the highest bidder was disqualified due to a technicality in their bid. This is when Khodorkovsky for a period the wealthiest man in Russia, entering the famed oligarch class of contemporary Russia. The oligarchs benefited from collaboration with the government headed by Russian president Boris Yeltsin, which helped Khodorkovsky and Menatep salvage assets during the country’s financial crash in 1998. The following year, however, when Vladimir Putin assumed office, Khodorkovsky’s relationship with the government changed. Putin sought to form a relationship with the oligarchs, offering a deal in which they would be allowed to carry on in their business operations, but must retreat from the political realm. Khodorkovsky refused and contributed heavily to political forces in opposition to Putin that would further Yukos’ interests. In the midst of another acquisition of an oil company in 2003, Khodorkovsky was detained by authorities and tried on seven counts of fraud and tax evasion. 

     The trial concluded in 2005, when he was convicted on six of the seven counts. The sentence was nine years in prison, which was later reduced to eight years. In 2007, however, Khodorkovsky was tried on additional charges of money laundering and embezzlement. He was found guilty in 2010, a ruling which was upheld the following year, and was sentenced to an additional seven years in prison. Both trials were widely criticized as being politically motivated, and ahead of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, as part of an amnesty initiative by Putin, Khodorkovsky was released in 2013 following ten years of imprisonment. 

     Following his release, Khodorkovsky has taken on an activist role in the liberalization of Russia. This started with a state-sanctioned trip to Ukraine in 2014 in which he spoke of his desire for peace and a different, attainable Russia. 2014 was also the year in which he published My Fellow Prisoners, a memoir of his political imprisonment. Khodorkovsky currently works on his initiative Open Russia, an activist movement that promotes free elections and strong democratic values.


Khodorkovsky, Mikhail. My Fellow Prisoners. Penguin Books, 2014. 


Ray, Michael. "Mikhail Khodorkovsky." Encyclopedia Britannica, 22 June 2018, Accessed 3 May 2019. 


Joffe, Lawrence. "From Oligarch to Icon: The Plight of Mikhail Khodorkovsky Raises Questions about the Place of Russian Jews Today." Jewish Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 4, Jan. 2011, pp. 26-31.
Joffe examines the story of Khodorkovsky in the context of Jewish people’s experiences in throughout Russia’s history. Different theories as to why in the early 90s six of the seven richest oligarchs were Jewish or partly Jewish are discussed, such as whether it was because they were generally excluded from communist power and were in a better position to prosper economically once communism collapsed. 

Khodorkovsky, Mikhail. "Mikhail Khodorkovsky." Interview by Alan Philips. The World Today, vol. 74, no. 2, Apr.-May 2018, pp. 20-22. 
This is a fascinating interview with Khodorkovsky. He discusses the lack of direction he sees in Russia’s government and the role that Putin plays in the country’s political power dynamics. 

Sixsmith, Martin. "Flight to the east." Putin's Oil: the Yukos Affair and the Struggle for Russia, Bloomsbury Academic, 2010. 
In this chapter of Sixsmith’s book, he describes the political landscape that preceded Khorkovsky’s arrest. The chapter shows the unclear and strained relationship Khodorkovsky had with the government. 

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