Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s hunger-strike: a remake of "The Oak and the Calf"


“Isolated ultimatums won’t get anything from administrations of such establishments,” said head of Internet-project Arestant.ru and former prisoner Oleg Trunov to Kommersant, commenting on reports that Matrosskaya Tishina inmate Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been on a hunger-strike since August 19. “The prison authorities have seen it all before. Even the massive hunger-strikes can hardly lead to anything.”

Khodorkovsky’s attorney Anton Drel said in an interview with Echo of Moscow radio that Khodorkovsky decided to take this action in solidarity with his friend Platon Lebedev, who has been transferred to a punishment cell “for infringement of prison regulations” – that is refusal to take a daily walk.

Drel passed on a statement from Khodorkovsky: “Platon is gravely ill and cannot go out on prison walks. He was put in the punishment cell in revenge on me for my articles and interviews… But he must know that he is not alone.”

So, as Oleg Trunov told Kommersant, the hunger-strike is being used by Khodorkovsky in full correspondence with Russian prison traditions – as it is “a passive form of protest for attaining some political aims.” Criminals, as Trunov emphasized, hardly use such a form of protest: “only those who are prepared to die use it.”

Human rights activist Sergei Kovalev described Khodorkovsky’s deed in the very same way. Kovalev told Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “A hunger-strike is a move of desperation, probably the last resort for declaring personal disagreement with the actions of the state or those of specific bureaucrats.” Afterwards, he summed this up by saying: “This is a powerful but not legal instrument, as they do not pass sentences on the ground of hunger-strike, only make concessions.”

Novye Izvestia recalls the cases when the authorities had to concede to prisoners’ demands – from the well-known hunger-strike of Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner in 1981 to the recent campaign by prison inmates in Lgov (Kursk oblast).

In this very list there is first hunger-strike in YUKOS case. It was declared in the beginning of March by attorney of the company Svetlana Bakhmina, who is under examination, while trying to talk with her children by phone. After eight days, the demand of the prisoner was to be satisfied.

Though this time, the situation develops in an untraditional way. As Anna Politkovskaya says in Novaya Gazeta, “the authorities study – they do not joke with them, there are people not willing to communicate with them. A hunger-strike is not a dialogue with the authorities. A hunger-strike is a dialogue with the public.”

In the beginning, the press was afraid of simple decisions, which are so liked in Russia. The Kommersant newspaper, basing on the information of Trunov as well as on the documents of the Justice Ministry, supposed that the hunger-strike may end with forcible feeding of the hunger-striker.

As Kommersant found out, on August 2, 2005, the Justice Ministry produced a new decree concerning standards of feeding the prisoners, which, as Moskovskiye Novosti weekly confirmed, came into force last Monday, August 22. “Milk and eggs will appear on the table of each prisoner,” said Federal Penitentiary Service (FPS) director Yuri Kalinin.

Obstinate persons were not forgotten in the decree, as supplement number 7 has the name “Norms for accomplishing forced feeding of prisoners.” Kommersant quotes the daily forcing ration, foreseen by the decree of Justice Ministry, which is comprised of 0.8 liters of milk, two eggs, 200 grams of meat, and a Vitamin C supplement.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta quotes a statement from Yuri Kalinin, who emphasized that if the health of the prisoner will be getting worse, “the administration has a rule to feed him by force.”

However, everything turned out to be simpler. The FPS just declared that they know nothing about Khodorkovsky’s hunger-strike, because he did not sent any declaration concerning his action or its aims to the prison’s management. Consequently, “his hunger-strike is not fixed anywhere, it cannot be proved and it does not exist, ostensibly,” as employees of FPS explained to a correspondent of Kommersant.

Mr. Kalinin also considered it appropriate to make a public declaration about the fact that “neither the prison nor the Moscow department of FPS has information about Khodorkovsky’s declaration.” Besides, according to the data of FPS’s head, “he gets food to the value of a thousand dollars each month. When treating his health this way, how can one ho on a hunger-strike?”

And the press service of FPS in charge of Moscow proved its declaration by an official message about “inmate M.B. Khodorkovsky purchased products from the store of Detention Center No. 1 to the value 4,200 rubles on August 23.”

However, as attorney Anton Drel explained to Vremya Novostei, Khodorkovsky deliberately didn’t announce his protest to the administration of Matrosskaya Tishina, as he does not have claims for management of the isolator, “The decision about sending Lebedev to the punishment cell was not made in the isolator, but in some other place.”

Besides, according to Drel, Khodorkovsky asked him to tell the parents of his cellmates, that “in spite of his hunger-strike, the other guys will eat all right.” Drel added: “So, you decide whom he’s buying food for.”

Meanwhile, as Kommersant reported, the federal political council of the Union of Right Forces party issued a declaration in which it stated the solidarity with “political prisoner” Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev struggle. At the same time, the URF appealed for Khodorkovsky to stop his hunger-strike, “in order to save his strength in the interests of Russian and democracy.”

URF deputy chairman Leonid Gozman especially emphasized that support for Lebedev and Khodorkovsky does not mean the URF is in solidarity with the latter’s new idea about the need for a “left turn” in Russia. As Gozman said, “as the main reasons of Khodorkovsky’s and Lebedev’s arrests are of a political nature, we produce the protest against such actions from the part of the authorities. However, that does not mean that we share the political views of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. We are in solidarity with him as a political prisoner, but not as a political figure.”

URF Political Council secretary Ivan Starikov admitted in his article in Novoye Vremya magazine that it is hard to argue with Khodorkovsky now, “He has the greatest moral right and even supremacy to voice his position.” In any case, no one form the first hundred of Russian political figures would like “to go to jail for his beliefs.” At the same time, Khodorkovsky acted that very way, “And that, undoubtedly, turns him into political figure Number 1 in this country.” However, Starikov does not agree with Khodorkovsky’s idea about the fact that social tension in Russia can be alleviated by a “left turn.”

“Liberty and social justice are not mutually exclusive concepts,” Starikov says. Furthermore, he is sure that one is not possible without the other, “Free, independent and responsible citizens with property rights – they and only they can establish a worthy society and a strong state.”

Starikov considers that “the basis of the present crying injustice is not capitalization of someone’s business in some billions of dollars. This is pushing away of citizens from the political process by the authorities.” For instance, from legislative regulation and distributing budget resources. And only the parliament elected by the society and the President could, according to the idea of Starikov, “to pass a historical Moncloa Pact on questions of budget expenses, totals of privatization and administrative reform, which would be understood and accepted by civilians.”

It is Ivan Starikov, as the press reported, who heads the initiative group for nominating Khodorkovsky as a Duma candidate from the “traditionally liberal” (Starikov’s concept) 201st University single-mandate district.

As Starikov said in an interview with Radio Liberty, “it will be an interesting campaign,” paying attention to the fact that “the President himself and many deputies are registered in this district.” Starikov explained that, being a candidate (even while in prison), Khodorkovsky “could get an opportunity to run dialogues with voters in the regime of some conferences. Afterwards, a circle of specific persons will be formed, who will meet the voters, consequently, voice the main clauses of his campaign. I know that Mikhail Borisovich is preparing a national project concerning the most sharp, burning questions of the country’s problems.” Khodorkovsky himself, whose declaration was announced by his press center, is “completely sure” that they will not let him participate in the elections. “But if I get messages from people, whose opinions I appreciate, I shall agree, even being aware that I shall not be elected, secondly, there will be new impressions,” it is said in the declaration (quoted in Vremya Novostei).

The initiative of Starikov was supported by Our Choice party leader Irina Khakamada. However, she noted in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta that she is not a member of the initiative group – “just because no one invited her.” Nevertheless, Khakamada declared openly not for once that the “war is ready,” considering that Khodorkovsky’s advancing seems like a “political action, not PR. It is an action of solidarity, an attempt to unite all democrats and everyone, who shares clauses of his program.”

Apart from Khakamada, some other people are ready to participate in the work of the initiative group – Yabloko members Alexei Melnikov and political scientist Andrei Piontkovsky. Yabloko deputy chairman Sergei Ivanenko commented on Starikov’s initiative as follows: “This is undoubtedly a political action, urged to demonstrate the unity of political forces. And we, of course, shall not interfere with it, there will be our representatives in the initiative group… But this action has nothing to do with the elections, and I think that there will be even no registration.”

URF leader Nikita Belykh told the Gazeta newspaper that the URF federal political council has decided that “the URF will not support Khodorkovsky officially now, but Starikov is free to participate as a private individual.” Besides, as Belykh added, it is probable that URF will field their own candidate – deputy of the Moscow municipal legislature Dmitri Kataev, “Khodorkovsky’s chances to register are null, while our aim is to have our candidate in the Duma, not participate in a political action.”

However, when Gazeta asked whether the URF will support Khodorkovsky if he is registered, Belykh promised, “Probably we shall recall our candidate and urge our supporters to vote for him.”

Indeed, there is a chance for Khodorkovsky to participate in the elections until the decree comes into the legal force, as Central Election Commission (CEC) Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov told Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

Veshnyakov declared that no one is going to interfere with Khodorkovsky.

This declaration of the CEC head may be proved or refuted in a week, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta says, as CEC can simply not set the date of elections on December 4, as it was planned before.

According to the law, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta explains, the election for the Duma seat vacant since Mikhail Zadornov’s move to Vneshtorgbank must be held within a year. So, Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes, “CEC has some time for a maneuver.”

Besides, as Khodorkovsky’s attorney Yuri Schmidt suggests, the court will try to investigate all appeals as fast as possible.

Political Scientist Andrei Piontkovsky told Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “We understand everything clearly: the authorities will immediately speed up this process in the Supreme Court, while they will not hurry up with the elections. So we have no illusions regarding real Khodorkovsky’s chances on participating in the elections.”

The supposition that Khodorkovsky wouldn’t be able to take part in the elections is not doubted either by Alexei Makarkin, deputy general director of the Political Techniques Center, who told the Gazeta newspaper: “Teleconferences from the Matrosskaya Tishina detention center for communication with voters would increase Khodorkovsky’s rating to dangerous levels – presidential elections are not far away.”

However, from Makarkin’s point of view, “The main point for Khodorkovsky now is to get forgotten. Would he be registered as a candidate, or the authorities would find reasons to refuse, these are equal in brightness issues increasing his political capital.”

Still, according to articles in the press, there’s no need for Mikhail Khodorkovsky to bother about the amount of his political capital. He is invited to participate in the elections in various regions of Russia.

Kommersant reports that in Tomsk region the conference of the election bloc “The Union of Right Forces plus Yabloko” decided to advance Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Institution election district No. 1 of Tomsk. The right explained their decision in their word to the voters, “He (Khodorkovsky – M.K.) did a lot for Tomsk, Tomsk higher education institutions and Tomsk youth, proved with word and deal his loyalty to liberal values, coherently stands for defense of democracy and thus he is fully entitled to represent right forces in the representative government body of Tomsk.” The elections for Tomsk city Duma will be held on October 9, and the request for Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s consent has been sent already into his press center.

Meanwhile, according to the information of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, activists of Novosibirsk departments of the Democratic parties offered Khodorkovsky to head their joint list of deputies of the regional council. In Novosibirsk region the elections will be held in January. In the council of democratic forces on preparation for the elections there will be two representatives from each of the four democratic parties – the Union of Right Forces, Yabloko, the Republican Party, and the United Civic Front of Garry Kasparov. It must be headed by an authoritative liberal politician, and in Novosibirsk they made up their minds that Khodorkovsky will be the best candidature, “At last, he was detained in our airport. It can be said, here he took his last breath of free air.”

Besides, in Novosibirsk they decided that the elections for the regional council should demonstrate that “democrats in Russia can unite, in general.” An idea, close to Khodorkovsky, no doubt.

Still, leader of the local department of the Republican Party Svyatoslav Nastashevsky told to Nezavisimaya Gazeta a bit perplexedly that the republicants “will have to long explain to the voters what is so good about Khodorkovsky and what he has in common with Novosibirsk.” Deputy Chairman of the local political council of the Union of Right Forces Andrei Sheverev noted, no less emotionally, “This year elections are held in 15 regions, then, should Khodorkovsky run as a candidate in all of them?”

However, there are no such questions, for instance, in Ulyanovsk. As the same NG reports, the local branch of the Defense (Oborona) movement suggested sending prisoner Khodorkovsky to serve his time as the mayor of the city. The initiators of the action declared that Ulyanovsk is on one of the last places in Russia in the level of social development and is practically on the edge of bankruptcy. By all appearances, they decided to use the Abramovich-Vekselberg effect, though in a rather specific form.

In general, as the first and the last Soviet president used to say, the process is under way. The press responded to the rise in the popularity of prisoner Khodorkovsky with headlines: “Khodorkovsky Started his Parade about the Country. A Triumphant one?” (NG), “Don’t Count out a Prison Cell, the Duma May Come as Well” (Vremya Novostei), “Competition for Khodorkovsky” (Izvestia), and so on.

Nevertheless, the plot is far from a happy end. In an interview with Radio Liberty, InDem Foundation President Georgy Satarov noted that even if Khodorkovsky comes out safely from the dry hunger strike, if he agrees to participate in the by-election and is allowed to do so – even if he wins, “there’s a procedure of immunity withdrawal that would easily pass in the present Duma,” with the majority controlled by United Russia.

However, this can hardly trouble Khodorkovsky, the prisoner of investigatory isolation ward No. 1.

As well-known writer Boris Strugatsky said in Novaya Gazeta, “with his action Mikhail Khodorkovsky has proved again that he is a true man, a heart-whole man, evoking deep respect.” And added, “I wish him good luck in his action, which seems to me, to tell the truth, rather hopeless.”

However, who knows? As another notorious Russian writer once said in connection with a similar case, “a calf was butting his head against an oak tree…”

As it turned out much later, the calf’s battle was not hopeless.