What does the future hold for Khodorkovsky’s mistreated employees?

17 January 2014

By Martin Dewhirst

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was advised not to return to Russia in the autumn of 2003 but, as an honourable man, how could he live freely in the West after two of his executives (first Aleksey Pichugin and then Platon Lebedev) had already been arrested? Being at the apex of YUKOS’s ‘vertical of power’, he evidently took his moral and legal responsibilities more seriously than some people do - and went back. He was facing a tragic dilemma. Had he stayed in America and allowed his company to be taken over, might Pichugin and Lebedev have been released, or would more people be arrested? After he was back in Russia, several more of his employees were arrested and sentenced to several years of ‘deprivation of liberty’. It still isn’t clear to outsiders whether Khodorkovsky already realised in 2003 that Putin and many of his closest accomplices had themselves been engaging in various – to put it mildly – dubious and questionable practices for over a decade and would be risking their own positions, privileges and freedom if they followed Khodorkovsky’s lead in making Russian capitalism less dishonest and more transparent. As is now clear, by the end of 2003 Khodorkovsky was in a ‘no-win’ situation. Not surprisingly, ten years later one of his top priorities – maybe his top priority – is to gain justice for all his employees who suffered from the vindictiveness of a criminal political regime.

One of his top financial executives (who had voluntarily moved on from YUKOS in 2002 and was initially sentenced to over ten years in a ‘strict regime’ correctional colony) has recently published an exceptionally interesting and unpretentious book about his post-arrest experiences: Vladimir Ivanovich Pereverzin, Zalozhnik: Istoriya menedzhera YUKOSa [Hostage: The Story of a YUKOS Manager], Moscow, ‘Howard Roark’, 2013. As is the case with several other victims of the attack on YUKOS, including even Platon Lebedev, Pereverzin was and is little known in the West – maybe that is why this heroic man was refused a visa to visit Britain after his release in 2012, having served seven years and two months for refusing either to admit any guilt on his part or to slander Khodorkovsky and Lebedev. Pereverzin insists that anyone who had ever worked for YUKOS could have been picked up as a hostage, since the authorities expected that almost anyone would say something against Khodorkovsky in order to be released from custody. This sheds important light on how at least some of those in Russia’s political ‘elite’ rightly or wrongly regard the ‘ordinary people’ in their country. It struck me that Pereverzin, born in 1966, arrested in December 2004, a highly qualified economist and financial expert, might have been selected for two reasons (this is not dwelt on in the text): he was clearly very attached to his then young son (who would have to grow up without his father unless Pereverzin complied with the investigators’ requirements), and he had studied for a year in the mid-1990s on a British Council scholarship at the University of Leeds, worked in Cyprus and had got used to a Western-style upper-middle-class way of life which he would have to relinquish unless he said just a few little things that were required of him. Some of the other ‘hostages’ in this case also refused to compromise, despite the suffering this caused not only to themselves, but also to their families.

Pereverzin writes without self-pity about his experiences as an inmate of the present Russian penal system, but rather less eloquently than, say, Igor’ Sutyagin (Na polputi k sibirskim rudam [Halfway to the Siberian Salt Mines], Moscow, ‘Prava cheloveka’, 2009), though with no less honesty. Chapters 17 to 22 about his lengthy stay in the quarantine section of his main colony are of particular interest. He realised that he was far luckier than most of his fellow convicts because he had a real family outside, several loyal friends, something to look forward to at the end of his sentence and – another crucial matter - a goodly sum of money on his personal account. Living for years in a ‘strict’, not ‘standard’, regime colony, he was surrounded by murderers and rapists, some of whom he contrasts rather favourably with various members of the Russian legal profession who, instead of losing their self-control for a minute or two and committing a serious crime, have prostituted themselves for decades by doing whatever the political branch of power wanted them to do (and rewarded them generously for their compliance).

One of the ironies of the situation is that now, living in the West, Khodorkovsky himself is a hostage, because anything he might say or do which greatly displeases the Putin regime could lead, as collateral damage, to additional punishment for the very people who refused to slander him after his arrest in 2003 and who in some ways were treated more unjustly than he himself was. Such is Putin’s ‘dictatorship of law’ in practice. The ‘rule of law’ in Russia is still a very long way off.