John Paul O’Malley is a freelance journalist based in London.


By Mikhail Khodorkovsky

81 pp. $20

In 1993, an ambitious young Moscow businessman co-authored “Man With a Ruble,” a manifesto that encouraged Russia to make its way in the world of cutthroat capitalism. “Our guiding light is Profit,” Mikhail Khodorkovsky declared with striking hubris. By 2000, at 37 , the entrepreneur had become the wealthiest man in Russia. He had also discovered a social conscience and the concept of political morality.

The billionaire chief executive of Yukos, Russia’s most profitable oil company, began attempting to build civil society in a post-Soviet Russia. He set up a forum for political debate called Open Russia; financed various new journalism programs; and invited Western multinational companies into Russia to teach Yukos about transparent accounting systems, tax compliance issues and management structures.

‘My Fellow Prisoners’ by Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Overlook)

If Khodorkovsky made it as a super-rich oligarch by exploiting a system of weak government and crony capitalism, this was his attempt to help facilitate a version of Russian democracy that looked toward Western values. But his plan didn’t work. By 2003 he was serving a 14-year prison sentence on charges of fraud and corruption. The trial had been politically motivated, its evidence contradictory, and Amnesty International — not exactly an organization known for defending billionaires — declared Khodorkovsky a prisoner of conscience. After a decade he was finally pardoned. Now living in exile in Switzerland, he has written “My Fellow Prisoners,” a slim volume documenting his experience in the Russian prison system. With its spare and lucid prose, it reads like a book of short stories.

In “The Aggrieved,” we meet Ostap, a quiet and shy inmate who attempts to kill a fellow prisoner in the hope of gaining some self-respect. In “Guilty Without Guilt: Volodya,” we read about a 45-year-old man who ends up serving a lengthy prison sentence for stealing a bottle of wine. And in “The Nazi,” the author paints a crude picture of Alexander, a young prisoner who is a Holocaust denier fully dedicated to the neo-Nazi cause in Russia.

Khodorkovsky’s strength is his ability to connect these stories from inside the prison walls to the political tragedy that has been happening on the outside since the fall of the Soviet Union. He describes Russia as a “society where goodness and empathy are seen as synonymous with madness.”

“My Fellow Prisoners” is an illuminating and brave piece of work from a man we have surely not seen the last of as he continues to fight for social justice, accountability and human decency in a country where — given the recent killing of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov — politics, fear and authoritarian rule are almost impossible to separate.