Even two hours before the start of the Khodorkovsky press conference, the tiny space at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum in Berlin was already teeming with journalists, vying for the few available seats with a direct view of what could hardly be called a stage. Despite the obvious symbolism of the museum – and the fact that it housed an exhibition room dedicated to Khorokovsky’s imprisonment – one could have hardly picked a more unsuitable location to host this historic news conference. Ironically, the size of the space was just as tiny, windowless and claustrophobic as your average Russian courtroom. Journalists from every leading international media organization were there, scrambling to get their cameramen in position, barking out orders and expressing their dismay at the event’s terrible organization.
“You’d think Germans could’ve done a better job, but then again we’re in Berlin where nothing seems to go according to plan” was the response of one British reporter to the chaos unfolding before us. Luckily, I managed to find a seat squeezed in between the RT’s (formerly known as Russia Today) Spanish-speaking crew and a group of sulky reporters from government-sponsored Rossiya channel. The few security guards were visibly overwhelmed, their big red necks sweating, trying in vain to keep reporters from trampling one another. For someone that was until recently considered to be Putin’s archenemy, the lack of any kind of real security – there weren’t even any police cars parked outside the building – made me uncomfortable as the atmosphere became increasingly tense.
I’ve never seen so many disgruntled journalists, wishing they could be somewhere else instead of this stuffy room. “What’s the point of us even being here? He’s already given exclusive interviews to New York Times, Spiegel and whatever that other Russian newspapers is called!” exclaimed a Spanish reporter, referring to the exclusive interview Khodorkovsky had granted the Russian opposition newspaper New Times in his hotel room the day before. Due to the poor and haphazard organization of the event, what was supposed to have been a historical moment turned into a circus. Someone shouted “Amateurs!” in the direction of the event’s organizers at the front as photographers struggled to get into position, tripping over cords, elbows flying mixed in with female voices calling for help in Russian. As organizers threatened the unwieldily crowd with a shutdown of the press conference, an unknown group of Russian ladies literally launched an assault on the front door in an attempt to get inside. Two German security guards pushed the crowd of women back telling them that letting anymore people in would be a fire hazard and only people from the press were allowed inside. Immediately, the Russian women responded with chants of “Faschists” in heavily accented-German and the journalists welcomed this distraction from the general discomfort of the situation. The security guards finally managed to push the women back and lock the doors to the building’s only entrance. As Khodorkovsky’s elderly parents made their way through the crowd, one could still hear the same desperate women banging relentlessly at the door.
Despite the difficult conditions, Khodorkovsky’s press conference started on time in contrast with Putin’s infamous tardiness as one reporter was quick to point out. For the first time in 10 years, Khodorkovsky appeared in a tie and suit instead of the iconic black turtleneck, we had all been accustomed to see him in during his trial and imprisonment. Visibly overwhelmed by the sea of people, Khodorkovsky smiled politely and asked people for a little restraint and understanding. During his introduction, the head of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum expressed gratitude to President Putin for enabling his release, a statement that drew a prolonged series of boos from the crowd. Though generally composed and calm, Khodorkovsky did show moments of vulnerability and emotion as he thanked his friends, colleagues, former business partners, foreign diplomats and journalists for their unwavering support. Looking out at the sea of iPads and smartphones, he even managed to joke about how hard it will be for him to catch up with the latest technological developments and adapt to a world of Twitter and Facebook.
From the very start, Khodorkovsky warned that he would not divulge too many details about his imprisonment given the fact that many of his Yukos partners are still being held in prison without any real prospect of a speedy release. He admitted having had the opportunity to leave jail much sooner had he signed a plea bargain with the prosecution admitting his guilt – something he had never considered as an option. Smiling, resigned, almost meek Khodorkovsky’s perfectly enunciated speech gave away the long years of solitude in prison. When asked questions about Putin, he refrained from calling the Russian President by name, referring to him rather bizarrely as “the president of my country” instead. Somehow the legacy of Stalinist prison camps hung in the air without anyone mentioning it explicitly as Khodorkovsky explained himself very cautiously, purposefully avoiding any strong language towards the Russian government, focusing rather on the joys of liberation.
Few of us can grasp the reality of spending ten years in a Russian prison camp, in the very same penitentiary system that has changed little since the Gulag days, designed to break a person’s will to live. Although Khodorkovsky seemed levelheaded and lucid in his responses, he made it abundantly clear that he had promised to stay out of politics to Putin in his letter seeking a presidential pardon. Having gotten his freedom, Khodorkovsky appears determined to uphold his end of the deal, while trying to do the best he can to help liberate the remaining political prisoners in Russia’s far-flung penal colonies.
For those expecting to see the birth of a Russian Mandela – a hope shared by many Russians and Westerners alike – the press conference was an important reality check. Despite having lost everything thanks to Putin, Khodorkovsky does not appear to be seeking revenge. And this exactly what makes him so remarkably Russian, like a character taken straight out of a Dostoevsky novel, seeking nothing but internal peace and detachment from the cruelty of the world. Khodorkovsky is neither a Russian version of Aung San Suu Kyi nor a determined Gandhi-like revolutionary figure. Like he said, he’s just a man trying to get back to what he missed most: his family.