18 April 11 | Chad W. Post

Kind of in conjunction with the release of Daniel Stein, Interpreter, the Guardian has a longish piece on Ulitskaya that focuses on her more dissident side, especially in relation to Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Articles, Dialogues, Interviews, a collection of her letters with jailed billionaire Khodorkovsky:

[Ulitskaya] was the first woman to win the Russian equivalent of the Booker prize and, more recently, has attracted both controversy and acclaim for publishing her correspondence with the jailed billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky. This week, she will be talking at the Foreign Policy Centre in London about personal and political freedom in Russia, examining what it is to be an artist in a state run by Vladimir Putin, a man not known for his tolerance of free speech or respect for human rights.

“I’m not afraid,” Ulitskaya insists, speaking through a translator. “Compared to the Stalinist era, our government now is a pussycat with soft paws … Having said that, I believe that Khodorkovsky is in jail because the whole society was so scared that no one stood up for his defence. There were threats: the court was afraid, the witnesses, the judge, because no one had the courage to speak up and that saddens me. That loss of dignity frustrates me because our society had only just started overcoming its fear after so many years of oppressive rule. The Russian people have once again started to be gripped by fear.”

Khodorkovsky, the former head of oil giant Yukos and once Russia’s richest man, was jailed for eight years in 2005 along with his business partner after being found guilty of embezzling more than £16.3bn worth of oil from his own company and laundering the proceeds. Khodorkovsky’s lawyers maintain that the charges are absurd and based on a failure to understand normal business practices. Their client, they argue, is a political prisoner and a symbol of a corrupt Russian judicial system – a view supported by Ulitskaya. “I’m absolutely convinced that all of the allegations were absurd,” she says. “It started from tax evasion, then got blown out of proportion. The next allegation was theft, which is completely absurd because you can’t steal from yourself.” [. . .]

Ulitskaya began writing to the imprisoned oligarch in 2008, addressing her letters to him in the Soviet-era labour camp in eastern Siberia where he was incarcerated. The correspondence lasted for a little under a year and their letters covered everything from personal backgrounds to political motivations. At first, Ulitskaya did not expect to find they had much in common. The child of two scientists, she had grown up in Moscow with an innate mistrust for authority after both her grandfathers were imprisoned by Stalin’s regime. By contrast, Khodorkovsky’s parents worked in a Soviet-era factory and, as a boy, he was a faithful member of the Komsomol, the youth wing of the Communist party. As an adult, he rose to become one of Boris Yeltsin’s most trusted advisers. But gradually, she learned to respect him.

“I was travelling round Russia a lot and I would constantly come across different traces of his charitable work,” Ulitskaya says. “He spent a lot of money on education, setting up children’s homes, giving schools the latest computer equipment. My support for Khodorkovsky primarily lies in how much money he spent on charitable enterprises.

“In Russia, there is a drastic gap between rich and poor, to the extent that I feel the country is on the brink of civil war. The salary of a civil servant can be hundreds of thousands less than that of a businessman. It causes huge irritation, especially when people show off their wealth, with all their furs and bling. I hope that the next generation will be educated more to spend their money wisely and charitably. And, for me, the first person to realise he should act like this was Khodorkovsky.”

In prison, she says, the businessman “has undergone enormous growth as a person and I really admire the way he has conducted himself during the last few years, despite the torment he and his family have been through. He is an outstanding individual.” [. . .]

Given her outspoken nature, Ulitskaya could be forgiven for feeling uneasy in her homeland or fearing for her family – she lives in Moscow with her husband, an artist, and has two grown-up sons. But she insists she feels “completely free” and dismisses Putin as “a joke”. [. . .]

“My perception of Putin as an individual is that he is quite juvenile, not very mature, and all the pictures we have of him from state television are of Putin climbing Everest or fighting a tiger or extinguishing a fire. It’s just a kind of joke, these macho games.

“But if I want to judge Vladimir Putin as a politician, these are my criticisms: our country is in an atrocious condition. Schools and hospitals are underfunded, our pensioners are on the brink of poverty and the condition of our army is shocking. Our soldiers are underfed and live in unsanitary conditions.”

Click here to read the complete interview.


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