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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Wife's Long Journey to a Chita Prison

APKhodorkovsky's wife, Inna, arriving on Saturday morning at the railway station in the city of Chita after taking the overnight train from Krasnokamensk.
KRASNOKAMENSK, Chita Region -- Inna Khodorkovskaya is still reeling from the tremendous turnaround her life, and her husband's, has taken. From quietly enjoying the comforts of being the wife of the nation's richest man and keeping a low profile throughout his highly publicized trial, she has been thrust into the spotlight while visiting her husband inside an east Siberian prison camp.

"I never thought it would go this far," she said in an interview in Krasnokamensk on Friday after a three-day stay in the town's prison camp, YaG 14/10. Wearing jeans and a sweater, she looked tired and pale, but somehow still collected despite the arduous journey from Moscow to the camp and the press pack hunting her down.

Like many others when Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested two years ago, she said she did not believe he would remain in jail for long. Before he was arrested at gunpoint at a Siberian airport, she knew things were tense, she said, but had no real inkling he could end up in jail.

"He was not able to talk to me in the week ahead of his arrest. He was on a business trip in the region. ... It was a big program," she said. "I was waiting for him on Saturday, and on Saturday he was arrested.

"I wasn't expecting anything. Things were tense, but I did not expect this at all," Khodorkovskaya said.

Now, she finds herself crossing Russia to visit her husband in the prison camp in Krasnokamensk, a small company town in the Chita region named after the red rock of uranium ore found in the mines just 15 kilometers away. Town life is based around the hazardous mines and the plant that processes the ore into uranium concentrate.

After a six-day train journey, Khodorkovsky arrived here in mid-October to serve out the remainder of an eight-year sentence. The Yukos owner was convicted in May of fraud and tax evasion in a case seen as a backlash against the threat he seemed to pose to Kremlin power. His business partner Platon Lebedev has been sent to a prison camp in Kharp, a small town near the Arctic Circle in the Yamal-Nenets autonomous district.

After not having had any contact with her husband for two years apart from mouthed words across courtrooms where he was kept in a cage and brief conversations through a glass barrier in the Moscow detention center where he was held, Khodorkovskaya was granted a three-day visit with him in a small room inside prison camp grounds. Under prison regulations, Khodorkovsky is allowed four three-day visits per year and six visits of three hours each.

In addition to bags filled with clothing, Khodorkovskaya said she brought a sack of potatoes and cooked her husband his favorite meal of fried potatoes on a stove in the room. She said they spent the days talking about family matters, not politics.

When asked by journalists at a press conference what it was like to be back with her husband after two years of separation, she said: "I recognized him," implying that he had not changed.

"I can say that I think we have gotten even closer to each other. This is the most important thing," she said. "After two years of not seeing my husband and not sensing him by my side, this is ... You can't put this into words."

While she said Khodorkovsky told her little about conditions inside the prison, he said he had been offered work in the camp's sewing operations. "He's been offered work as a specialist in sewing. He is ready to learn," she said.

In an interview in a hotel room later, Khodorkovskaya said she believed her husband was holding up well to the huge change in his fortunes and the legal attack. "Now his mood is different. I saw him as being totally peaceful. There is no tension. He sees everything as it is," she said.

"When you go through the meat grinder, some people weaken, and others become more philosophical. This is how he is, and he is totally stable," she said.

She held the press conference several hours after she was smuggled out of the prison camp Friday by Khodorkovsky lawyer Albert Mkrtychev and three bodyguards, dressed mainly in black. Using decoys and false alarms, they had outwitted a gang of journalists who were waiting for her to emerge just outside the prison gates.

That evening, she boarded a train for a 15-hour journey to the city of Chita. From Chita, there are direct flights to Moscow.

During the press conference, Khodorkovskaya expressed fears for her husband's health. When asked about reports of high levels of radiation in the area emanating from the uranium plant, she said she was concerned but that there needed to be more investigation into whether this was really the case.

Reporters from Russian Newsweek carrying a Geiger counter recorded a level of 52 microroentgens per hour while standing just outside the prison camp fence. Natural radiation is usually between 20 and 30.

Town officials deny radiation levels are higher than the norm, and say winds carrying uranium dust blow toward China and not toward the town. But without constant monitoring, no one seems to know for sure. In Soviet times, a counter was fixed on the wall of the town administration building for all to see. Now, that's disappeared and it's not clear who is keeping record.

A local Orthodox priest, Father Sergei, who visited Khodorkovsky for 20 minutes on Friday, said Khodorkovsky asked him to pray for his three children and even hinted he could convert to Russian Orthodoxy.

"He deeply believes in God, and said he feels closer to Orthodoxy than anything else," Father Sergei said outside the town's only church.

The priest, who says he spent four years in a camp in Perm, said he felt a deep connection with Khodorkovsky as a fellow political prisoner. "When I told him that I had shared a cell with [prominent human rights activist] Sergei Adamovich Kovalyov and that he had had a huge influence on me, he said he had great respect for him."

Father Sergei said he had told prison camp officials on Friday that he was refusing their request to bless their administration building as long as a political prisoner was being held on the grounds.

With so much attention and controversy surrounding Khodorkovsky, it was not clear yet how he was being received in the prison. Khodorkovskaya said in the interview that it was difficult to tell because he had been there for only two weeks, half of which was spent in quarantine. She said, however, that the other inmates appeared to be calling him just by his patronymic, Borisovich, which she read as a sign of respect.

A former inmate, who says he was freed two months ago and remains in contact with those inside, said prison officials were trying to keep Khodorkovsky away from all the noise and interest his arrival had caused.

"They are trying to shield him from all the attention," said Pavel, the former inmate, who would speak only on condition he did not have to give his surname. "But of course there are those who are trying to get close to him."

Even though Khodorkovsky is in the same barracks as the kings of the prison, the blatniye, or bandits, he was unlikely to join their ranks, Pavel said. "He's likely to try to do the opposite and keep himself separate from them. He's not a little boy who is going to want to involve himself in all that."

Khodorkovsky was likely to have a lonely life in the camp, though he could win himself better living conditions if he played by the rules, the former inmate said.

"Where you live depends on your behavior," he said. "There are barracks where you can live in spacious rooms and it is pleasant; or you can live in an ordinary dormitory where it smells and it's dark and there's influenza, where it's like living in a cellar."

Decisions on where inmates are housed are made by a commission of prison officials, based on case files they keep on each prisoner, he said.

The former inmate said Khodorkovsky should not eat at the prison stolovaya, or canteen. He said he had avoided eating there for a whole year, and just ate bread and drank water and made his own meals using food from the kitchen.

"Once you start going to the stolovaya, you will always go there," he said. "The stolovaya is different from the stolovayas in town. You are ordered when to sit and when to stand. It's not that they feed you like pigs, but the system humiliates you. It beats you down."

Even though Khodorkovsky is said to be living in the same conditions as the other inmates, there are signs that prison improvements were made before his arrival. Some barracks were repaired and fixed up this summer, according to Father Sergei.

Some Krasnokamensk locals were still wondering why Khodorkovsky had been sent to their town. "We're just 60 kilometers away from the border with China. They must be preparing to engineer his escape," said a shop assistant, who did not want to give her name. "That's the only reason they could have for sending him all the way out here."