The Visit: Mikhail Khodorkovsky's life inside

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was the oligarch who dared to defy Russia's president - and paid the price. Convicted of tax evasion and fraud, stripped of his billions, and exiled to Siberia's most brutal and notorious prison, he faces a daily struggle for survival in one of the most remote places on earth. Ed Caesar joined his wife and family as they made the 5,000km pilgrimage from Moscow to his cell

On 25 October, 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man - a man who was on first-name terms with heads of state; a man with a personal fortune of $8bn; a man whose company, Yukos, controlled more barrels of oil than the state of Kuwait - was placed under arrest. So seismic were the implications of his detention, that as armed guards surrounded his private plane on the runway at Novisibirsk airport, Siberia, trading on the Russian stock exchange was halted for the first time in its history.

After a two-year legal battle, during which Khodorkovsky's lawyers fought tooth and nail to clear their client's name - claiming that he was the subject of a political attack by President Putin - he was sentenced to eight years in prison, and not just any prison: IK-10, in Krasnokamensk. Almost 5,000km east of Moscow, and 660km south-east of the nearest city, Chita, Krasnokamensk is so far from civilisation that human rights monitors have declared it to be a derogation of the Khodorkovsky family's human rights to be expected to travel such massive distances to visit him.

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But travel they do . For three days every three months, Khodorkovsky is allowed to take a break from his job, sewing and packing clothes in the colony's sweatshop for about a dollar a month, and meet his family. No reporter has ever been allowed to witness their actual meeting, nor, indeed, has any journalist ever been allowed beyond the colony's perimeter fence. But, this week, having spent their allotted 72 hours with Russia's most famous prisoner, Khodorkovsky's wife, Inna, mother, Marina Filipovna, and daughter Nastya met me at the prison gates, and allowed me to make the journey back to Chita with them.

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In Soviet times, colony YaG-14/10 (as it was then known) had the reputation for being a prison from which one did not return. Inmates were sentenced to hard labour - a massive uranium mine is just a few thousand metres from the gates of the compound - and if the mines didn't get them, the cold did.

The whiff of death still surrounds the place. Krasnokamensk, with its uranium-infected water-table, has been named "a site of environmental catastrophe", and, along with the locals' prodigious alcohol consumption and car ownership, it is no surprise that life expectancy in the town is a mere 42 years.

The prison itself, now renamed IK-10, is a little more amenable now than it was in the mid-20th century, with the majority of jobs inside involving sewing and packing. But it remains no picnic. The 1,000 inmates live in barrack blocks of 80 men each, although solitary confinement can be imposed for the most minor of offences. Khodorkovsky himself has been in solitary four times, for crimes as petty as forgetting to ask his supervisor for permission to leave his sewing machine. And even if one can cope with the guards, there is also a powerful organised-crime fraternity to negotiate. When Khodorkovsky was slashed across the face by a knife-wielding fellow prisoner in April, it was, because said one former colony guard, a new criminal overlord wished to flex his muscles, and Khodorkovsky was a high- profile target.

If that seems brutal, you should pity the visitors. To get to penal colony IK-10, you are faced with the choice of a train ride from Moscow - 106 hours on an uninterrupted run, in tiny, Soviet-era cabins - before taking a further 20km taxi ride to the prison gates. Or you can fly from Moscow to Chita, stopping to refuel in Ekaterinburg. This option takes around nine hours, but is only a fraction of the journey. After arriving in Chita, it is either a 660km taxi ride through the wilderness, along roads that struggle to do justice to the name, which takes between seven and 10 hours, or the evening train, an overnight 15-hour journey.

Whatever route one chooses, it is a passage where little choices can make a big difference. On the planes, some of which are so old they might have been on first-name terms with Stalin, seat selection is crucial. I swapped mine just before landing in Chita (due to the lack of a safety belt on the one I'd been allocated) only to watch the recently vacated berth disintegrate, and lurch into the row in front, as the wheels of the plane hit the ground.

At Chita airport, where, in front of the small terminal building, the husk of an old Soviet helicopter lies rusting, we had a job finding a man to take us to Krasnokamensk. The only driver willing to carry my translator and me such a distance was a lean, desperate individual, with bottle-fight scars in the back of his shaved head, a gleaming row of gold teeth, and a clapped-out Toyota. His saucepan eyes and shaky hands also indicated that he was comprehensively drunk. (There seemed no point in protesting. As my translator pointed out, every single taxi driver at the airport was dangerously intoxicated.) It was 8am.

As the roads started to disintegrate just outside of Chita, so did the Toyota. Not that the driver noticed. The gauges on his dashboard flashed alternately red and green, indicating both a lack of seatbelt (standard driving procedure in Russia) and a critical lack of oil, but he busied himself with playing dance music at top volume and smoking 20 cigarettes an hour. And when the inevitable breakdown happened, on a deserted road about 200km and 35 cigarettes from Chita, his only plan was to somehow get us all to the next village, where he might borrow a car from his relatives. And how far was the next village, we asked. 100km.

By some miracle, another driver who passed this unhappy scene was persuaded to take us the rest of the way. We learnt when we arrived in Krasnokamensk - almost 10 hours after we left Chita - that the locals call the 150km stretch of single-lane dust that leads to their town "the road of death".

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So, if Inna, Marina Filipovna, and Nastya - who arrived at the gates of IK-10 on Friday morning - were a little road weary, they can be forgiven. Not only had they endured yet another cross-continental journey, but this was also the first time Nastya, a friendly, awkward teenager with her mother's wide eyes and a new set of braces, had been deemed mature enough to cope with seeing her father in his new home. Having not clapped eyes on him for 18 months, she was a ball of nerves. Things did not get much easier for her when she reached the front gates. The routine security questions everyone is asked on entry to the colony almost reduced her to tears.

Before their visit, Marina Filipovna and her daughter-in-law also had the task of dividing up the three-day visit into chunks, so that all three women saw Mikhail on the first day; only Nastya and Inna on the second; and only Inna on the last day. Subjects for conversation were also carefully scheduled, so that no time inside was wasted. Marina Filipovna was to talk about the school Khodorkovsky had founded, and his other civic interests that continue despite the demise of his company; Inna was to discuss the family and, in particular, their two young sons; and Nastya would be allowed just to talk to her dad.

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By the security gates of Colony IK-10, at 11.30am on the bright, chill morning of 11 September 2006, two guards, cigarettes hanging from their mouths, are hopping to keep their feet warm. Everything else is still. A dust road leads up to the first set of gates - an easily assailable traffic barrier policed by these two bored, cold men in fatigues - and beyond that there is another, more robust gate, complemented by tin-can lookout posts and gun emplacements.

It is 72 hours exactly since Inna Khodorkovskaya, dressed in sheepskins and Chanel sunglasses, first kissed her husband - 72 hours since she went with him into the prison's hostel for visiting families. And now, her three-monthly visit is over. She will next see Russia's most famous prisoner in January, when the snow lies 3ft deep and temperatures plunge to -33C.

But, as Inna emerges from the gates of the colony, she seems calm. "Last time, it was more difficult," she admits. "[Mikhail] changes gradually every time I come here. I can't say how, exactly, but perhaps he just adapts to his surroundings more and more."

She describes the grim, one-window hostel where the family and Khodorkovsky are allowed to spend their time together, as being "just a hall, with rooms coming off it, a communal shower and a kitchen - you cannot even go outside, and you cannot see the sky." How do the other wives react to seeing one of the most famous men in Russia and his wife sharing their soap?

"Well, I think they were shocked at first," says Inna, laughing the same girlish giggle that constantly peals out of Nastya's mouth. "Now, everyone treats us normally. It is like the house of Oblonsky in Anna Karenina - the situation is topsy-turvy. Yesterday, one of the other mothers knocked at the door of Mikhail's room, convinced, because of who he is, that he had a television in his room. She didn't want to miss her reality TV show. Mikhail invited her in and said she was welcome to watch the space in the wall where the TV should be."

The other inmates of IK-10 are mostly young men, and mostly thieves. And they all, except for Khodorkovsky, come from within a few hundred miles of the prison. Because of this, says Inna, and because he is followed by his own guard all day, every day, Khodorkovsky has no friends in the prison. His only contact with people he knows and likes are his daily meetings with lawyers which take place once his day's work has finished at 6pm, and before lights-out at 10pm. But, says Inna, he does not seem depressed.

"I always knew that he was strong, and sooner or later, he would adapt. I suppose I might have changed more fundamentally," she says. "Obstacles such as this would influence anyone, and they influence me. My character, and my actions, and my opinions became more clear with Mikhail away. I now know what to do, and I am decisive in my actions. There is no fog in front of me. I have become stronger."

Khodorkovsky's mother, by contrast to her more guarded daughter-in-law, is a garrulous character, with a big handsome face and a mischievous smile. Could she ever have imagined, when her son was growing up in their humble Moscow house, that he would ever be in a situation like this?

"Well no, but then I never expected him to be a businessman", says Marina Filipovna. "Everyone thought he would make a great scientist - he excelled at chemistry - and I remember some eminent professors signed their books for him. And, when I saw that he was going to be a businessman, I was actually frightened.

"I knew he had the potential to be very successful, but I remembered what my parents had told me about a period in our history called the New Economic Programme at the start of the 20th century, when businessman were briefly allowed to flourish under communism. But, soon after that, almost all of those people were imprisoned or killed and all their property was taken away from them. I was afraid that such a period was going to come again."

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In 2003, before Khodorkovksy was arrested, he had everything. At 40, this handsome, slightly bookish-looking, Jewish businessman was not only married to a beautiful woman, with whom he had three children, but he was also the nation's most powerful oligarch.

From the age of five, Khodorkovsky dreamt of becoming the director of a great Soviet factory. His ambition was so obvious, even in those early years, that his kindergarten friends nicknamed him "the director". 35 years later, his childish grand plan did not seem so grand. With an estimated personal fortune of $8bn, he had become, by some distance, Russia's richest man, and the most influential of the half-dozen or so oligarchs who had leapt up and grabbed the jewels of the old Soviet state in the wild early days of capitalism in Russia.

All Khodorkovsky had to do, for the rest of his life, was keep out of trouble and enjoy his many blessings. But between his ruthless, ethically questionable acquisition of great resources and riches in the near-lawless Russia of the 1990s, and his increasingly precarious public position in 2003, the single-minded pursuit of money, it would seem, had lost its lustre.

In the 1990s, Khodorkovsky had a reputation for being a man with a voracious appetite for acquisitions, and a willingness to strong-arm minority shareholders out of his way. But, in the early years of the new decade, Khodorkovsky seemed to reach a crossroads. Not only did he clean up his company, Yukos (so thoroughly that the term "yukosisation" was coined by Western investors, to mean any Russian firm that had adopted ethical and transparent operating practices), but he also threw money into philanthropic schemes. He founded schools. He stocked libraries. And, in Russia, to become philanthropic is to become political. Confirmation of Khodorkovsky's growing aspirations as a politician came when he declared, albeit quietly, that he wished to "bring democracy and civil society back" to Vladimir Putin's increasingly authoritarian Russia.

At a private Kremlin meeting, he had made clear his views on a modified constitution - whereby the parliament and the Prime Minister would have more power, and the President less - to Putin. It was also frequently spoken amongst Yukos employees that Khodorkovsky saw himself as a future prime minister. And that way trouble lay.

In 2000, Putin had called a meeting of Russia's richest men, to tell them that the era of the meddling oligarchs was over. They must, he said, relinquish any interest in politics or suffer the consequences. In return, he would turn a blind eye to the dubious means through which they had amassed their fortunes. One media tycoon, Boris Berezovsky, declared he could not live under these circumstances, and, with the threat of arrest imminent, sought asylum in London. Another, Vladimir Gusinsky, reaped the whirlwind, seeing his companies compromised and his fortune decimated. Khodorkovsky was about to make the same mistake.

Over a period of four months in 2003, Yukos, and Khodorkovsky, were systematically targeted by the state in a series of lawsuits and arrests relating to tax evasion, fraud, and murder charges. On 2 July 2003, the same day that Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea Football Club for £140m, Platon Lebedev, a senior Yukos executive, was arrested. Lebedev is now three years into his eight-year sentence in the Kharp colony in frozen Northern Siberia. Over the rest of that tempestuous summer, other senior Yukos employees and shareholders, including Leonid Nevzlin, fled the country. But not Khodorkovsky. And, just before his dramatic arrest on that cold day in October 2003, he uttered some prescient words.

"In Russia, in the last thousand years," he said, "we have been taking a step towards the West. And in Russia, the West and democracy are synonymous. And then, we've taken a step towards Asia, which, for Russia, is synonymous with totalitarianism. For us, there really is a question of what we are moving towards - the West, or the East."

In the coming months and years the question would be answered: Russia, and Khodorkovsky, would move East.

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With a prophetic vision befitting of a character in a great Russian drama, the fears of Khodorkovsky's mother became reality. But today she remains sanguine about her son's predicament. How does she now feel about his decision to remain in Russia when it was increasingly clear that Putin was becoming hostile towards him?

"If he had left," says Marina Filipovna, "all the muck-raking that has since been done of his character would still have happened, and I don't think he could have lived with that. Morally, it's better for him to stay here, and I understand that. Speaking as a mother... it's more difficult. Of course, I wish he could have gone abroad, because he wouldn't be here now. But, perhaps he would not have been happy abroad, because it would not have been the right thing to do."

How has that "muck-raking" affected the family in Moscow, where many resent the oligarchs, and believe that Khodorkovsky is no better than the thieves with whom he now shares a shower block?

"At first, of course, I was outraged to hear such things," says Marina Filipovna. "But what is one to do? Now I am not so outraged, but I still read everything that is said about Mikhail. It is good to know the face of one's enemies. I would say that some of our old friends have not remained friends, but some definitely have, and we have even made some new friends - people for whom it is dangerous to associate with the Khodorkovskys. So, it is not so bad."

Khodorkovsky's women say their man has, if anything, an increased appetite for politics since his confinement. He reads articles from up to 100 different journals a week, writes essays - which will be published when his prison term is completed - and is kept intimately abreast of the Kremlin's activities by his lawyers. On his release, says Inna, he has every intention of staying in Russia, and no one should rule out Khodorkovsky reclaiming his place at the centre of Russian society. All these issues, though, are for another day, many years from now.

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On the ride back to Chita on the old-fashioned Soviet sleeper train, Khodorkovskaya's cabin is in good spirits. From my bed in the next-door berth, I can hear the family swap stories and share jokes all through the night. Out in the corridor, Nastya plays with her two bodyguards, who are, by turns, in charge of entertainment and doling out the contents of the hamper Inna prepared for the journey. As slices of roast chicken and sugar-coated Russian cakes are taken from the coolbox, and Inna shares biscuits and fruit with her fellow passengers, even nosy foreign journalists, the Khodorkovskys look, suddenly, like an ordinary middle-class family.

It is what they have become. Although it must be said Mikhail Khodorkovsky was never the flashiest of oligarchs. He preferred holidays in Finland to the Cote d'Azur. His house was large and suburban, but not ostentatious. Of course, his family did not want for anything - and Inna still wears the diamond-encrusted wristwatch her husband bought for her in happier times. They still do not want for much - Nastya shows me her fancy, 400-tune MP3 mobile phone that her mother has recently bought her - but they may now study the prices in supermarkets.

When Inna is asked what remains of Khodorkovsky's vast wealth since the disintegration of Yukos, she raises an eyebrow.

"Well, our life is difficult, more difficult than it was, of course," she says. "But we have become used to such difficulties, and life now seems, in a way, normal."

The most prominent of Khodorkovskaya's recent difficulties is that her Moscow house, in a compound her husband constructed for Yukos employees, is "under arrest". She can still live there, but she is under constant surveillance. For now, she is looking for more suitable accommodation, perhaps in another Moscow suburb.

When it comes to direct questions about her financial situation, though, Khodorkovskaya dodges. But a press officer for the family's lawyers makes an estimate that the family has "a few million dollars". Where? "I have no idea."

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As the train pours west through the jet-black night, and vodka and stories are exchanged between the cabins, I meet a gaunt ethnic Azerbaijani man called Stepan. Until yesterday, he was serving a two-year sentence in IK-10 for his part in a car accident, and tells me he knew Khodorkovsky. While the drinks flow, he agrees that IK-10's star inmate is without close friends in the colony, but says he is a respected figure - someone whose presence had ensured the prison library was well-stocked - and who had helped the many barely-literate inmates, including Stepan, with their correspondence.

Russia's extraordinary recent history has made some strange bedfellows. Four years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine Inna and Stepan sharing the same postcode, let alone travelling in adjoining carriages on the Chita sleeper. Indeed, when Inna is told about the ex-convict's news on arrival in Chita, her face, never the most expressive, betrays two contrasting emotions. Her smile shows relief, that her husband's usefulness to his fellow inmates may give him some measure of security inside the colony's walls; and her frown, a sadness that her husband's life now relies upon men like Stepan.

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