By Jeremy Page
An imprisoned oligarch will not allow his spirit to be broken by jail, reports our correspondent
One man is a former Soviet dissident who spent four years in the gulags and fifteen working as a bus driver before becoming an Orthodox priest. The other is a former Communist youth activist who became the richest man in post-Soviet Russia before he fell foul of the Kremlin and was thrown in jail.
Father Sergei Taratukhin, 49, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, 42, trod very different paths through the death throes of the Soviet Union and the birth of a new Russian state. But yesterday these two victims of Russia’s turbulent politics came face to face in the unlikely setting of the YaG-14/10 penal colony in Krasnokamensk, a uranium mining town in eastern Siberia.
Father Sergei, the prison’s priest, met Khodorkovsky, its newest inmate, for the first time since he was transferred from Moscow on October 15 to serve out his sentence. As the two men talked for 20 minutes, an instant bond was formed between the priest imprisoned for challenging the Kremlin in 1974 and the oil tycoon jailed for the same in President Putin’s Russia.
“When I was in the prison camp, the KGB men used to say they dreamt of a day when political prisoners would be treated like ordinary criminals,” Father Sergei told The Times. “Now their dream has come true.”
His was a lone sympathetic voice in Krasnokamensk, a town of 65,000 people built in the 1960s near the Russian border with China and Mongolia. This dusty settlement of wooden cottages and concrete high-rises was a closed military town in Soviet times, and most residents despise the oligarchs who profited from the Union’s collapse.
Khodorkovsky accused the Kremlin this week of trying to break his spirit by sending him here rather than to a prison near his home in Moscow or the court where he was convicted, as is the norm. “The Kremlin has tried to isolate me completely from the country and the people, and, what is more, they have tried to destroy me physically,” he said in a statement.
In Soviet times, dissidents were also exiled here. Now it is home to Russia’s most prominent critic — the founder of the Yukos oil company, who once topped the Russian rich list with an estimated fortune of $15.2 billion (£8.5 billion).
Officials say that conditions in the prison are no worse than elsewhere in the country. But Khodorkovsky’s lawyers have an added concern about radioactive contamination from the Priargunskoye uranium mine, 10 miles (16km) away.
In 1991 the authorities found radiation levels of up to 7,000 becquerels per cubic metre — more than 30 times the safety limit — in parts of the village of Oktyabrskaya, next to the mine. They started to evacuate its 3,000 residents, but 2,000 are still there because the local government lacks the funds to move them.
Vika Kuznetsova, 26, who runs the village shop, said: “It seriously affects my health. Our children are very sick. They tell us everything is OK now but no one believes them.”
Dr Podprigorin said that there were pockets of high radioactivity where residents had used materials from the mines to build dachas and roads. But he insisted that radiation levels in the town centre and around the prison were normal. Either way, Krasnokamensk is a rude shock for a man who has spent most of the past decade living in a luxurious villa in Moscow and being ferried around in a limousine or private jet.
The Times, 10.31.2005