A Sunday Morning in Paris With Mikhail Khodorkovsky

"We're very honored to have you here," begins André Glucksmann, the host, with his wife, Fanfan, of this encounter.

"No, no," interrupts the man who for 10 years was Putin's Man in the Iron Mask, his most famous and enigmatic prisoner of conscience. "The pleasure is mine. You cannot imagine how comforting it is, when one is in the depths of hell, with one hunger strike after another, to know that outside, far away in France, there are intellectuals who haven't forgotten you, who support you."

He does not look like a man who has been through hell. His color is good, his appearance youthful. With his thick hair in a buzz cut, his jeans, and his big walking shoes, he looks like a hiker just off the trail. I cut in.

"You know the question that everyone asked themselves in December, when Putin released you and you appeared in Berlin, so oddly restrained, so cautious. I myself ..."

"Sure. I read your article, and I'm happy to respond. It's true that I made a deal with Putin, but ..."

Taken aback, André and I glance at each other.

"... but the deal expires in August."

And then, before our plainly surprised faces:

"Why August? Because that's when he was going to release me anyway. So the promise not to play politics and to look after my children applies only for the months of early release. After that ..."

He looks away. I detect a touch of dread, or at least of worry. It is as if, suddenly, he were talking to himself.

"This regime, in theory, doesn't go after kids. But later, when they grow up ..."

He leaves the sentence unfinished. By tacit agreement, André and I choose to change the subject. We ask him what role he sees for himself after August. Party leader? Conscience of the opposition?

"No, I've already said, publicly, that I would not engage directly in politics. But hang on!"

He raises a finger, glancing at our mutual friend, Franco-Russian academic Galia Ackerman, as if seeking her assent.

"There is another battle that takes precedence over the rest and that I intend to get involved in right away, and that is the emergence of a democratic consciousness in Russia. Because let me ask you this: How many democrats do you think there are in the country?"

We mention the large numbers of people who have been demonstrating in Moscow to protest Putin's crimes in Ukraine.

"Fine. But pick out the most serious, the most radical among them. Have a talk with them about this regime, which we all agree is a dictatorship that turns on the whims of one man. There will always come a moment when you will hear, 'OK, OK, but if not Putin, then who?'"

Mrs. Glucksmann interrupts him.

"You, now? People have attributed to you some odd comments about Chechnya ..."

"Not just attributed, true. I really said them. I said that I was ready to fight for the northern Caucasus, because that's our land."

Cold fury from Mrs. Glucksmann.

"Even at the risk of letting Putin off the hook for one of his most unforgivable crimes -- in any event the most massive one?"

Seemingly unbothered, Khodorkovsky launches into a nebulous exposition of which the gist is that in his earlier life and then again in his life in the gulag he came to know a great many Chechen swindlers, horse thieves, and so on, which left him with a negative impression of their cause.

This time it is I who interrupts him.

"What? You, the new Sakharov, the example of resistance and courage -- how can you lower yourself to such petty arguments?"

He shakes his head with the air of someone who does not wish to contradict us but who is not going to let us change his mind. We move on to Ukraine, from which he has just returned and to which he intends to go back. We may make the next trip together. Putin's intentions, this Sunday morning, are still not clear. A lot of people believe that, despite appearances, he might still be satisfied with just Crimea.

"You have met the presidential candidates," I say to him. "Who seems the best equipped to block Putin's Anschluss?"

He equivocates again. Or maybe he goes straight to the heart of the matter.

"The Kremlin's real plan is to prevent the election or, if they can't stop it outright, to discredit it, to point out or manufacture irregularities, to corrupt it. And faced with that ..."

He smiles mischievously.

"The only response to that strategy is for all of the candidates to be above reproach. And the one and only way for that to happen is to ... I hesitate to say this -- I'm not sure it's politically very correct in French eyes ..."

And then, at Glucksmann's urging:

"My suggestion is to place the candidates -- and, above and beyond the candidates, the powerful -- under surveillance. All of them. I know what I'm talking about. I did some dumb things during my life as a big oligarch. If I had been under surveillance, if I had had, openly and knowingly, the FBI or some other similar agency dogging my heels, I would have been more careful. And that would have changed my fate and, who knows, perhaps that of Russia."

The smile turns into a great burst of laughter. That is his last word.