My firsthand impression of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s charitable support to the arts, 2002

Excerpt from Part Two, Diaries, Personal and Business Correspondence, Newspaper Clippings in Memoirs of a Russianist, Volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s

Meeting with the new Sponsor of the Russian Booker Prize, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s charitable foundation Open Russia, August 2002 following announcement of the Long List by the Jury

A verbatim transcript

“Help yourselves to a soft drink. I’m sorry to tell you that Program Director Irina Yasina won’t be able to see you today. She has been called away to look after another of our projects. But Maria Ordzhonikidze is here. And after she finishes reviewing your materials with our chief accountant, she will join you. That shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes. So make yourselves at home.”

The leggy blonde receptionist smiled and left the room, shutting the door behind her. Igor, Natasha Karataeva and I took bottles of Coke and soda water from the center of the conference table and filled our glasses.

This turn of events did not look promising. Yasina had overall responsibility for the sponsorship program after all, and we had looked forward finally to a face to face meeting with her to resolve several issues that had been holding up the transfer of the next tranche of funds for the competition.

Igor was at the end of his patience. “This is maddening. I have been chasing Valentina for two weeks now. If the money does not come through in 10 days, we will not be able to pay for the Short List press conference. The hotel refuses to give us credit. It has to be paid in advance. And the fact that we are using their facilities because of our Sponsors’ insistence does not change anything.”

I was yet again irritated by the professor’s naivete in financial affairs and barely contained myself. “Don’t worry about that, Igor. I’ll speak to them. They will just have to wait for their money till after the event. But the payment procedures of our new sponsor really are very unkind. And it fits together with the very one-sided agreement they imposed on us. It’s just so unfair that they can cancel their sponsorship at any minute without our saying boo. The liquor barons may not have been angels. But they did give us six months of transition and a little dowry to tide us over till new funds came in when they decided to withdraw from sponsorship.”

“There is no sense comparing foreign sponsors to Russian oligarchs,” Igor countered. “Though I am as worried over our future as you. There is the whole mess over the employment taxes. Perhaps we will hear the Foundation’s final decision today. Valentina was not very encouraging. She told me that once the budget is approved, they generally cannot go back to the big boss for more, whatever the reason. Their access to him is very limited. We have all been waiting upon his return from some trip abroad before their board can sit down and review our requests. And we still have no agreement on documentation. We will have to bring our bookkeeper in to speak to their chief accountant.”

“Yes, I am also at a loss,” I chimed in .  “They know we held the long List conference and banquet. They were there eating alongside us. And it is just incredible they refused to accept our payment of the hotel invoice because it had been signed by the Catering Manager and not by the Managing Director of the hotel. If we have to satisfy these requirements we will either have to cheat like crazy or spend more than 10% of our budget on administration. For sure, we are going to lose our qualification as a charitable foundation. There is no way we can stay within the limits on administrative spend.”

I finished my Coke and reached across the table for a Sprite. Igor was just getting into stride. This question of procedures imposed by the new sponsor had aroused his keen sense of irony. The Competition had lurched from the inefficiencies of a Western sponsor with its built in corruption and waste of funds to the inefficiencies of a Russian sponsor with encouragement of fraudulent bookkeeping to meet impossibly stringent documentary requirements. In both cases, it seemed impossible to squeeze more than 6% of the total budget out for awards to Russian authors, which is what the whole exercise of the literary prize was supposed to be about after all.

These reflections were cut short by the arrival of Ordzhokinidze and the chief accountant Ol’ga Bykova.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” Maria said brightly. ‘We ask your pardon for the slight delay in our meeting, but we have been consulting with colleagues and now have some ready answers for you. Let me begin with the question of your unplanned for $12,000 in employment taxes resulting from the change in the labor laws. We are very sorry. This is really bad luck. But we cannot help you. You will just have to make cuts elsewhere in your budget to cover the cost. Next, about your expense reports on how you spent the first tranche of the sponsorship grant. It is our hard rule that each tranche of your grant is payable only after the preceding tranche is justified to our accountants.”

“As you know, our Foundation is the private charity of the chairman of Yukos and his close collaborators. It is not paid for by the corporation. However, the tax authorities like to confuse the two and treat us as if we were in fact just an arm of the country’s largest oil producer. We are scrutinized very, very closely. There can be no irregularities in the books of the Foundation. And for this reason, we have to be very hard on the beneficiaries of our charitable grants. We require from you that all expenses not only be documented but that they look proper. For example, we cannot approve your spending three quarters of the budget for the Long List ceremony on food and drink. Alcohol cannot appear on our expenses. And we must not appear to be feasting. So please go back to the hotel and ask them to rewrite the invoice to show only rental of rooms, equipment, telephone costs, etc.”

I enjoyed this absolute victory of form over content. “But then we must ask the vendor to falsify his documents and we run up against objections there.”

“The Foundation really does not care how you persuade them to do what is necessary. Just do it and we will sign off. Then you can get the next tranche of funding without further discussion.”

I swallowed my annoyance. “All right, Maria, we will do as you say. But for your part, please have a word with the hotel management. We are using them upon your recommendation because you say you work with them all the time. So let us leverage that relationship.”

Igor was clearly not satisfied with the implicit criticism in my remarks and hastened to show a more ingratiating face to the sponsor. “We have a lot to learn in these small procedures to meet your expectations. But the big picture is very reassuring. Our objectives and yours are so well matched. We are both serving the cause of an open and just civil society in Russia that we all can take pride in.”

“Yes, and for that reason we do hope you will be attentive to the formation of the Short List. There were several entries in the Long List that could damage the popularity and prestige of the prize if they advanced in the competition. For one thing, we are not happy to see that book on the Chechnya war in the running. Why the jury ever accepted it as a novel defies our understanding. You know as well as we that it is a bit of journalism, not a novel by any means. And then there is that book by Sorokin. The man is a convicted pornographer and should be in prison, not receiving laurels as one of our semifinalists!”

“Don’t worry, Maria. The Chechnya book hasn’t got a chance of moving to the short list. Our jury just wanted to show how open minded they are by admitting it for consideration. I have polled the jury and they are all patriotic on the question of Chechnya. But Sorokin is a more difficult case. Our chairman [Vladimir] Makanin has for some reason taken it into his head that Sorokin is one of the brighter lights of Russian literature. Other jury members see him as a self-promoter, a PR man who used pornographic images just to create a scandal and sell his books in the West.  Makanin is pushing Sorokin down their throats. I cannot say what will happen next. But I will do what I can to push him to the side. It is just that Makanin is so pig-headed. Last year we had a corpse for a chairman. It took his greatest effort just to come to the meetings of the jury and then to get out of his chair and answer journalists’ questions. Two weeks after the Awards Dinner he was already resting on his catafalque. This year we are courting the other extreme. Our Makanin is a real macho who forces his will on the whole jury. No one can stand up to him.”

Maria did not respond. Instead  she looked down at her watch and then proposed that we continue the discussion in the less formal setting of the nearby Armenian restaurant ‘Noah’s Ark’, which she called the Foundation’s very own canteen, it was so popular among senior staff as a place for entertaining visitors.

And so we all left the Foundation offices, passing through the guarded reception area out onto the street, where the shabby façade of their building at the very edge of the Kitaigorod district gave no hint at the modern offices within. A few minutes later we took places at a side table to the back of the main dining room of Noah’s Ark.

I perused the menu while Igor and Marina engaged in small talk about the turn in Moscow’s weather, which had been unusually warm for late August. Notwithstanding who had invited whom, he expected that he would be obliged to pick up the bill as a token of appreciation to the Foundation managers for smooth future processing of the grant papers, and in this context he did not like what he saw. Noah’s Ark was an extravagantly priced venue more suitable for casino operators than for literary fund overseers.

“Please keep one seat free for Leonid [Nevzlin],” Maria instructed the waiter as he put down the bread basket and took out his note pad to take down their orders. She then turned to Igor to explain that the Foundation’s chairman, the second largest shareholder in Yukos, would be honoring us with a visit.

“But let us not burden Leonid with details,” Maria cautioned. “He is interested in the big picture and I know that he is delighted that the Booker brings us into contact with UK society, with your captains of industry and cultural benefactors. Leonid is very Anglophile. When he is not here in Moscow, he is in the London headquarters of Yukos International, where he maintains an office. He has even managed to learn a few words of English. But for him our grants of 100,000 or 200,000 dollars are below the threshold of visibility. So we will stay clear of money issues.”

Just then the waiter directed a tall man to our table. He was wearing a flashy diamond pinky ring and heavy gold necklace, but otherwise was ascetically dressed in black trousers and jacket, black open necked shirt.

Leonid smiled at us broadly as he took the free seat next to Maria. “Good to meet you all. I have heard very positive things about the Booker from Maria and I do hope you are satisfied with our assistance.”

Igor jumped at this invitation for an exchange of courtesies: “Yes, we are pleased to have such a prestigious sponsor whose civic purpose is so very close to our own. Money is, of course, important. But like interests and commitments to the future of Russian culture holds the promise of a long and mutually beneficial partnership. So we are also delighted to be working with you. We look forward to introducing you to our benefactors in the UK, the founders of the Booker. If you will be able to join us for our Awards Dinner in December, then you will meet Lady Emma and perhaps Jonathan. Both have said that they will put you together with their new general sponsor, who is one of Britain’s leading financial institutions [the Man Group].”

“Thank you for the suggestion. I am afraid I cannot promise to be here for your events. As you may know my corporate responsibilities take me frequently abroad on business travel, and indeed it may be easier for me to meet with your English partners on one of my stopovers in London. This dimension of the relationship is very positive. Foreign relations are my hobby. Within the State Council, I am a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs.”

Leonid rose from his chair and offered his hand to Igor and then to me for a farewell handshake. Then he purposefully strode away to the door without further ado.

“Now you see how we are run,” commented Maria softly. “The details of the charity’s operation are left totally to us at the operating level. The big bosses sometimes make themselves available to us to resolve budgetary issues, to approve our recommendations. But if they are called away on some business trip to the States or even to our own Siberian operations, then weeks can pass before they find the time to receive us. So please do react quickly when we signal to you that there is a window of opportunity to approve the budget or to draw down the next tranche of your grant.”

NB:  Leonid Nevzlin fled Russia and has been living in Israel since 2003. Professor Igor Shaitanov had been serving as Secretary of the Russian Booker Prize since 1998 while I was Booker chairman over the same period.  Vladimir Makanin, jury chair in 2002, was a Russian novelist and short story writer. Vladimir Sorokin, novelist, enfant terrible. Author of Blue Lard, 1999. “The book became widely known for its graphic sexual scenes between clones of former Soviet leaders Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev and Joseph Stalin (portrayed as homosexual lovers)….”] In 2005 Sorokin’s libretto for the opera Rosenthal’s Children created a furore at the Bolshoi Theater.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[Memoirs of Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up is now in print and available on all national websites of, as well as from other leading online retailers including Barnes & Noble.  “Volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s” will go to press in one month]