oDR

Corruption, complicity, careerism: the hydra of Russian justice

Once inside the wheels of the Russian legal system, the odds are stacked against you and a guilty verdict is inevitable. What keeps the wheels turning is conformism with villainy: the ability of normal people to adapt themselves to any, even the most monstrous of systems. Andrei Loshak presents a fascinating report on the Russian judiciary.

Andrei Loshak
18 March 2011

One night nearly a year ago, 45-year-old ambulance driver Pavel Zaika had a few too many drinks. The cause was honourable enough — a friend was celebrating becoming a father for the first time. At about two in the morning, Zaika hailed a taxi to return to his home in Perovo in the east of Moscow. Somewhere along the way, it transpired that he didn’t have enough money for the journey. Ulugbek, the driver, told him to get out. Zaika refused, and launched into a verbal attack against the non-Russian Ulugbek. One thing led to another. Ulugbek broke Zaika’s nose, Zaika the car windows. The police were called, and the two soon found themselves locked up in a cell in Dorogomilovo police station. 

Ordinarily, the incident would be treated as just another fight involving damage to property. It wouldn’t usually require the courts to get involved. Once sobered up, the vandal would pay for the repairs, and everyone would be friends once again. After spending 24 hours together, Zaika and Ulugbek had more or less come to this understanding themselves.

Sadly their pact proved irrelevant. By this time Zaika was already inside the Dante’s Inferno that goes by the name of “the Russian legal system”, whose gates, bearing the inscription “Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate”, had clanged shut behind him.

The police 

The police began by giving Zaika a good beating, which was when they found a Swiss Army penknife on his belt. A cunning plan was hatched. Intimidating the immigrant worker Ulugbek, they obtained a statement to the effect that Zaika had tried to steal Ulugbek's mobile telephone by threatening him with this penknife. The investigator Voloshin drew up a report.

Late at night, Zaika was granted a phone call. He phoned his friend Dmitrii Zheglov and explained that he had been offered a deal: for 100,000 roubles the case would be dropped. Zheglov later testified to this in court. The plan was brilliant because it was a win-win situation for the police: if the money was produced, they could stuff their pockets; If not, their statistics would improve. After all, this was Article 162, violent robbery, a good, serious charge that with a conviction could see them rewarded and given bonuses. When it turned out that Zaika’s friends and relatives were not the sort of people who could come up with the money in a flash, I don’t imagine the police were particularly upset.

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Ambulance driver Pavel Zaika. With no money to pay off corrupt officers, Zaika fell into the inferno of the Russian justice system. Lawyers say that being arrested in Russia means more or less the same thing as being convicted. 

The same morning, investigator Voloshin went off to court to sanction the arrest and detention of this “highly dangerous criminal”. His report contained a number of contradictions – for example, the witness statement mentions that Zaika took out the knife with one hand, while seizing Ulugbek’s mobile with the other. Personally, I find it difficult to understand how anyone other than David Blaine can open a Swiss Army knife with one hand. What is more, Zaika’s own mobile, found during the search, was worth around 10,000 roubles [£220], while Ulugbek’s, which Zaika was supposedly trying to steal, was practically worthless. The testimonies provided by two different patrol officers were identical carbon copies, to the extent that a man was a woman (they hadn’t bothered to change the verb endings). Meanwhile witness signatures were also a complete mess: some weren’t there and others had been falsified. 

It is perhaps understandable that the police weren’t bothered by the inconsistencies. They were, after all, the result of their creative endeavours. That the judge involved in the case wasn’t bothered either, however, seems astonishing. It is equally astonishing that the police were unmoved by Zaika’s perfectly decent personality: a Muscovite, a family man without a police record, formerly a driver of an independent security vehicle - in other words, a colleague. Astonishing also that Zaika’s broken nose, picked up in the course of the fight with Ulugbek and evidenced by a medical document, did not ring alarm bells with the judge. Astonishing finally that the judge simply waved the case through.

Lawyers say that to be arrested in Russia means more or less the same thing as being convicted. Here’s how it works. The courts accept about ninety percent of applications for confinement under arrest, meaning that a rejection is considered a serious incident, resulting in professional competence checks and reprimands. A verdict of “not guilty” after an arrest is an incident yet more serious, as it indicates that a court made a mistake and improperly deprived the accused of his freedom. And that’s a scandal. The accused will demand compensation, and who needs that? That’s why the Russian law-enforcement system is Dante’s Inferno.

Zheglov, the recipient of Zaika’s original call from the police station, later received another call. This time, it was Zaika’s state-provided lawyer. He asked Zheglov to bring Zaika some fresh clothes since his current ones were bloodstained. Meeting Zheglov at the police station, the so-called lawyer said there was a chance of getting Zaika off, but that this would now cost 115,000 Euros – evidently the number of people to pay off had grown. Meanwhile Zaika’s assets were negligible: the room in the communal apartment in which Zaika lived with his wife and son was worthless. So it seemed likely that Zaika was going to be shut up for a long time, possibly for up to ten years.

The investigation

Things, in principle, should have gone smoothly from then on. Who was this Zaika guy after all? Some sad ambulance driver on a public service salary? Someone with no protection, no contacts? Unexpectedly, however, the police met their match. First, it turned out that Zaika’s wife, Alina, was a fighter by character and a lawyer by training. Secondly, a popular TV programme miraculously came across the case and sent a correspondent to investigate. Thirdly — and probably most unpleasantly for the servants of the law — our victim Ulugbek had an attack of conscience. The police could not have expected such a nasty trick from this unlicensed, low-life, immigrant cab driver, an Uzbek whose permission to reside and work in Moscow had expired. Such folk usually just thank Allah if they emerge from a police station unharmed. But the earnest Ulugbek, having walked free, suddenly felt so bad that he decided to tell the whole truth. So he phoned the investigator and informed him that he wanted to change his testimony, claiming that his original testimony had been given under duress. 

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The most unpleasant thing for servants of the law was that the "victim" Ulugbek had an attack of conscience. The police could not have expected such a nasty trick from this unlicensed, low-life, immigrant cab driver, an Uzbek whose permission to reside and work in Moscow had expired.

By this point, Voloshin had been replaced by a gentler young woman by the name of Viktoria Stepanenko, who listened to him politely. Not too long after this conversation, Ulugbek received a call, this time from from Inspector Voloshin. His advice was that it’d be better for him to keep quiet and lie low, that is if he didn’t want to go to prison for giving false testimony. Remarkably, Ulugbek didn’t follow this advice. He went to the Uzbek Embassy, where they provided him with a lawyer. Together they went to the investigator and gave a new statement. In this new testimony Ulugbek admitted that the first statement had been dictated to him and that he had no further claims against Zaika. He also wrote that there had been no knife and that Zaika had not taken his mobile, but simply got hold of it and thrown it down on the car seat. This testimony was written by Ulugbek in the presence of his lawyer and the investigator. In the interview record, filled in by the new investigator, another phrase appeared: “On the car dashboard there was a Nokia mobile; Zaika took it, but I seized it and threw it onto the car seat”. Ulugbek, whose knowledge of Russian was somewhat approximate, signed the record. The word “seized” turned out to be fateful: Judge Vera Belkina, entrusted with the trial, decided that that was enough to justify a verdict of guilty.

Ulugbek thought it was a good idea to disappear from Moscow for a while following his statement. In the summer he wrote a third testimony, in which he once more affirmed that there had been no robbery and that he had slandered the accused. He was, however, afraid of appearing in court in person, meaning that this formally-witnessed testimony was considered to have been obtained “in an informal manner”, and did not therefore constitute proper evidence.

Ulugbek today works in a bakery on the outskirts of Moscow. He readily agreed to meet me when I asked him, and when we met launched into speech: “Pasha [Zaika] and I had already made up in the isolation cell. Once he’d sobered up, he turned out to be a good guy. He apologised and said he’d pay for all the damage. But then the cops put pressure on me and I wrote about the knife”.

Ulugbek says that he met a very devout Muslim fellow in December in the hostel where he lives. Under his influence, Ulugbek gave up drinking, smoking, and began to say prayers on getting up in the mornings. He was given the Hadith Book of the Imam Al-Bukhari to digest. “I opened it and read: ‘False witness is the most terrible sin of all’. I saw Pasha before my eyes. Before I was afraid, but now I was ready to change places with him in order to expiate my sin. If necessary, I would go to the public prosecutor’s office, to the police, and tell them exactly what happened. Let them charge me for providing false testimony”.

The trial

Judges like to tell us to see things from “the legal perspective”. I think that Judge Belkina was just a little surprised when she saw the figure of famous TV correspondent Oleg Yasakov appear on her hitherto cloudless horizon.  

The television crew were allowed into the morning court session. This was probably an oversight as the court officials were certainly better prepared by the afternoon. When journalists arrived for the re-start at 1pm, they discovered the prosecution witnesses and police officers scuttling away from the court. They’d sort of been urgently summoned to work, you see. And so the trial was adjourned till 7pm. At this point, the press secretary of the Dorogomilovo Court came out to speak to the journalists and asked them to leave the building. Doormen helped expedite this request. Scarcely had the journalists left than the patrol officers reappeared and the session opened.

Yasakov’s film crew was not allowed access to a single further session. As soon as a camera appeared, the trial would be adjourned till the next day without explanation. This happened on seven separate occasions. Accredited journalists weren’t allowed into the court building, even though the trial was supposedly an open one. Yasakov phoned the court press secretary to find out what the hell was going on. They informed him there was “already a duty TV crew in the court working for Russia TV”. Yasakov objected: “But we’re accredited journalists!” To which the young woman replied: “There’s no more space. Sorry. And if you don’t like it, you can sue - ha, ha, ha!”

Alina, Zaika’s wife, says she no longer believes in justice. “This is a meat-grinder, not justice. Until the trial started, I believed things would be sorted out. But when these adjournments started, I understood. If what they were doing was in line with the law, would they really need to hide?”

The court officials couldn’t understand why journalists were looking for such trouble. Yasakov reported that the press secretary of Moscow City Court, Anna Usacheva, had even offered him a deal: “What is it with this Zaika fellow?” He’s an alco, an antisocial type. How’s about instead I arrange exclusive access to some trials with real celebrities?”

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When the authorities caught wind of the fact that a TV crew was filming the trial — supposedly an open one — the session was mysteriously postponed, and crew forcibly ejected

It would seem that no one in the Moscow City Court could believe that journalists wanted to see elementary justice done in the case of a “little man” called Zaika. Such a desire clearly contradicted the logic of the whole system. Yasakov was told that certain mafia structures were operating behind the backs of Zaika and his wife, fanning the flames. I was “informed” (by press secretary Usacheva) that Alina worked for the same TV channel as Yasakov. Needless to say, Alina had never worked for any TV channel.

“These people can’t fathom the idea that I’m not being sent briefcases of money”, journalist Yasakov blogged during the trial. “They’re sure that friends and relatives of the accused must have given us the hundred-odd thousand euros they were supposed to get, and that I’m just their rival for the pay off. They forgot ages ago that some people are capable of feeling a bit of sympathy”.

The first thing that press secretary Usacheva said to me was: “Why are you spending your time on this Zaika fellow? Just the other day we passed sentence in the case of the murder of [Magadan] Governor Tsvetkov”.

An explanation, it seems, is needed as to why we ended up spending our time on Zaika...

The journalists

First, we feel sorry for Zaika. For some reason, we journalists — as distinct from lawyers — tremble every time we come up against some appalling injustice. When I asked Judge Belkina “Don’t you feel sorry for Zaika?”, the same Dorogomilovo Court press secretary who had waged war on the TV crew interjected and replied for her: “If you start feeling sorry for everyone, you’ll age quickly”. Perhaps she’s got a point there: she herself certainly looks very young indeed.  

Secondly, it’s frightening. You can’t help but be terrified at the thought that every humdrum conflict involving the police might end up with jail. As Yasakov himself noted: “I’m sometimes a bit drunk and rowdy in cabs myself.” 

Thirdly, this case contains all you need ever to know about the many-headed hydra of Russian justice.

In September, [Yasakov’s] high-profile TV programme was aired on state TV. It wasn't shown in its entirely: there had been an official request to cut out any “negativity about the police”, so that viewers weren’t left with an impression that everything was rotten around them. The truth about the court, on the other hand, was apparently fair game and was left in. At the end of the programme the presenter declared that there would be a continuation to the story, and concluded: “Let’s see now, who’ll go to jail: Judge Belkina or driver Zaika?”

So indeed, the journalists of the very influential federal TV channel declared war on the Moscow City Court. The TV bosses reckoned that it was OK and necessary to fight individual manifestations of injustice within the system. After all, even in Soviet times the principle “someone, somewhere amongst us, occasionally” was never abolished. 

After the programme was broadcast, something very strange happened. Right by the court building Judge Belkina was stopped by some young lads in a car, who said: “If you don’t let Zaika go, we’ll beat you up – you won’t see your home again”. That, at least, is what press secretary Usacheva tells us. “Can’t you understand?", says Usacheva. "Belkina is responsible for administering! Our entire state is based on the rule of law. We must defend ourselves by properly-formulated pleading, not through threats and pressure”. There was something resembling resentment in her voice. 

“But it’s not the journalists who threatened her, was it?”

“This is something we can’t be sure of. It happened immediately after the programme went on air. A coincidence? Perhaps. Perhaps not.”

When I ask if they found the young hooligans, Usacheva doesn’t actually know if they have or haven’t. Some days later I ask Judge Belkina to talk about the threats. She produces what would seem to be a prepared answer: “I cannot answer your question. The State Defence service recommends no clarification be given while operational investigatory measures are being taken”.

Some six months have passed and these bastards have yet to be caught. And they won’t ever be caught because – let me risk a presupposition here – they don’t actually exist. The Moscow City Court, headed by the fearsome Olga Yegorova, simply decided to teach a few braying journalists a lesson by inventing the story. The fact that a man’s life was being destroyed by the case didn’t seem to worry them. This much would seem to be indirectly confirmed by Judge Belkina’s conversations with Zaika’s lawyer, Evgenii Kharlamov. Kharlamov said that after the TV programme, Belkina summoned him to explain that “higher authorities” would simply misunderstand a “not guilty” verdict. If, after all this fuss, Zaika was acquitted, people might think that the court had yielded to the influence of bloggers and journalists. Which was clearly an unacceptable situation. 

Ultimately, the journalists’ battle with the Moscow City Court ended in complete failure. On the day before the verdict, editors had scheduled a follow-up programme about the unfortunate Zaika. But then was a phone call from somewhere very high up, stating that there would be no such programme. Colleagues said that they had never seen the presenter in such despair before. It was a humiliation to everyone and to the journalism profession as a whole. When I asked Usacheva whether she had heard about the follow-up being cancelled, she feigned surprise: “You can’t be serious?! How I am supposed to know about that? I don’t go to their editorial meetings. It’s an independent channel which has always been marked by its freedom of opinions”. Zaika’s wife Alina reckons that there was some sort of deal: allegedly the channel’s loyalty was obtained by a promise not to proceed with a multi-million-rouble action being directed against the channel by Yelena Baturina [former Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzkhov’s billionaire wife - ed]. “Just think about it”, she said, not without delight, “they swapped my Pasha for Baturina!”. 

But these are all basically details. It’s something else which is important — and that is that the truth cannot be found anywhere. To the very last, Alina believed in the power of television. “We have relations in St Petersburg and in Tver. They’ve been waiting for the programme and can’t understand why the promised follow-up hasn’t happened. We all believed in this programme. We thought that our TV defended the man in the street.”

The verdict

As promised, the judge returned a guilty charge, but on a less serious charge. The silly accusations about the penknife were thrown out. “Robbery” was replaced by “attempted robbery” and Zaika was sentenced to one year. It was a quite unique event: both lawyers — the accused’s and the victims — were against a guilty verdict. When the TV crew showed the case materials to Anatoly Kucherene, a lawyer and member of the Russian Social Chamber [the oversight committee convened by Putin following the Beslan tragedy - ed], he threw up his hands. “This is totally outrageous”, he said. “They’re piling falsification on falsification. A case like this one simply has to collapse”. Kucherene was at first absolutely determined to help, but after the programme, in which he himself took part, he abruptly “cooled” and now doesn’t even reply to Alina’s phone calls.

In Kafka’s novel The Trial the modest bank employee Josef K. is tried for an offence of which he knows nothing. It becomes clear that it is not the reason that is important; the main thing is that had become involved in a process, i.e. punishment cannot be avoided. In church he meets the prison chaplain, to whom he complains that he is incapable of accepting a falsehood for the truth, even when it emanates from representatives of the law.

“No”, said the priest, “you don't need to accept everything as true, you only have to accept it as necessary”

“Depressing view!”, said K. "The lie made into the rule of the world”.

I suggest to Alina, the woman who simply couldn’t “accept it as necessary”, that perhaps it wasn’t worth creating such a fuss. If no one had made a fuss, perhaps the Moscow City Court wouldn’t have persisted? “Come off it”, objects Alina. “If I hadn’t pushed ahead like a tank, and if the TV people hadn’t helped me, my Pasha would have gone down for the whole seven years the investigation was originally trying for”.

A friend tracked Zaika down in Nizhnii Novgorod. "Pasha has lost lots of weight and his hair’s gone completely grey”, was all he had to say to Zaika's wife, Alina. This tells us a lot about how the penitentiary system functions. Judging by the evidence, it seems to be working in the best traditions of the Gulag"

Andrei Loshak

Zaika’s lawyer lodged an appeal in which he enumerated in detail the numerous infractions and contradictions that took place in the course of the investigation and were ignored by the court. The Appeals Court took precisely five minutes. The judges went away into a conference room and came right back out again. The verdict stood.

Over the entire time that her husband was in prison, Alina was allowed one ten-minute meeting with her husband. In December they found he had a benign tumour, and sent him to the infirmary, after which he quite simply disappeared. For two months, Alina could not extract from the Federal Corrections Service any information about where her husband had been sent. By law, the authorities are obliged to inform close relatives about all transfers of convicts. Eventually, Alina managed to find out that he was being held in Nizhnii Novgorod, but where exactly she wasn’t told. She tried to get clarification over the phone and rang round all the prisons, but almost everywhere encountered the same reply: “We aren’t an information line”. Finally, a family friend with connections in the authorities went to Nizhnii Novgorod on Pasha’s behalf, found him and managed to arrange a short meeting with him. “Pasha has lost lots of weight and his hair’s gone completely grey”, was all he had to say to Alina. This tells us a lot about how the penitentiary system — another head in the hydra of Russian justice — functions. Judging by the evidence, it seems to be working in the best traditions of the Gulag.

Rescuing Pavel Zaika from prison is no longer of any great significance. He is due to be released in a month. But the questions will remain even after he is released. The most important of these is why our Russian system of justice remains so senselessly cruel, when all we ever hear President Medvedev talk about is the humanisation of the judicial system. 

The dissident judge

Alexander Melikov is a former judge who was once in charge of the very same Dorogomilovо Court that convicted Pavel Zaika. He is what you might describe a dissident judge, a determined rebel against the “guilty predilection” of the Moscow City Court. Unsurprisingly, he was dismissed in 2005. The official formulation of the reason of his dismissal was fascinating — Melikov was apparently guilty of “excessive leniency”. 

Melikov paints a terrifying picture of the condition of the Russian justice system. In his opinion, no problem is more important than the system’s saintly fear at the prospect of an acquittal. 

“A good indicator of the effectiveness of a particular judge is the number of verdicts that are overturned by higher authorities”, he says. “I had good figures: from 90% of the guilty verdicts that I returned, just 1% were overturned. But from the 10% of not-guilty verdicts, at least half were overturned. Now remember that an overturned verdict is an crisis situation, and is always accompanied by post-event blamestorming. In other words, it is always more reliable to take the position of the State Prosecutor from the start: guilty verdicts are rarely, if ever, overturned. 

The saddest thing about this permissiveness is that it completely demoralises those entrusted with carrying out the investigation. What, after all, is the point of obtaining evidence if it won’t ever get a look in? Melikov shared with me examples of how the Dorogomilovо law enforcement agencies fabricate cases in order to finish off the defence, or to expedite an order from above. Astonishing that none of this seems to bother judges, who continue issuing arrest warrants left, right and centre. 

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Alexander Melikov was dismissed in 2005 for "excessive leniency". He is now a strong critic of Moscow City Court Chairman Olga Yegorova

“The majority of judges in Russia are women, and they value their status enormously. They’ve all got families with children. The one thing they fear more than anything else is finding themselves on the street without a job. I try to say to them: “look at me, I’m here, earning an honest salary”. To which they answer: “yes, but you’re a man and it’s easier for you — what can we do?” The only thing these women think about is themselves: getting a good salary, pension, benefits and status. Well, and the opportunity to be on the take, of course. And are they likely to put this all at risk for the sake of some Zaika fellow? Not a chance! They are more than happy putting up with the sight of a few tormented guys to preserve these benefits. 

Melikov does not believe the Russian judicial system is getting any less harsh. As before, people are being arrested and detained on economic charges, even though a recent amendment to the law made this illegal. As before, authorities are refusing to close cases where both parties have made peace, even though the law explicitly allows for such a practice in the case of non-major crimes. When objecting, they raise the cast-iron argument: “and who will do time then?” 

“They have guilty verdicts programmed into their heads. I quote the Criminal Procedures code, the constitution to them. I tell them that the judicial process should not be a machine for acquiring guilty verdicts, but a mechanism for providing parties with the necessary conditions for adversarial competition. Olga Yegorova, the Chairman of the Moscow City Court doesn’t, however, see it this way. For her, the judicial process is simply a mechanism for determining the means of punishment. The authorities see things clearer, and innocent people just don’t end up in court".

The Constitution states that judges answer to the law alone. Melikov, on the other hand, affirms that there are no longer any independent judges left in Moscow courtrooms. Working there means you have to do a deal with your conscience, and understand that at any moment you can get a phone call from above and be told how to decide a case. Anyone with principles has long since been squeezed out of the profession: “When Yegorova was dripping her poison on me, I thought that I was an exception, that for some reason the Chairman had taken a personal dislike to me. I was sure that I’d be able to get it turned around when I applied to higher authorities with all the facts to hand. But in the end, no-one wanted to listen to me, right up to the Supreme Court, right up to Vyacheslav Lebedev. The whole system is sick. After the Supreme Court sitting they told me “we understand everything, but our hands are tied. You’ve been unlucky”. I said: “Listen, I wasn’t playing in a lottery. For twenty years, I served my country and now you’re chucking me out with a medical certificate” — They: “you understood what you were doing” — I: “well, yes, I understood. but I was searching for justice. I am a judge after all”. 

The one thing that surprises me most of all was the fact that, essentially, nothing of any terrible significance awaits a judge who decides to acquit (provided, of course, they are not presiding over a case like Khodorkovsky). They aren’t fired, aren’t fined and aren’t even stripped of bonuses. Of course, a judge will be summoned to the Chairman of the district court to be given a slap on the wrist; and at the very worst, he/she will have to go “to the City” [Moscow City Court] to give an account of themselves. But surely such trivial workplace discomforts can’t be worth ruining the lives of innocent people?  

To begin to understand why this was happening at all, I dispatch myself to the very place that judges wheel and deal with peoples lives — the Moscow City Court. Borrowing from the ever appropriate images of Kafka, I move almost seamlessly from “the Trial”, to “the Castle”. 

I meet with with press secretary Anna Usacheva, just a couple of hours after the clerk of Khamovniki Court, Natalya Vasileva, had given her sensational interview, in which she revealed that Judge Danilkin had been put under pressure by his superiors at the City Court to return a guilty verdict in Khodorkovsky’s second case. The office shows clear evidence of the whirlwind that had recently passed through: print-outs of articles about the Vasileva scandal are scattered all over the place. A picture of her husband and child hangs on the wall. Press-secretary Anna offers me tea and confectionaries.

“Well, it’s all blown over now. I don’t know how many times I had to repeat, but what you are seeing is a PR campaign from the Khodorkovsky team on the eve of the appeal verdict. Actually, we were expecting something of the sort. And Vasileva isn’t going to die of hunger, don’t you worry. If something happens, well, the human rights activists will take care of her, won’t they? Kudeshkina didn’t disappear, did she? (Olga Kudeshkina was yet other judge disbarred for criticising Chairman Yegorova). She’s now got a job as an expert for YUKOS. Everyone makes their own choices”

Anna Usacheva certainly made her own choice in 2004. Alexander Melikov reserves strong language for her, calling her a “deserter”. Before the Court, you see, Usacheva worked as a journalist for “Gazeta” newspaper, and actually wrote sharp-edged pieces on the “guilty predilection” in Moscow courtrooms. This was at the time that Melikova and Olga Kudeshkina were locking horns with the Yegorova diktat, and the journalist was active in supporting the rebels. She was even dispatched to take an interview with Chairman Yegorova. She went into Yegorova’s office as a journalist, castigating the vices of the judicial system, and left it as the Moscow City Court’s press secretary. That was Usacheva’s choice: respectable to few but comprehensible to all.

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Everyone makes their own choices. Court Clerk Natalia Vasilyeva made hers when she went public about authorities interfering with the course of the second Khodorkovsky trial

Our conversation about Zaika goes nowhere. I tell her how the case contains many inconsistencies, which by law must be interpreted in favour of the accused. Instead of an answer, Usacheva reads out the verdict. “Attempted robbery, incomplete owing to external factors. What is inconsistent about this? It’s as clear as day”. Usacheva re-affirms Zaika’s guilt by listing line after line of supposed evidence, beginning with the victim’s and witness’ statements. 

I interject: “But the witness wrote another statement, didn’t he? In which he said that he implicated the accused under pressure from police, and that he no longer has holds grievance against the accused. And there are no other direct witnesses of the supposed robbery!” 

“The judge made her verdict, and that verdict became a legal decision. Read the verdict carefully. It tells you everything”.

Anna Usacheva doesn’t remember all that much about the details of Zaika’s case. On the other hand, she talks comprehensively and exhaustively about the moral conduct of journalists. “The only thing I can tell you for certain”, she says, “is that you need to go about your business in a legal way, because we live in a law-based state. Putting pressure on the judge and using your work positions to impart your own opinions onto the public is not acceptable. You need to give your viewers information from all sides”.

“Oleg Yasakov would no doubt have provided such information with pleasure, if only you had let him into the courtroom....”

“This wasn’t my doing. I left the press secretary of the district court to deal with it herself, as I wanted to see if she was capable of resolving issues such as this independently.

“And are you satisfied with your press secretary?”

“As far as am aware, there was a mutual misunderstanding. And the journalists could certainly have behaved more appropriately. When the presenter of the programme called me, I think he was simply trying to provoke me. It’s as if he thought I was the Mayor of Khimki or something. Yet I really put myself out to help them. A man should be a man, and not some hysterical cry-baby. 

Just before taking my leave, we smoke a cigarette together at the window, which looks out onto the building site of yet another extension to the Moscow City Court building. Her phone rings. Anna moves away to one side, but I still hear some of her conversation. 

“Hello, Viktor Nikolaevich [Danilkin, i.e. the judge who presided over the second Khodorkovsky case - ed].... Well, it’s exactly as we discussed before ...  You haven’t got the time to give a comment as you need to prepare the papers for the appeal ...  that’s all you need to say!”

When she hangs up, she mutters “poor little Danilkin!” under her breath. The employees of Moscow City Court are, it seems, capable of compassion after all. 

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Chairman of the Moscow City Court Olga Yegorova with mayor Sergei Sobyanin: "the embodiment of systemic evil". 

The press secretary organises an interview for me with Judge Belkina, the judge who passed sentence on Pavel Zaika. When I was preparing for the meeting, I expected I would be up against some soulless Megaera. Instead I met with a modest, even slightly shy woman in her thirties. The conversation I had with her was largely superficial, however. I listed the discrepancies in the case, to which Belkina answered calmly why she did or didn’t judge particular pieces of evidence to be admissible. How the second testimony from Ulugbek contains the phrase “he grabbed my telephone”, which would indicate an attempted mugging. But how the third testimony, in which Ulugbek withdrew all of the allegations about the phone, was not made in court and was therefore inadmissible.  I ask whether she feels that this confusing mess, with the subsequent reconciliation of both parties, was really worth sending someone to prison for a year.

“Was it really worth sending him away for a year?” She pauses. “Well, actually, I think it’s pretty serious stuff for article 161 (i): fighting, damaging someone else’s car, grabbing their mobile telephone”. 

“But he was punched in the nose. It wasn’t at the drop of a hat”.

“Well, maybe not at the drop of a hat. Still, it’s not the way to behave”.

The first thing that Judge Belkina also did, by the way, was to offer me tea and confectionaries. It is nice to see the honourable Soviet tradition is alive and well in all governmental institutions. Indeed, the main thing I took away from my trip to “the Castle” was how incredibly normal most of the people who work there are. It’s not some police station, where everything — right up to the misaligned linoleum flooring — is sodden with an atmosphere of moral decomposition. You don’t see “glamourous dolls in epaulets”, as one blogger-novelist has suggested. Instead, its the same normal Russian women that surround us all in governmental institutions from kindergarden upwards. 

Chairman Olga Yegorova is herself a charming enough lady. The other day, I heard her give an interview for the radio station Echo of Moscow, where she argued for judges to be granted independence. Straightforward, feisty and perhaps even slightly sincere. The last thing that she looked like was the embodiment of systemic evil. Yet this is, unfortunately, precisely what she is. It was on her watch that the term “Basman justice” appeared [referring to the central Moscow Basman courtroom that staged Khodorkovsky’s first trial, which has come to symbolise the dependence of Moscow judges - ed]. Suffice to say that prior to his dismissal neither Yuri Luzhkov nor his wife lost a single case in a Moscow courtroom (and there were more than one hundred legal processes!). And how, as soon as Baturina and her man fell out of favour at the Royal Court, she began to lose case after case (take her recent example to sue the TV station, which was not even admitted to court).

As Alexander Melikov says, “over the past ten years, Moscow judges have followed not the law, but the whim of one person, the Chairman”. It is impossible to talk about justice in such a system... Did Zaika have any chance of justice?  Are you kidding me? That’s something that isn’t even guaranteed for deputy finance ministers [i.e. Sergei Storchak, arrested in 2009 for alleged embezzlement - ed]

The banality of evil

What makes such nice women in robes go along with it? And not only women of course. Take Viktor Danilkin — everyone who knows him personally says that he is an normal enough guy (as normal as one can be in this system). For Melikov, the reason is simple enough: the fear of losing a cosy position. Personally, I think things are more interesting than that. After all, the fear of losing one’s job, when coupled with an incessant feeling of lawlessness around you should be enough to cause nervous breakdowns and an increased level of suicides amongst employees of the Moscow City Court. And this isn’t what you see. 

This ability of the majority of people to adapt themselves to any, even the most monstrous of circumstances is what Arendt refers to as “the banality of evil”. When  a lie is carried up through a system, it becomes a norm. Which is why the people who are inside the system no longer see the absurdity of what is going on

Andrei Loshak

I found the answer to this question, instead, in Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil”. Arendt was born a Jew in Germany at the beginning of the last century, where with her own eyes she witnessed the transformation of what seemed to be “normal” people into cogs of the Nazi regime. Arendt devoted her whole life’s work to the study of this phenomenon. Having studied Eichmann’s behaviour at his trial, she came to the conclusion that this Nazi war criminal was not, in fact, a villain, but a fly-weight, a common careerist with decent organisational skills, which in other circumstances could just as successfully been applied to peaceful means. In all his activities, he was guided by Himmler’s motto “my honour is loyalty” (and in this sense, when he sent away train carriages of Jews to their deaths, remained somewhat of a honourable man). 

This ability of the majority of people to adapt themselves to any, even the most monstrous of circumstances is what Arendt refers to as “the banality of evil”. When a lie is carried up through a system, it becomes a norm. Which is why the people who are inside the system no longer see the absurdity of what is going on. They continue to drink their tea and confectionaries, write SMS messages to their children as they mechanically carry out their ignoble work. I imagine the joy that Judge Danilkin felt in the warmth of his homely home with family on New Years Eve, having finished gibbering his way through the entirety of his disgraceful verdict. Arendt considered that the good old German burgher, ready to commit to anything for the sake of his small family happiness, represented the crutch of the fascist regime: “He has driven the dichotomy of private and public function, of family and occupation, so far as  can no longer find in his own person any connection between the two. When his occupation forces him to murder people, he does not regard himself as a murderer because he has not done it out of inclination, but in his professional capacity. Out of sheer passion, he would never do harm to a fly”.

To many, my comparison of the Russian justice system with the Third Reich might seem a touch overdone. I agree: there is no war going on, there are no concentration camps, and members of the opposition are not being condemned to death by firing squad. All the same, the Belkinas and Danilkins of this country are not decreasing in number. People across the whole country still continue to act “in conformity with villainy”, serving the rotten governmental system. And the abyss between them, the residents of the “Castle”, and us, the rest of the population continues to grow.

This said, a peculiarity of the current “Castle” is that no-one actually is actually locked inside it. As the press secretary of the Moscow City Court quite rightfully said, everyone makes their own choice. On the one side, you have Judge Danilkin. On the other, his assistant Vasilyeva. No one, it would seem, is left in between.

Originally published in the Russian on our partner website, www.openspace.ru

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