Experts for hire: how independent analysts create crimes for Russian law enforcement

Russian courts’ lack of independent expert evaluations isn’t a localised problem. It represents one of the most important factors in the country’s “conservative turn”. RU

Dmitry Dubrovsky
1 December 2017

The "expert" conclusion often contains empty charges - but leads to real charges in the courtroom. Photo: Dmitry Sotnikov.Russia’s practice of specialised court analysis in court emerged quite a while ago: expert evaluations are traditionally conducted in cases that call for “special scientific knowledge”. Normally, the expertise required is either medical (psychiatric, anatomical) or technical; with the notable exception of graphologists, humanities scholars were rarely utilised as forensic experts.

A new field for new players

Everything changed after the active development in the late 1990s and 2000s of special expert evaluation as an institution. Evaluations came to be used in cases of incitement of all kinds of discord (ethnic, racial, religious) were on trial, particularly under Article 282 of the Criminal Code (instigation of hatred).

Experts from the humanities and social sciences have featured in these cases more frequently of late. This includes art critics (who suddenly became pornography specialists, as in the Yury Dmitriyev case), historians (employed in “heroiszation of Nazism” cases), political scientists (“foreign agents”), sociologists and psychologists (“LGBT propaganda”) and religious scholars (“insulting believers’ feelings”). An unexpectedly important role has also come to be played by experts in the field of inclusive education (a case in point being when the European University at St Petersburg had its education license revoked by a court decision in March 2017).

The mission of these experts, as they undoubtedly see it, is to “protect the state” while ignoring both professional standards and common sense

Evaluations of this kind arouse considerable public interest. On the one hand, the testimonies of humanities scholars are somewhat easier for the general public to understand than those of technical or medical experts. On the other, precisely this makes it possible to assess the often catastrophic level of professionalism displayed by many experts. Educated people believe these “experts” to be outliers who were randomly appointed in a situation where most university staff simply don’t want to get involved in this little-known and unpopular field.

Indeed, I know from personal experience: most serious humanities and social sciences scholars take a sceptical view of public activity beyond the confines of their institutions. Their scepticism only increases when it comes to expert evaluations: they’re not going to bolster your scholarly capital, and if they do earn you a reputation, it’s likely to be a dubious one. To say nothing of the fact that the whole thing’s massively time-consuming. In other words, serious professionals simply aren’t interested in contributing their expertise to forensic evaluations (unless they specialise in forensics as such).


Nikolai Girenko. Source: hro.org. All rights reserved.Exceptions do exist, however — and the examples are revealing. On one hand, there are people in the mold of Nikolai Girenko — people who came to regard lending expert opinion in the fight against right-wing radicalism as their civic mission. Girenko, an ethnographer-turned-human rights activist, created a school of sociological and humanities expert evaluations which the national minority rights group of the St Petersburg Union of Scholars uses to this day. It was precisely in revenge for his civic activism that Girenko was murdered in 2004, and his contribution to the development of civil judicial expertise in Russia remains invaluable.

These experts, some of whom are disciples and followers of Nikolai Girenko, are united by their particular attention to procedure, to research, and indeed to all the standard features of the proper scholarly process. In many respects, this is due to the fact that the experts in this circle make very frequent stands in defence of constitutional rights and common sense.

In the service of the siloviki

On the other hand, we’ve witnessed the emergence of a category of experts with links — both direct and indirect — to Russia’s law enforcement agencies. The mission of these experts, as they undoubtedly see it, is to “protect the state” while ignoring both professional standards and common sense. Facilitators of the guilty verdicts being churned out by the law enforcement agencies, these experts don’t tend to be overly concerned about the quality of their research, aware as they are that, legal regulations notwithstanding, the courts won’t delve into what they’ve written in their evaluations and will in all likelihood just quote them mechanically when delivering the verdict.

However, it is precisely evaluations penned by these “killer experts” (who always “kill” the accused in court) that express the baseline fears and mythologies of a significant tranche of Russian society, while also reflecting the arguments of conservative and security discourse. “Expert battles” — fought out between these experts and representatives of civil society over a small number of highly specialised cases (these revolving predominantly around extremism, foreign agents, and “LGBT propaganda”) — substitute for public policy in much the same fashion as modern political performance, “memory wars”, and other formally non-political endeavours.

Judging by their evaluations, the “killer experts” appear completely sincere in their desire to protect Russia from unknown but terrible threats

Judging by their evaluations, the “killer experts” appear completely sincere in their desire to protect Russia from unknown but terrible threats. “Experts”, in this instance, are effectively individuals who are capable of discerning threats where ordinary people see nothing of the kind. In most cases the threat appears altogether absent, but the people who’ve identified it can always assert the opposite. Experts, after all, are representatives of science and scholarship, and cannot be objected to from the position of common sense since “science has proved it”. Significantly, these hirelings serve as conveyors of special knowledge about the existence of “hidden” or “implicit” threats that only they can properly understand — and thereby “save the country” from dangers that are real only for them.

At the same time, these expert frame the threats as being both to the Russian state as a whole and to its various components (for example, to the police, defined as a distinct “social group”), as well as to particularly vulnerable young people, against whom, if the experts are to be believed, the west’s ill will has been directed.


Human rights defender Vadim Karastelyov was severely beaten in Novorossiysk. Source: peoples.ru. All rights reserved.Thus, the court case into the closure of the Novorossiysk Committee for Human Rights (2009) prominently featured a slogan used by human rights defenders at one of their protest pickets: “Freedom isn’t given, freedom is taken” (the picket was staged in protest against the introduction of a youth curfew in the region).

Analysing the slogan in his expert testimony, Vladimir Rybnikov, a historian at the Gelendzhik branch of Kuban University, made the following remarks:

“If we’re to give an analytical answer to the question “Who stands to gain from having dissolute and unfettered youth in Russia?” without resorting to a multipage essay, we can say that the notorious Dulles Plan, published as ‘US NSC Directive no. 20/1’ of August 18, 1948, has not been completely fulfilled. The USSR has disintegrated, and yet there are still young people who, in keeping with America’s plans, must wholly disclaim the state order and the actions of state bodies responsible for the future of our youngsters. It is in the interests of the US that Russia’s young people choose Pepsi while simultaneously forgetting about their parents, about morality, about their responsibility for the fate of their Motherland. As Russia’s strategic adversary, the US benefits hugely from a state of affairs where our youth enjoys ‘borderless freedoms’, conducive as it is to crime and drug addiction.”

Despite numerous debunkings, the Dulles Plan (a document at the centre of a decades-old conspiracy theory) continues to be regarded by many as a historical document.

At first glance, it may well seem strange that such conspiracists are perceived as experts by the court. Generally speaking, however, experts’ professional qualifications are seldom called into question — even when their conclusions fly in the face of common sense. It doesn’t matter what common sense entails. What matters is their intention: namely, to safeguard the Russian state order from malefactors.

Politics and the Russian language

Here’s a noteworthy example. Providing expert testimony for the 2014 court case surrounding Murmansk’s Youth Human Rights Newspaper, Larisa Gorban, a philologist at Murmansk State Humanities University, ascertained that “the calls for violent change to the foundations of the constitutional order and for violations of the integrity of the Russian Federation lurking in the articles and headlines of the International Human Rights Newspaper are to be found in its repeated demands for ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’.” According to the expert, these calls were only intensified by the repeated use of exclamation marks (!).

The tradition of equating any and all political slogans with extremist materials has been continued by other experts, too. A local state body called the Kursk Laboratory of Judicial Expertise, for instance, determined that a flyer bearing the slogan “Down with autocracy and hereditary succession!” (2010) was in effect calling for the overthrow of Russia’s constitutional order. Philologists Elena Trubnikova and Dmitry Berdnikov argued that “the expression ‘autocracy and hereditary succession’” should be regarded as “a synonym for state power”. When Trubnikova was asked whether she considered the modern state system of the Russian Federation to be an autocracy, she honestly admitted that she “by no means adjudged Russia’s existing regime as being an autocracy” and “was merely analysing the text from a linguistic point of view.”

If these expert evaluations represent an assault on common sense, they also attack the very norms of the Russian language

Or consider 2016’s slogan “Kill the slave in yourself!”, branded extremist with reference to expert testimonies provided by Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Cultural Research staff members Vitaliy Batov and Natalya Kryukova (a psychologist and mathematics teacher respectively). Not only did Batov and Kryukova construe the slogan as an exhortation to suicide, they also interpreted it as a potential threat to the constitutional order. Batov explained that the slogan “Kill the slave in yourself!” “pushes people to the idea that slavery exists in Russia” while calling for “slavery – that is, the state system - to be battled against.”

These philologists, it must be said, don’t shy away from making statements that not only raise question marks over their professional reputations but also, it would seem, call their sanity into doubt. Thus, when asked by the investigation how best to evaluate the cry of “Beat the khachi!” (an ethnic slur referring to inhabitants of the Caucasus) that accompanied an attack on a schoolchild in St Petersburg in 2009, Elena Kiryukhina, an expert at the Centre for Judicial Expertise of the North-West Region, found it difficult to answer unequivocally. The phrase used by the attackers, Kiryukhina argued, “might or might not have had a xenophobic character”. It depended, in her opinion, on the motives of the people who uttered them.


"Russia for russians". Source: http://ruskombat.info/. All rights reserved.In other words, then, an expert philologist failed to answer a question about how to understand what can be understood by any native speaker — and understood unequivocally. At the same time, it is important to clarify that if, in the expert’s opinion, the answer to the question doesn’t call for any special knowledge at all, the expert has the right to not answer it, having indicated as much in his evaluation. For experts of this ilk, any pronouncements, even those that preclude equivocal interpretations, are, it would appear, objects of special, “secret” knowledge. That said, the very act of posing such questions in what are absolutely transparent and comprehensible situations represents a means of shifting responsibility from the investigation to the expert.

Sometimes even perfectly respectable experts fall into the traps laid for them by the investigative bodies. For example, the well-known (and absolutely responsible) linguist N.D. Golev was requested to conduct a study of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Why? Because a local branch of the Communist Party had peppered its pre-election newspaper with quotes from one of the play’s famous soliloquies, and, in the eyes of the prosecutor’s office, the text supposedly contained extremist elements “in the form of exhortations to a violent overthrow of the regime.” The expert’s (perfectly scholarly-looking) analysis features the following remarks: “The text of Hamlet’s soliloquy gives no grounds to assert that the tragedy’s protagonist calls for a rebellion against, and forcible overthrow of, the authorities (which would entail extremism in the political sense of that term).”

It doesn’t bear imagining what would have happened if a “call for rebellion” did indeed feature in the soliloquy — and, needless to say, such calls are hardly uncommon in literature.

But if these expert evaluations represent an assault on common sense, they also attack the very norms of the Russian language. Take the well-known court case surrounding the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society (2005). Human rights activist Stanislav Dmitrievsky, the Society’s managing director, stood accused of extremism and inciting hatred for the “crime” of having published an open letter by Aslan Maskhadov, the then president of Chechnya. Enter expert Larisa Teslenko, who argued that the expression “Russian-Chechen war” served to incite hatred between groups (“Russians” and “Chechens”) while the use of the phrase “Putinist regime” also constituted extremism.


The editor-in-chief of Nizhny Novgorod's "Human Rights Protection" Stanislav Dmitrievsky. Source: Novaya Gazeta. All rights reserved.Subsequently, and now doing her utmost to censure a monograph on war crimes in Chechnya, that same expert would go on to argue that “abundant use of quotation and references to sources in a scientific monograph is symptomatic of ‘propaganda’ and ‘the authors’ desire to disguise the true meaning’ of the matter”. Ironically enough, this claim actually serves as a perfect description of a majority of expert evaluations of this kind. Awash with assorted citations of general info and quotes from dictionary entries, such evaluations exhibit their authors’ desire to disguise a complete and utter lack of research on their part, its absence veiled in (pseudo-) scholarly language.

Meanwhile, providing expert testimony in the 2016 case surrounding the designation of the Saratov social NGO Sotsium as a “foreign agent”, Professor Ivan Konovalov of the Saratov State Academy of Law concluded that the organisation’s activities — which include distributing syringes and condoms for drug addicts as well as conducting opinion polls — constitute a form of involvement in “a hybrid war with a view to ‘destroying traditions and national values’ and ‘effecting a change of political regime in the country’.” In his “scientific” analysis of Sotsium’s activities, then, the good professor dons the mantle of champion of traditional (read “diehard conservative”) values, making it clear that he regards the distribution of syringes and condoms as an immoral and anti-state-minded endeavour.

Many experts, however, clearly defend the state by force of habit. During another 2016 case, this one surrounding the classification of ADC Memorial as a foreign agent (the state must be defended against human rights defenders!), Professor Vladimir Rukinov of the Herzen State Pedagogical University, making a statement in court, said the following:

“I think that, as of today, state policy doesn’t yet require change from the point of view of, as they call for, sorry to say, care, safeguards and so on. And as for, sorry to say, as for the incentives for active social elements to involve themselves in state policy, they can get involved in completely different ways — the masses, after all, adapt to everything unconsciously. Read the law, take whatever.”

Now, if you’ve read the above and failed to understand it, it’s certainly not because the above is complete trash. No: it’s because the above is high science – for how could a professor and doctor of science possibly spout complete trash?! Admittedly, certain elements in the biography of Professor Rukinov do cast his professional competencies into doubt. Much like various other plainclothes experts, he was initially employed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs before heading the delightfully named Regional “Public Foundation for the Support of the FSB and SVR”, and then miraculously defending both his candidate’s and doctor’s theses in eight years flat. Though miracles, it would appear, really don’t happen: as has been proven by Dissernet, Rukinov’s doctor’s thesis is straight-up plagiarism. This example offers an additional explanation for why such experts work on an on-call basis — they’re directly collaborating with Russia’s security apparatus.

Meanwhile, those who defend Russia’s youth from “LGBT propaganda” take their work no less seriously. A case in point is Doctor of Education Sh. A. Makhmudov, who in autumn this year conducted a psychological-linguistic study of activist Evdokiya Romanova’s Facebook reposts of Guardian and BuzzFeed articles… and discovered in them the terrible threat of LGBT propaganda.

The Russian police have long featured in expert evaluations as a vulnerable social group against whom various suspects are constantly committing hostile acts

The case of Professor Makhmudov, in fact, amply illustrates what sort of people become “on-call experts” for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and why. Makhmudov’s candidate’s thesis is an investigation of the “military-patriotic education of national school students by means of Russian literature,” while his doctor’s thesis deals with the “philological analysis of literary texts as part of the training of language and literature teachers for national schools”. What all this has to do with the issues of sexual orientation and gender identity is unclear. But there are very clear question marks over the nature of Professor Makhmudov’s relationship with the local Ministry of Internal Affairs. In 2002, you see, Professor Makhmudov was sentenced to seven years’ probation for extorting bribes from his students. Seven years later, in 2009, the literary analysis expert provided an expert analysis of the film Russia-88, claiming that it… propagandised Nazism. You can’t help but form the distinct impression that, following his suspended sentence, the expert remained in the debt of the local prosecutor’s office.

In his just-mentioned study of Evdokiya Romanova’s reposts and “LGBT propaganda”, Professor Makhmudov relies on Wikipedia as his principal source of information — which says everything that needs to be said about the scholarly rigour of his evaluation. Unfortunately, even this proved insufficient for the court to reject Makhmudov’s work as out-and-out unreliable.

Insulting policemen’s feelings

It is natural to assume that, given their close relationship with law enforcement agencies, the experts must also be involved in protecting the feelings of the siloviki themselves. The Russian police have long featured in expert evaluations as a vulnerable social group against whom various suspects are constantly committing hostile acts, predominantly involving the fuelling of social strife.

Over a decade ago, the aforementioned philologist Elena Kiryukhina claimed in her expert testimony for a case surrounding a series of articles penned by Novy Peterburg journalist Nikolay Andrushchenko that comparing the ill-treatment of protesters by police to the actions of fascists constituted “the incitement of social hatred against the police as a social group.” Blogger Savva Terentyev was found guilty of the same crime in 2008, with the testimonies of six experts in various social sciences instrumental in obtaining his conviction. More recently, however, St. Petersburg State University’s Boris Misonzhnikov, Natalia Sveshnikova and Galina Melnik outshone even these illustrious predecessors when they declared the expression “punitive-repressive apparatus” to be insulting to a very specific social group: employees of the center for combatting extremism.

It’s important to note, however, that experts are by no means always pressured to do their work by the Ministry of Internal Affairs: they may well regard their evaluations not only as a means of safeguarding the state or its individual representatives but also as one of defending their own feelings. Thus, in her expert testimony for the high-profile case surrounding the Caution, Religion exhibition (2012), K.V. Tsekhanskaya, doctor of historical sciences and lead researcher at the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Anthropology and Ethnology, simply made the feelings of Orthodox Christians the principal methodology of her research, because “conventional methods of analysis cannot be implemented when their feelings as Orthodox believers are offended”. Tsekhanskaya examined the allegedly insulted feelings of Orthodox believers, instead of analysing the “offending” art from the neutral perspective of art criticism.

Experts are currently taking particular care to defend the “correct”, “patriotically calibrated” version of history

Tsekhanskaya, of course, is not alone in her approach. Consider, for instance, the scandal that erupted in 2006 following the online publication of an article entitled “Putin as a phallic symbol of Russia”. Engaged by the prosecutor’s office to conduct a linguistic analysis of the article, philologist Elena Belova concluded that it did indeed contain offensive elements because comparisons involving phalluses are regarded as insulting within the Orthodox worldview.

Experts are currently taking particular care to defend the “correct”, “patriotically calibrated” version of history. Last year, for example, Vladimir Luzgin was convicted and fined for reposting a text correctly stating that the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany jointly invaded Poland in 1939, with Alexander Vertinsky, an associate professor at Perm State Humanitarian-Pedagogical University and a witness for the prosecution, claiming that the propagation of information about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact serves to “rehabilitate Nazism” (legislation criminalising the “rehabilitation of Nazism” was signed into law in 2014).

Experts testifying for the prosecution are generally propagators of diehard conservative discourse. In this sense, their court confrontations with independent experts —experts from civil society — represent both a battle for common sense and (yet more importantly) a mode of existence for politics. As part of this confrontation, civil society experts attempt, time and again, to prove to the courts that the police aren’t a distinct “social group”, that there’s no politics in human rights reports, that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact really was signed.

The court battle over civil rights currently looks like a straightforward struggle over common sense — a struggle waged against those whose world is altogether different in appearance. These experts obviously regard LGBT rights and independent NGOs as a threat; they’re seriously concerned about the feelings of religious believers and the police; and they’re shaping and reinforcing the image of the radical conservative turn currently under way in Russia.


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