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The Magnitsky affair: let theatre judge

A British theatre company has brought a play about final hours of Sergei Magnitsky’s life to the London stage. Irina Shumovich reviews “One hour eighteen minutes”.

Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who uncovered the biggest tax fraud in Russian history – the theft of $230 million - died on 16 November 2009 in the Moscow prison ‘Matrosskaya Tishina’ (Sailor’s Silence). He was kept in pre-trial detention for 11 months in squalid conditions, developed pancreatitis, was denied medical treatment and left to die in dreadful suffering. Thanks to the relentless efforts of his employers and associates, Magnitsky’s death has brought corporate and government misconduct and corruption in Russia to the attention of the international media, foreign governments and the general public.

In June 2010, One hour eighteen, a play by Elena Gremina describing the last 78 minutes of Magnitsky’s life, was premiered in Moscow. Noah Birksted-Breen, founder of the Sputnik theatre company dedicated to promoting Russian drama in Britain, translated the play into English.

'For Noah Birksted-Breen, its enthusiastic translator and director, the play is “a bold new step in Russian theatre - setting the benchmark for political drama.'

16 November saw the first performance of his production of the English version at the headquarters of Amnesty International to mark the second anniversary of Magnitsky’s death.

The play is a series of monologues, which opens with a matter-of-fact account given by Sergei’s mother Natalya Magnitskaya: “When I pulled back the sheet, in the morgue, I saw scratches on his left hand. There were bruises on his knuckles - where the skin had been scraped off. I don’t know what caused the scratches on his hands. I don’t know who he was fighting with.”

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Actress Jan Goodman in a scene from Sputnik Theatre production of One Hour Eighteen Minutes, © Photo: Sputnik Theatre Company

In a calm voice and measured tone, she recalls the court hearing at which Sergei’s pre-trial detention was extended: the judge who refused him a mug of boiling water, and the doctor who failed to give him medicine.  “We had taken medicine to the prison for him. The doctor said to me: ‘Forgive us, we took the medicine to the wrong cell.’” Her brief but effective report introduces us to the world of a Russian prison – the cruelty, degrading conditions and the lack of in-cell sanitation.  “He wasn’t asking them to clean his cell or the toilet in the cell. He asked them to bring a brush so he could clean the toilet... They said ‘no’ to that, too.”

The judge Aleksei Krivoruchko - who twice sanctioned the extension of Magnitsky’s pre-trial imprisonment, denied him medical treatment and refused him a mug of boiling water – then speaks. He tells the audience he doesn’t feel sorry that Magnitsky died at the age of 37, and that the judicial system cannot be blamed for his death. The Russian judicial system is the only institution left that works - one million prisoners in jails is proof of how hard judges have to work. And giving boiling water to prisoners is not in a judge’s job description.

Next to speak is the investigating officer Oleg Silichenko who was in charge of the criminal proceedings against Sergei Magnitsky. He was personally responsible for the pressure tactics, the extreme conditions of his detainment and for refusing him medical treatment. He tells the audience he is convinced that if Magnitsky had been in pain, he would have cooperated with the investigation and testified against his clients. Instead, by demanding decent treatment and writing complaints about abuses of the law and the state of his prison cell, he made a mockery of the trial and ruined the case. There is not the slightest hint of regret or remorse in Silichenko’s sneering account.

The prison doctor Alexandra Gauss believes that the duty of a qualified doctor is to expose malingerers. The inmate was complaining of acute pain. It might have been true, but then again it might not. He shouted as if he were in pain and became hysterical, so she called the medical emergency team - eight members of staff who handcuffed him. Dr Gauss returned one hour eighteen minutes later to discover that the prisoner was dead. She was hoping that she wouldn’t be stripped of her rank.

We see the young woman in the ambulance who turned up the radio so as not to hear anything, and the medical attendant Sasha who - with Magnitsky in agonizing pain and being restrained by the eight members of the medical emergency team – was fiddling with his mobile phone. “Basically, Siemens is shit. The vibration is weak, I don’t feel it in my pocket when I’m walking. Or it suddenly freezes, is that normal?” One hour eighteen minutes later the first member of the medical emergency team appears. Sasha learns that the detainee is dead. “Damn, should have bought a Nokia” he says.

Throughout the play we also hear the voice of Sergey Magnitsky himself. His petitions are a painstaking register of every violation of his human rights in prison: “In all the cells the toilet is just a hole in the floor - a sort of basin with a hole in it. These basins are so dirty that it’s unbearable to look at them. And they don’t give you a toilet brush to clean up.  Rats run unchecked through the sewerage system”.

“I was brought to court four times to participate in hearings. Each time I was subjected to rough treatment, bordering on torture.”

The Sputnik Theatre company had only a few days’ rehearsals, the actors had no time to learn the lines and were reading from the script, which gave their performance an air of a documentary or a court hearing, somehow making its impact all the more effective.

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Actor David Mildon in a scene from Sputnik Theatre production of One Hour Eighteen Minutes, © Photo: Sputnik Theatre Company

All characters in the play are given their real names. Mikhail Ugarov, who directed the play in the documentary theatre Teatr.doc in Moscow, welcomed them all to come to the theatre and look at themselves. “They judge in the courts, we are judging them in the theatre”. The lines they speak are sparse, skillfully scripted and often funny: “You spell ‘businessman’, you pronounce ‘thief’”. They are full of resentment - against the people who “squirreled Russia’s riches out of the country”, and feel sorry for themselves, for their long working hours, low salaries, bad working conditions and the dangers of their jobs: “If a prisoner bites you, you get AIDS”.

The play was played to the full house of the 300-seat theatre at the headquarters of the human rights organization Amnesty International in Shoreditch. As when it was staged in Moscow, tickets were free, but had to be reserved in advance through the Amnesty’s site.

'The Sputnik Theatre company had only a few days’ rehearsals, the actors had no time to learn the lines and were reading from the script, which gave their performance an air of a documentary or a court hearing, somehow making its impact all the more effective.'

For Noah Birksted-Breen, its enthusiastic translator and director, the play is “a bold new step in Russian theatre - setting the benchmark for political drama. It's the first play to address an ongoing criminal case, and the largest case of tax fraud in Russian history by the Russian government, and to name names.”

The play “One hour eighteen minutes” will be shown again in a number of locations and venues in the UK - in particular at the 2nd Russian Theatre Festival in 2012.

About the author

Irina Shumovich is a Russian journalist based In London. She was BBC Russian Service producer (1989-2003).

More On

Sergei Magnitsky's Letter From Prison

Excerpts

Sanitary and hygienic conditions are simply revolting:

There is no running hot water in my cell, despite the fact that the facilities for hot water are there. My complaints about this merely led to a worsening of my conditions.

The cells that I have been held in were designed to provide 1.7 to 2.7 square meters per prisoner.

In all my cells, the toilet has consisted simply of a hole in the floor. In most of my cells, it has been open to view from the rest of the cell. In most cases, the beds of prisoners are placed less than 1 meter from the toilet.

Facilities in the cells are not repaired. Because of a problem with the plumbing, the floor in one cell that I was held in was flooded with several centimeters of sewage for 35 hours. Missing window frames in one cell were repaired only after numerous complaints and only several weeks after the initial appeal. During that time I became ill from the cold.

The opportunity to wash and take a shower was provided just once a week and on specific days. If I happened to be in court on that day, the opportunity to wash was postponed for another week.

The tables in the cells are so small that only one person can use them at a time. The others must eat standing up or sitting on their beds. For the same reason it is often necessary to write while sitting on the bed.

There are no televisions or refrigerators in the cells. The prison administration says they have no televisions or refrigerators in storage and that we must get them from our relatives. At the same time, they tell our relatives that they must get such things from the prison warehouse.


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