Archive for April, 2010

Bears in a Honey Trap

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

The phone call came in the middle of the night. The tape, the caller said, was already online. It was past two, but Viktor Shenderovich, Russia’s pre-eminent political satirist, knew he had to move, to get his side of the story out before Moscow awoke to watch video of him, naked, hairy, and vulnerable, having sex with a young woman named Katya, already infamous for luring a who’s-who of the Russian opposition to her bugged apartment for kinky sex and drugs. Shenderovich had been anticipating this moment and now it had arrived, two days before his daughter’s wedding day.

Shenderovich, who says he is happily married, fessed up.

Yes, he wrote on his blog, “I fucked Katya.”

In any other country, the confession would have hit like a thunderclap. Sure, the first wave of the kompromat had already broken in March, when Mikhail Fishman, the editor-in-chief of the liberal Russian Newsweek, was caught on a clumsy Internet video cutting lines with a half-naked Katya, who apparently also went by Moomoo. The revelation prompted Ilya Yashin, an up-and-coming young opposition politician, and other opposition members to preemptively post their stories of being seduced by the same woman. Yashin, Fishman, and Dmitry Oreshkin, a liberal commentator, were also shown attempting to bribe traffic cops. But the resultant scandal — if one can call collective eye-rolling a scandal — focused entirely on the sloppy, dirty tactics used to entrap the young men, not on their behavior.

With Shenderovich, however, it might have been a different story. Shenderovich is, after all, nothing short of a Russian household name. For well over a decade, he has been speaking truth to power in the best traditions of political comedy. His political TV show Kukly (or “puppets,” for the dolls representing the country’s elite), running from 1994 to 2002, first needled Boris Yeltsin, then Vladimir Putin. It earned Shenderovich two indictments and the show’s cancellation, and contributed to the state’s takeover of the show’s host channel, NTV. Shenderovich is Russia’s Jon Stewart, if Jon Stewart had been on the air longer — and if the Bush era had never ended.

And here was Shenderovich, on tape and in the lewdest, most embarrassing way possible — “Well, I guess I’m not hopeless if I’m still a little bit appealing to girls,” he says in the tape, as he undresses for the waiting Moomoo — cheating on his wife with a girl his daughter’s age. In a fedora.

Yet nothing much happened that Thursday morning: For the most part, the story sank like a stone. In fact, the main thing people wondered about was why Russia’s opposition — a splintered, leaderless scrum already so effectively neutered by the Kremlin that they don’t have a single seat in the Duma — would be the focus of such an elaborate hit job. There are no elections coming up, and none of those targeted have made a bid for power recently — because they know they’re hopeless. Even Shenderovich is no longer the star he used to be. He lost his television platform when NTV was wrested away by the government, and he has been effectively blacklisted ever since.

Moreover, Russians have always loved womanizers. It is central to the concept of muzhik, the manly salt-of-the-earth man. Whenever a rumor of another Yeltsin woman surfaced, his ratings spiked instantly. When Alina Kabaeva, the rhythmic gymnast with R-rated flexibility, was said to be the new Mrs. Putin — and mother of his only son — it did not hurt the prime minister one bit. Even the most recent sex tape scandal — in 1999, prosecutor Yuri Skuratov, who antagonized both Yeltsin and Putin, was filmed in bed with two young women — had no serious ramifications. Skuratov was already in trouble for exposing government graft, but the sex tape, promoted by Putin on national TV, just made the Kremlin look bad, and the person deemed responsible for making it was quickly fired.

In typical muzhik fashion, Shenderovich and the two other opposition figures caught on the tape blew the whole thing off with a bravado that seemed to hold only a bit of defensiveness. “I possessed Katya without any particular enjoyment,” Shenderovich wrote on his blog. “In the process, my colleague was boring, like all you vile Gestapovites.” (“I would have been better off had I gone to the gym,” he told me later. “I would have burnt more calories. It would have been better for my health in every sense.”)

When we met for coffee the day after the tape hit the Internet, however, Shenderovich admitted that the exposure stung. “I have a reputation, and I treasure it,” he said. “Imagine knowing that all those people, everyone you know, have seen this tape.” But for the most part he played the unrepentant swinger: “I have never written anywhere that I am a saint. I have never announced anywhere that I am monogamous. If I had and then got tangled up in this, then they could say, like with Clinton, ‘Guys, turns out he’s lying!'” Moreover, the brainy, stocky Shenderovich joked, the tape in no way discredits him. “If anything, I’d say I dispatched my male duties satisfactorily.”

The cultural difference between Shenderovich and his American counterparts is striking. Caught in embarrassing moments, American public figures prostrate themselves before the public, and before their families — in public. Russians, however, lack what they see as this deeply Puritanical impulse, so they swagger and mock, or yawn.

“People who expect this response” — that the opposition should wither in contrition — “are not getting the particularities of the Russian mentality,” Yashin, who also shook off his tryst with Moomoo, saying he’d weathered far worse political storms, told me. “It’s a reason for impeachment in America. Here it’s ‘big props.’ Even when they see Shenderovich in this tape, they say, ‘Not bad! The guy’s already 70 and he’s so energetic!'” (Shenderovich is 51, but much of the Russian blogosphere was similarly congratulatory.)

Echoing pretty much everyone else I spoke to, Yashin added that Shenderovich may be a public figure, but his private life is inviolate. “What does this have to do with anything? You can also install a camera in the bathroom and catch him pooping, if you want! The only people who can ask him about this are his wife and his daughter. Everyone else — it’s not your fucking business, okay?” (Yashin also noted that getting caught with Moomoo wasn’t as bad as the alternative. “What would be political murder is if they published someone with boys,” he said. “And they didn’t find any gays among the opposition in two years [of trolling for dirt].”)

When I asked Shenderovich if, as a prominent critic of the government, he should be held to a rigorous standard of behavior, his response echoed Yashin’s. “I do behave myself,” Shenderovich told me. “I behave myself in the sense that I pay for myself in any group, with any millionaires and billionaires. I try to at least cover my half. I never take money for my publications, except for honorariums. I am completely transparent in my taxes. And I behave myself. In everything that allows me to walk down the street and look my fellow citizens in the eye. Because I really am a public figure.”

As for the rest? Irrelevant and forgivable — even by his wife, at least according to Shenderovich. “My wife reacted completely wonderfully,” he said. “I have this habit when traveling of taking the shampoo from the hotel as a memento of the trip. It always really irritated my wife. Yesterday, she said, ‘See, I told you: You should never take free shampoo.'” Not only did she forgive him, she calmed down Shenderovich’s 80-year-old mother. His daughter laughed it off and went on with her wedding planning. Fishman’s wife got a T-shirt saying, “Smile! You’re on camera!”

Tracing the goopy trail of the honey trap, the victims and their sympathizers saw all the overeager, sycophantic clumsiness of the Kremlin youth group, Nashi. On Monday, Yashin filed a complaint with the State Prosecutor’s office for invasion of privacy and distribution of pornography, citing Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s Karl Rove, and Vasily Yakimenko, a federal official who curates all things youth-related and who was once in charge of Nashi. Oreshkin, who was also targeted by Katya but managed to decline her invitation to see her new apartment, wrote that his sources inside the government said Yakimenko was behind the campaign, with the Kremlin’s approval and financing.

It’s not a far-fetched conclusion, given that real police cars were used in the traffic cop-bribing video. The Interior Ministry denies it was their policemen or their car; but, as Shenderovich quipped, “What service can rent a police car, stuff it with electronics and surveillance equipment? Who can do this? I don’t think these are students of the Conservatory.”

Robert Schlegel, a 25 year-old Duma deputy and federal commissar of the Nashi movement, maintained to me that his organization was not involved, although he seemed to know a disconcerting amount of detail about the smear campaign and had extremely well-thought-out opinions on the matter. “It’s because this group of journalists has turned into a gang that doesn’t betray its own,” he said, his voice rising angrily. “They really have a strong sense of complete righteousness, that’s one. Two, they are not ready to live according to the law — that is 100 percent true. That the law isn’t written for them. They see themselves as a separate political force. That’s crazy.”

And he, too, explained why Russians didn’t find anything shocking in the tapes. “Russia has a significantly freer culture,” he claimed. “For us, cheating on your wife, for the majority, is not something unusual. Moreover, for us, snorting cocaine — what’s unusual about that? Everyone snorts it.” Especially, he said, “all journalists. And if they don’t snort, they drink. Or huff.”

Schlegel could not reconcile to me the apparent pointlessness of smearing someone with a charge that in Russia, usually works to build your reputation — nor explain the use of smearing the feeble Russian opposition in the first place. The week since Shenderovich was awakened by the call has brought some clarity, however. For the most part, not much has changed. Shenderovich’s daughter got married. His mother has calmed down. As expected, the authorities have yet to launch a real investigation, although the tenacious Yashin has gone on the offensive: With the help of some local journalists, he discovered Katya’s now empty apartment (you can rent it for $1,200 a month) and her ex-boyfriend.

But then, on Tuesday, Nashi filed a court complaint against Yashin. It claimed “insult” and “false accusations,” but also called for legal consequences for the crime caught on tape: bribing police officers. The tactic is a strange double-feint: Nashi is insisting it had nothing to do with the videos, while also drawing more attention to them and carrying out what now appears to have been the video’s grand purpose all along, proving that opposition members are just common, petty criminals.

Shenderovich, meanwhile, is taking the apparent Kremlin attention as a “badge of honor.” In the best traditions of Russian martyrdom he recounted to me all the ways he’s needled the government over the years and the ways he’d been singled out before: break-ins, round-the-clock surveillance, blackmail. Last week, he said, they torched the St. Petersburg apartment of the man who organized his latest play. “I deserve a lot from them,” he told me. “And I understand that I’m alive only because I am fairly famous and they understand that will be too costly for them, PR-wise.”

When we had wrapped up our interview, a man came up to Shenderovich and fervently shook both his hands. He thanked him again and again for his work, and Shenderovich began to beam from behind his beard. “It’s impossible to live in this country,” the man said. Then he leaned in and whispered something: He worked for the state prosecutor.

Bears in a Honey Trap [Foreign Policy]

A Russian-American’s Uneasy Return to Moscow

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

About a month ago, I came home to find an odd e-mail from Alexander Parkhomenko, a man I’ve never met. “Is everything really so bad in Russia?” he wrote.

I have been reporting from Moscow for the past six months, and Parkhomenko had been reading my work. He liked the stories, he said, “but one gets the sense that you were brought back here by sheer force to this hated country, back to the funny, stupid Russians, back to a horrible city unfit for life, and that your ‘love/hate relationship’ means mostly the latter.”

This was not the first time a Russian had attacked me — in an only-I-can-make-fun-of-my-family sort of way — for being critical of Russia, which to many people here is indistinguishable from hating Russia. But something about the way Parkhomenko cut to the central dilemma of my place in Russia shook me.

Because I am back. And — aside from the detail that I now live on the same street, in the same building, where I spent part of my childhood and from which my parents, Jewish refugees, took me almost exactly 20 years ago — I am back in a way that is very easy to resent.

I may have been born here, speak the language, and have Russian family and friends, but I no longer have Russian citizenship. Instead, I am back as a representative of the American press, the same institution that needles the Russians for their failures and their absurdities.

I am, in other words, a traitor.

I am not like the Chinese American or Indian American repats, thousands of whom have rushed back to propel the countries of their roots on their jet-packed upswings, enriching themselves along the way.

I am a Russian repat, and there aren’t that many of us. In fact, most people are moving in the opposite direction. According to a recent calculation, more people have emigrated during the alleged stability of the Vladimir Putin era than during the chaotic 1990s. Until last year, Russia ranked among the three countries that produced the most asylum-seekers. Last year, it made progress; it came in fourth.

Few of us are here to participate in something uplifting, a fact I realized by the time I had my first grumbling, fatalistic conversation with a local. A couple of weeks ago, for example, I had coffee with a spokesman for a Russian state corporation. First he asked if I really believed all the negative things I wrote about Russia and his company, or if it was the American editorial line. By the second cup, he was rolling his eyes at the kickbacks and bribes he knew were probably all over the company, and dismissing Russian sloganeering about modernization as “Potemkinism.”

If Russians don’t have much hope for this place, we Russian-born, American-bred returnees have even less. A fellow repat recently read Alexander Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” with her Russian-language teacher. When they got to the part expressing hopes that in 500 years the nation would have decent roads, they burst out laughing. “Onegin” was first published in 1825.

For those of us born here, the question of when Russia will catch up with its hopes is not that funny. Twenty years ago, on April 28, 1990, my parents — at 30 years old, just three years older than I am now — dropped their careers and their friends who gathered at the airport to sob, took their two little daughters and walked through passport control, relinquishing their citizenship forever. They took us away as a political statement about this nation’s chances of a bright future; to them, there would never be one.

Once safely in lush American suburbs, however, our parents sentimentalized the country they’d left — the culture, the language, the better table manners and the clear truth that we Russians won World War II virtually unaided. And like many expat children who hardly knew the place, I accidentally fell in love.

After a college class on Soviet history helped cement my obsession, I went back to Russia almost every year, until I decided to try living here.

But coming back is a luxury. Repats like myself love living here because we do so voluntarily; because we, with our blue passports, can leave whenever we want, because our parents had the foresight to do it for us.

We don’t have to get upset, the way my grandmother in Moscow does, that elections are doctored, because it is not our democracy that is being stolen. We don’t have to pay into the corruption that eats up, even by the government’s own estimates, one-third of the country’s budget.

Here, we live a charmed and parallel life. The extent became clear to me on a recent evening, when I sat in a Russian friend’s kitchen, buried in another dispiriting talk of how long the current incarnation of Russia could possibly last. Suddenly, her 3-year-old daughter ran in. My friend leaned down to hug her and murmured sadly into her hair, “Oh, daughter. What will become of us?”

Few repats I know of stay more than five years, and most of us will go back to our more stable, more protected, more predictable lives. Moscow will become a memory, a crazy story that over the years will become a riff repeated at cocktail parties until it becomes shiny from use. We’ll read the Russian news less and less, keep in touch less and less with our Russian friends who will still have to live here.

Of course, this rankles someone like Parkhomenko: You left, you lived your cushy American life, and now you’re here again, criticizing us before you scuttle back to your suburb?

A few days ago, I finally found the courage to respond. I explained that my job was to objectively report what I saw, not to flatter or berate. Then I asked: “How can you love Russia and ignore all its problems?”

He wrote back long and fast. He said he was now in Kazakhstan. Many of his friends had been arrested. “Believe me,” he wrote, “that what’s happening here corresponds to Moscow the way Moscow corresponds to New York.” He said he had quickly run into Kazakhs telling him to shut his sanctimonious mouth. But his reaction was a distinctly Russian one: It wasn’t his place to criticize, and, anyway, what could one man do?

“Eventually, I just became silent,” he wrote. “I can criticize the government, I can point out the inaccuracies, but I cannot say that my truth is better than theirs. Alas, everyone has their own. And if I can be helpful to them somehow by proposing what I think is right . . . I will be glad if they accept it. But they are in no way obligated to do this.”

But Kazakhstan is not Parkhomenko’s, at least not in the way that Russia is still mine, and will be indelibly.

The room where I write is where my great-grandmother spent the last years of her life. I am surrounded by remnants of her elegant china, by my grandfather’s art books. Every day, I pass the school — an ivory block, set back from the road — where I went to first grade. My mother went to school there, too.

These things have become part of my daily life again, and that is perhaps why Parkhomenko’s words jabbed so keenly. Yes, I am critical of Russia, but because I wish the country would meet the standards it sets for itself. I wish the government would stop comparing itself to Europe and the United States in one breath and proclaim its sacred exceptionalism in the next. I wish it would stop posturing and demanding respect, and simply command it with its actions, the way it showed it could when half the Polish government crashed into a Russian field.

I realize these are un-Russian sentiments, particularly in a country where 85 percent of adults, according to a recent poll, think they can do nothing to make an impression on their government.

But how can you love this place and remain politely silent, responding only if the Kremlin calls on you?

A Russian-American’s Uneasy Return to Moscow [Washington Post]

Jump-Starting Russia’s Protest Movement

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Traveling through early 19th-century America, French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville noted, “In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used, or applied to a greater multitude of objects, than in America.” If something went amiss, like a traffic jam, Americans would band together into street-level groups and fix it themselves. “If a stoppage occurs in a thoroughfare, and the circulation of vehicles is hindered,” de Tocqueville explained, “the neighbors immediately form themselves into a deliberative body; and this extemporaneous assembly gives rise to an executive power, which remedies the inconvenience.”

It won’t come as a surprise to hear that Russians are the polar opposite of those early-19th-century Americans. Seventy years of collectivism have, paradoxically, served as a potent atomizer, and a decade of Putinism has only reinforced the tendency. It’s not that protest doesn’t occur or that it’s not useful — more that Russian protest movements tend to be highly specific and localized, with little ambition of existing beyond the lifetime of the small-bore issue at hand. In the best-case scenario, a protest — against a new tariff or a delayed raise in pension, say — gets attention, the authorities back down, and then the organization, having fulfilled its purpose, inevitably dissolves.

Unless there’s a stoppage in the thoroughfare. When it comes to anything automotive, Russians have shown signs of a genuinely Tocquevillian character, and the momentum has been picked up by a young organization called the Federation of Russian Car Owners, or FAR in Russian. The group has only existed since 2006, but its longevity, unique structure, and genuinely grassroots-level organization make it a standout in a civic wasteland. FAR’s leaders, tightly focused on automotive policy, haven’t quite realized their own significance: that their organization model is about the only effective, sustainable way to challenge the Russian government. In a place with zero civil society — but 42 percent car ownership — FAR is as good as it gets.

Like other Russian protest movements, FAR began as unofficial clusters of citizens in small towns across Russia to protest various abuses of their automotive rights. But FAR’s leaders took it further than most of these groups ever did: They began to band together regionally until the Kremlin provided them with a reason to come together on a national level. The catalyst came in May 2005, when the government proposed banning the import of cars with right-side steering wheels (Russia is a left-side country), a move that would have stymied the import of cheap used cars from Japan.

People got mad and picketed, and a year later, the seven most active regional groups came together to form FAR, a loose national umbrella for local automotive rights’ organizations. There are no official members, no membership dues. If you support a particular issue — say, the ban on xenon headlights — you can come to that protest and skip the others. It’s a highly personal model: Sergei Kanaev, head of FAR’s Moscow branch, for instance, joined not out of a sense of civic duty but because his friend was killed in a bad car crash. “They are very good at using network principles,” says leftist opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov. “It’s very easy to join up; there are no extraneous formalities.”

FAR’s national director Viktor Klepikov says that the organization is entirely self-financed, forgoing politically tinged funds from either the Kremlin or foreign NGOs in favor of small-scale collections to cover printing costs and the like. Everyone works for free, including the leadership, which is elected once a year.

FAR’s discriminating approach to activism has made it surprisingly effective. In a country where a successful protest tops out at half a thousand people, last fall the group collected 84,000 signatures petitioning a proposed spike in import tariffs on cars; the government backed down. (By comparison, after a month and a half of collecting signatures, an Internet petition calling for Putin’s resignation has gathered fewer than 40,000 names.)

In 2006, FAR and another automotive group were also instrumental in lifting the jail sentence of an Altai rail worker falsely accused of causing an accident that killed the region’s governor. The automotive groups effectively showed that the governor’s own chauffeur caused the fatal crash. And remember those January protests in Kaliningrad? They were preceded by December protests over raising a transportation tax. FAR was instrumental in organizing them and, in January, helped communicate Kaliningrad’s concerns to Moscow. But by the time the crowds had gathered for March 20’s so-called “Day of Wrath,” FAR was out of the picture: The courts had overturned the transport tax, and the group’s mission was accomplished.

This month, the organization is going after the blue sirens that — legally — allow bureaucrats and businessmen to flagrantly violate the rules of traffic (like which way it’s supposed to be moving) at massive risk to the hoi polloi. (In February, an armored Mercedes carrying a Lukoil vice president — alleged to have served in the KGB — turned on its siren and pulled into the oncoming lane where it mangled a red hatchback, killing a young woman and her mother-in-law. When authorities tried to blame the victims, FAR launched its own investigation and forced the police to investigate, too.) Citizens have responded by taping blue buckets to their car roofs, and the Duma is now looking at a legislative proposal to make siren rules, and penalties, more stringent.

“FAR has been one of the more sustainable groups compared to a lot of others in Russia,” says an observer with a Western NGO who did not want to be identified because of the suspicion with which Russian authorities view such groups. He added that FAR’s longevity is doubly impressive in a landscape left bare by the 1990s generation of activists, who, facing an unfriendly terrain and Kremlin pressure, moved on to other pursuits without passing down their institutional knowledge and skills to the next generation.

So if civil society doesn’t exist in Russia, how does FAR get the results it does? Part of the answer lies in the narrowness — and practical concreteness — of its focus. FAR and its various constituents are not going after broad abstract rights like freedom of assembly, or even after additional bread-and-butter issues, such as housing or miserly government pensions. FAR is about the rights of car owners and the rights of car owners only: the right not to have to pay bribes to policemen, the right to keep sticker prices down instead of feeding corrupt customs officials, the right to road safety, and so on. To that end, FAR distributes car decals that warn traffic cops against asking for bribes. It also hands out the number of a hotline to a lawyer in case you get stopped by a bad cop.

These vaguely libertarian, populist demands resonate strongly because they are the only things Russians are guaranteed under the current political arrangement. In the last 10 years, the Kremlin has formed an unspoken agreement with its subjects: We don’t interfere in your daily business if you don’t interfere in ours. And it has worked. A recent poll showed that 62 percent of Russians try to avoid any contact with the government, and 85 percent of those polled think they have zero impact on policy decisions.

On top of that, FAR has found a soil rich in discontent. Russians don’t much want to assemble freely, but they do love their cars. Due largely to the pent-up consumer desires born of the Soviet era’s acute shortages, the car has become the American dream on steroids: part vital lifeline in a sprawling country with bad infrastructure, even bigger part status symbol, as Foreign Policy contributing editor David Hoffman described in his book The Oligarchs. This is also why many of the large protests across Russia in the last three months have been inspired in part by things like import duties that make foreign cars unaffordable (a new car imported into Russia is marked up more than 70 percent) even as domestic brands remain uncompetitive — and undriveable. And the regular trickle of news about officials abusing their blue sirens or policemen using people as a human shield on a road to stop a speeding criminal is particularly disturbing.

Unlike other groups, FAR’s narrow focus has also helped it avoid a government crackdown, the other critical element to its success. TIGR, a similar automotive-rights group in Vladivostok that led the large protests there in the winter of 2008-2009, had some early victories until it made a fatal mistake: It tried to branch out horizontally by including other interest groups, like those concerned with housing and pensions. In a freer system, this would’ve been a prudent move. But in Russia it instantly made the group too powerful, and the Kremlin quickly began sabotaging it. FAR’s lack of overt political calculation also makes it a safer bet for its supporters. “As long as we’re apolitical, people are interested,” says Klepikov.

FAR also cuts a clear contrast to the liberal opposition being actively blackmailed in Moscow. The young, urban intellectuals targeted in last month’s smear campaign work in the best traditions of the Russian opposition: vague, disorganized, overeducated, and ineffectual. FAR, on the other hand, is populated by up-by-the-bootstraps characters — Kanaev is a former businessman — who are gruff, ineloquent, and inexperienced at talking to the media (FAR’s website asks supporters to contribute contact information to a database of local and national media outlets). And because it was first organized locally around a bouquet of sensitive, relevant issues, FAR attracts a broad swath of the Russian population: Its website lists more than 80,000 supporters all over the country. A March 20 rally in Moscow attracted up to 1,000 people who looked far less homogeneous than a group of opposition protesters across town. There were old people, young people, rich people, poor people, and middle-class people milling about silently on the rainy embankment. Even the libertarians and the local garbage collectors showed up to vent.

In today’s Russia, FAR’s methods seem to be the ideal way for Russian citizens to lobby their government, says political analyst Sam Greene, who works on issues of civil democracy at the Carnegie Moscow Center. FAR helps Russians address personal concerns that would normally be solved on a personal level, between the complainant and a bureaucrat. “The Russian government doesn’t relate to its citizens on a policy level,” Greene says. Instead it bypasses the consultative process and makes impulsive decisions, unless someone pushes back hard enough. And because there is no mechanism for compromise, the system can only back down. So that’s what FAR does: It pushes back on specific, concrete initiatives until the government backs down, as it did in the case of import duties and Japanese imports.

Although FAR represents the civic vibrancy of a pretty effective movement, says Greene, “I wouldn’t hold out hope that it will bring democracy. If you’re hoping for a sea change, you need the kind of horizontal linkages that TIGR was trying to pursue.”

But Russia doesn’t do sea change; it does revolutions. So, while we wait for the next one, the FAR model — narrowly focused, local, and severely practical — is probably Russians’ best chance of participating in the way they are governed, or, at least, of clearing up a stoppage in the thoroughfare.

Jump-Starting Russia’s Protest Movement [Foreign Policy]

Crime and Excessive Punishment

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, has been in court for so long that only the hardy, like the wall-eyed man haunting the courthouse in a Che Guevara-style Khodorkovsky t-shirt and the “Free Khodorkovsky” plastic shopping bag, have dared to follow his case. “I’ve spent seven years this way,” says Marina Khodorkovsky, the ex-tycoon’s mother, a bright-eyed former metals engineer. First, there was the year and a half of legal proceedings after her son’s dramatic October 2003 arrest, when special forces stormed his private jet in Siberia. That culminated in a 600-something-page guilty verdict that took the judge fifteen days to read aloud from the bench. Khodorkovsky was then sentenced to a nine year lockup and taken to a Siberian prison, where he was attacked in his sleep for allegedly sexually harassing his cellmate. Then, as talk started to turn to his possible parole and even release in the fall of 2011, the state Prosecutor General slapped Khodorkovsky with charges of stealing 350 million tons of oil and more charges of money laundering and embezzlement, these carrying a sentence of over 20 years.

The moon-faced, salt-haired 46-year-old—Russia’s most famous political prisoner—has lived through a tectonic reversal of fortune. Once a reviled robber baron who made billions in the banking and energy sectors during the lawless ’90s and who went to jail for only partly political reasons, Khodorkovsky has become a martyr and a fundamental pillar of the liberal anti-Putin establishment: the very people who once hated him.

Monday, after prosecutors finished the year-long process of reading their indictment into the record and trotting out ambivalent witnesses, Khodorkovsky was finally allowed to speak in his own defense. The courtroom stirred. It was stuffed beyond capacity, which the Kalashnikov-toting special forces made sure to reduce. People were hanging off of bench corners and sitting in each other’s laps. (A colleague joked that he was “sitting in a fat man.”) It was an older crowd of family and supporters from the Russian opposition. In the best of Russian traditions, some of them brought flowers for the defense team. Outside, the overflow grandmothers kept out of the courtroom soon began to yell at the guards that the simulcast in the simulcast room wasn’t working. A handful of Khodorkovsky lawyers and public relations specialists flitted about the courthouse, which looks like a dilapidated Stalin-era schoolhouse full of peeling ochre linoleum.

It was the last day of Passover, and Khodorkovsky, who is Jewish, decided to make the day an instructive—and festive—one. “Oil, your honor, is a liquid,” a calm Khodorkovsky began from his fish tank, a bulletproof glass-and-metal cage he shares with his co-defendant and former business partner, Platon Lebedev, who appeared, as always, in his signature black Adidas tracksuit. Given that premise, Khodorkovsky wondered aloud, how could anyone steal 350 million tons of oil?

And that’s when his lawyer, Vadim Klyuvgant, reached under his desk and placed a three-liter bottle of crude on the defense table. With its gold and black layers, it looked like separated balsamic vinaigrette and smelled like a gas station.

Khodorkovsky summoned Klyuvgant to the cage, accepted from him a pink piece of paper, and explained that they had just performed an oil trade wherein Khodorkovsky now owned the oil, which remained physically with Klyuvgant. So how could Khodorkovsky steal oil that he did not physically have?

The rhetorical exercise was lost on the presiding Judge Danilkin, who declined Khodorkovsky’s motion to perform an experiment to steal massive volumes of liquid. “Get that flammable substance out of here!” he screamed. “You don’t have any gasoline in there, do you?!” The courtroom erupted in laughter. “I don’t see anything funny about this,” Danilkin shouted at them.

The oil was removed and, after a brief recess, replaced with water, “which, I hope, will not offend anyone,” Khodorkovsky said. It didn’t, but any sense—if any existed—that this was a court of law and a place of serious business was irreparably broken. For the next five hours, Khodorkovsky coolly, quietly argued his case: how did I steal more oil than my company produced, while simultaneously transporting, delivering, and earning profits on it? And how in the world could I just take 350 million tons of oil and what could I possibly do with them? And where are the documents that prove I had personally done this? To all the nodding gray heads in the courtroom, they seemed to be very reasonable questions.

In a steady drone, Khodorkovsky read from a long stack of printed pages. At one point he whipped out slides showing tangles of oil pipelines and oil transport schemes, which consternated the prosecution: were pictures allowed? They were, as was Khodorkovsky’s laser pointer, which ricocheted off the bullet-proof glass. Khodorkovsky, as if lecturing a classroom, didn’t seem to notice. He wove in and out of abstruse technical detail and said he was the only one qualified to give it. “You’re dealing with an expert in this field,” he said, noting that he had been doing this for over 20 years since graduating from a Moscow oil institute “with excellent grades.” He dove into legal jargon and obscure citations, calmly berating the prosecutor Valery Lakhtin whenever he interrupted him. “If he’s going to keep interrupting me, he may as well make an objection,” Khodorkovsky said. And the judge, when he wasn’t laughing or rolling his eyes at the defense team, often helped. Sometimes he told Lakhtin which rule he should cite.

Next to Khodorkovsky, Lebedev listened and took notes, and looked mostly like a spare in a dugout: feet up, haunches drawn, smacking his gum with a double-jointed jaw. Periodically, he would indulge in an outburst, like when the judge announced yet another recess. Lebedev jumped from the bench and shouted into the microphone, “What recess! This is just how you stall!” The judge disregarded him, so Lebedev called to his lawyer. “Lena!” he screamed. “My Talmud!”

Khodorkovsky‘s point, it seemed, was to explain in emotionally empty, hyper-rational terms—and with the counterweight of Lebedev’s grimacing mockery—that the prosecution’s case was “politically motivated” and “bogus,” and that its arguments amounted to “legal schizophrenia.” “I would call it a tragifarce,” one of Khodorkovsky’s lawyers told me outside the courtroom. “It was important not just to put forward these motions, but to show that there was no reasonable answer to them. We understood this perfectly—they have nothing to say.”

And Khodorkovsky has the megaphone to tell the world whatever he wants. Much of his wealth is gone and his family has been notched far below their prior opulence, but he still has a press center, lawyers to spare, and several PR agencies around the world working to make sure reporters keep writing about the story, that Russian and Western newspapers keep publishing his political manifestoes, and that dissidents, pro-democracy advocates, and President Barack Obama keep Khodorkovsky’s plight in mind. Even actor Richard Schiff, who played Toby on “The West Wing,” has taken up the cause, visiting Moscow to spend time with Khodorkovsky’s defense team.

In trying to improve his public profile while shining a spotlight on the incompetent, corrupt, and politically motivated Russian judicial system, Khodorkovsky and his supporters are hoping to fast track his case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which can then put some pressure on the Kremlin. It is classic Khodorkovsky: a consummate government insider during perestroika and the Yeltsin era, Khodorkovsky used his knowledge of the system’s wiring to make it work for him. Now, he is using his knowledge of the Putin regime to free himself, or, if he can’t do that, further discredit the man who destroyed his life. (In 2005, for example, he decided to run for the Russian parliament to take advantage of a legal loophole: convicts can’t run, but his case was on appeal, so he wasn’t yet technically a felon yet. Then, as a member of parliament, he could snuggle up in his legal immunity and forget the uranium mines of Siberia.)

And Monday Khodorkovsky showed, once again, that he hasn’t lost his operator’s touch. It’s a talent he’ll need to keep fighting the decidedly vague, odd charges against him—charges no one, including his mother, thinks he has much of a chance of defeating.

And if he loses?

“Keep fighting,” she says. “The Exodus took 40 years.”

Crime and Excessive Punishment [TNR]