17 January 2023
The open letter from lawyers in Navalny’s defence is not addressed to the president—it is a call to their guild colleagues
by Leonid Nikitinsky, columnist for Novaya gazeta
Following the doctors, whose letter expressing concern over Aleksei Navalny’s health gathered more than 600 signatures, lawyers have come out in defence of his rights. The letter’s draft was written, with his colleagues’ support, by Viktor Drozdov of St. Petersburg, and at the present time it is posted on a blocked Facebook* and other networks and has gathered about 60 signatures.
Before the early 1990s, Viktor Drozdov served on nuclear submarines, and later worked at the Defence Ministry’s research institute. In the 1990s he was elected deputy to the Leningrad Soviet, but upon completion of his term his institute superiors did not offer him his previous job. He obtained a second higher legal education and participated with Yuri Shmidt and Genri Reznik in the defence of the former submariner and ecologist Aleksandr Nikitin, who was acquitted on an espionage charge in 2000 (at the time such a thing was possible), and then had a varied legal practice.
The lawyers’ open letter is addressed to the president because, as its initiator (who knew Vladimir Putin from St. Petersburg in the 1990s) explained, “We have no idea where authority is located in Russia today.” There’s no point quoting it, since the content is based on generally known standards of the Constitution, but Drozdov makes it clear that the issue affects the rights of all prisoners and, more broadly, all the country’s citizens. Navalny, who is being illegally and inhumanely harassed, emerges here as a symbol of this universal lawlessness.
Simultaneously, the lawyers’ letter poses the question about what is going on in the legal and lawyer communities, if one can even speak of their existence, as well as about the absence of institutionalized platforms where lawyers and members of the legal profession might discuss all this. Meanwhile these kinds of letter are part of the unceasing work to organize such platforms.
Physicians affix their signatures more confidently than do lawyers since they are used to dealing with life and death, that is, with an immediate and strictly defined reality, whereas the laws organize a symbolic reality about which various points of view can be expressed.
Among possessors of legal diplomas today there are quite a few who consider human rights a “Western invention” dangerous for traditional Russian statehood. However, there is not one person to be found who would honestly try to dispute the infringement of Navalny’s rights as they are inscribed in the Constitution and formally effective laws.
The authors and signatories understand full well that today, when the Russian regime no longer concerns itself with public opinion inside the country, let alone on the international level, their letters are scarcely going to change anything in a real way. But if up until that public statement of the issue the attitude toward what is going on remained a matter of conscience, then the call that open letters offer shifts it to the plane of honour: who in fact stands for what in the profession.
In this situation, maintaining silence may be sensible from the standpoint of one’s professional career, but it constitutes disrespect for oneself. Conscience is an intimate matter. How can anyone know who is going to use what smooth arguments to get around it? Honour is always in view, always a kind of wager and duel. At some point this “Hamburg” reckoning, this objective evaluation, may come out into the open.
Translated by Marian Schwartz