Leonid Nikitinsky: Ex-president Talantov and his ‘successors’ [Novaya gazeta]

29 May 2024

By Leonid Nikitinsky

The disruption of the conference of the Udmurtia Bar Association gives reason to think about what is happening in the legal community as a whole

Source: Novaya gazeta


In the Zavyalovsky district court in Udmurtia, because of the delay in “delivery” of the defendant Talantov, his wife Olya, lawyer Pavel Biyanov and I had to wait for twenty minutes in the hall. A couple of metres away from me, an ordinary-looking man was quietly waiting for something. I didn’t really look at him until two police officers in black came in, the man readily stretched out his hands, and one of the two snapped handcuffs on them. With the second pair he secured the man to him and led him into the adjoining court room where he was being tried.

It’s all kind of homely. The defence believes that Talantov was lucky the trial is taking place here: it took us half an hour to get to the village of Zavyalovo from the capital of Udmurtia, but this is not Izhevsk and still less Moscow or Petersburg. It was from his dacha in Zavyalovo that Dmitry Talantov wrote on the banned Facebook* in April 2022 those criminal anti-war posts for which he – ex-president of the Udmurtia Bar Association – is now on trial. Biyanov was afraid that if the trial was held in Izhevsk, the lawyers who support the ex-president would fill the court room, start raging and only annoy the judge in vain.

But he was wrong to fear that. As soon as Talantov was detained on 28 June 2022 in Izhevsk and sent to Moscow, local lawyers mostly lost all interest in him. Only his wife, who, however, is also a lawyer, steadily attends the trial, not counting the defence counsel. Olya is slim, wears thick-lensed glasses and is twenty years younger than her husband. Touchingly, she is not shy to talk about her love for him. They registered their marriage after Talantov had been detained.

No one in the Zavyalovsky court room wishes Talantov any ill. The convoy officers do not prevent him from hugging Olya through the bars of the cage during a break, I was also given five minutes to talk to him after the short hearing was over. Udmurtia in general is a small region and its legal world is small, and every dog knows Talantov.

The wife of the public prosecutor, as Biyanov confided to me, is the daughter of his longtime close friend. She worked for Talantov as a secretary, and her father is a longtime member of the qualifications commission of the bar association.

So what? This does not prevent the prosecutor from insisting on the application of the second part of Article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code, citing “use of official position” (point “a”) as an aggravating circumstance? What has “official position” got to do with Facebook?… Well, what should they do with him now – let him go? However, for the sake of solidity they added, separately, the standard charges under paragraph “e” – ‘motivated by political hatred’-  and Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code – incitement to hatred.

As I learned from Talantov’s altercation with the prosecutor during a break (the convoy officers did not interfere with the discussion), the judge, closing the hearing last Wednesday, said: “You do realize that in the Great Patriotic War you would have just been shot?” Talantov was terribly offended by this. He had no need, it seems to me. This judge was not saying this to him, he was saying it to himself – to strengthen himself in the consciousness of his own patriotic rightness. Otherwise, how could he sleep at night?

During two years of imprisonment, including the last one and a half years spent in solitary confinement (in the pre-trial detention centre they also allowed this as a concession – he prefers it that way), Talantov has never ceased to play the role of president of the bar association, a legal eminence known not only to his colleagues in Udmurtia, but to the entire legal community of the country.

He speaks from his cage in the courtroom as if from some other, peaceful time, in which his words about legality and conscience still had some meaning that was more or less recognized by everyone.

Talantov wasn’t out to pick fights with anyone. Olya thinks that he simply was unwilling to make adjustments for how things are nowadays and overestimated himself as a legal expert who had triumphed in many trials. There’s a freedom of speech clause in the Constitution, isn’t there?! Now prove it from the courtroom cage….

Biyanov believes no one would have paid any attention to these unfortunate posts (which we will not risk reproducing here) if it were not for another circumstance. Ivan Pavlov**, a St. Petersburg lawyer forced to leave Russia with his two dogs because of the threat of criminal prosecution in September 2021, asked Talantov to replace him as defence counsel in the secrecy prosecution brought against the journalist Ivan Safronov. Having agreed, Talantov became the object of close attention by the FSB, and from then on one had to choose carefully between either Safronov or Facebook.

However, this is merely an introduction. What I want to say here is about what is happening to the legal profession – in Udmurtia and generally.

***

On 17 May, the Udmurtia bar association held its annual conference in Izhevsk—178 delegates elected primarily from its 700 members. Opening the conference was Liudmila Lyamina, Talantov’s former deputy, who replaced him as president in 2023. She proposed proceeding immediately to the agenda approved by the Bar Association Council in early April, passing over the question of electing someone to chair the conference and the returning board. Lyamina herself walked down the rows taking a headcount of the attorneys for a quorum. But something there didn’t quite check out, and some of the honorable assembly left the hall in protest against the way the conference had been organized (we will examine the “opposition’s” argument a little later)—and so the conference was disrupted.

After receiving news of the rebellion, our office okayed a trip to Izhevsk and called Lyamina a day before our departure. She graciously agreed to talk but later texted me that she was, unfortunately, busy during those days. It happens. I asked her, in that case, to designate one of her deputies or council members to present their general position. The president promised to think about it and has been thinking about it ever since. For the two days I was in Izhevsk she simply turned off her phone.

Now a little more detail about what put the “opposition” on its guard. I have no sources of information other than from inside the opposition itself, but that is the fault of the bar association’s leadership, not mine. Meanwhile, the schismatics have authenticated their stories with documents and references to the association’s website: the leadership evidently explained its refusal to meet by saying that it would be extremely difficult to refute the opposition’s arguments.

Above all, by its decision the council deprived ordinary attorneys of the opportunity to add to the conference schedule and change the order in which issues were considered. The first attempt to begin a discussion of the agenda failed by an insignificant majority of votes anyway, and the council secured that majority for itself in not entirely good faith.

The council’s charter notwithstanding, the council decided that members of the council and the qualifications and revisions commissions would be conference delegates by reason of their positions above and beyond the elected delegates. There were 23 such voting “officials,” which guaranteed the needed results of any vote.

Meanwhile, substantive changes were made for the conference in the charter and a number of other internal council documents.

The text of these complicated amendments was published without an explanatory note, incoherently, and without a table for comparison, while the charter’s old version for some reason would no longer open. . . .

It took me a quarter-hour to make my way down crooked and green Rodnikova Street from my hotel to the office the bar association leases. This rather spacious building with lots of rooms was acquired twenty years ago by Talantov, who even then had sufficient connections, but in all those years it never was bought, and now the association is threatened with eviction in connection with privatization and the lease’s expiration. Down below in a gully, frogs croak incessantly, as if burning to tell me what the president was unwilling to say.

There’s not a soul in the offices except for the office manager, Svetlana Vladimirovna, who speaks to me extremely graciously, although she seems not to have been forewarned about my arrival in Izhevsk. “So, Svetlana Vladimirovna, are the vice-presidents not here either?” “Unfortunately not.” “What about any council members?” “They are probably all in trials, they are practicing attorneys. . . .”

Ah, with that last explanation she spoiled the whole impression. That’s the point. The association’s leaders, the “opposition” believes, have long since ceased to be practicing attorneys (if they had ever been that) to become Bar officials. How is it that every last one of them was in court that day?

***

Due to the impossibility of reflecting the position of the association’s leadership, I can only ask here the same questions that would have been posed at the conference by the “opposition” attorneys—had they been given the chance to do so.

The council’s 2024 personnel list presented to the delegates (there is none on the site for last year) provides for these positions: a president, with a salary of 80,000 rubles a month and an annual bonus of 150% of salary; a first vice-president and two ordinary vice-presidents, with salaries, respectively, of 65,000, 60,000 and 50,000 rubles and an analogous annual bonus; the chairs and secretaries of the qualifications commission—45,000 and 40,000 rubles; and there are also assistants and technical personnel, office managers, and bookkeeping—for a total of 770,000 rubles.

“Opposition” attorneys, who pay (as do loyal members) 24,000 rubles a year (which comes to 15,840,000, not counting entrance fees and other dues), have learned that last year the earnings of the association’s leaders substantially exceeded their salaries (for Izhevsk already quite decent) for performing not always transparent work on one-time agreements. The “opposition” also wonders why it is council members who are constantly going to Moscow and other cities to do course work when they don’t use their new knowledge in attorney practice, and isn’t a lot of money spent on banquets, and so on.

And aren’t there rather too many bosses as such? Maybe it’s the right number, but it would be interesting to know this, and publicly no one is offering this information to ordinary members of the bar association (I’m holding my tongue).

Besides the questions not asked at the conference, I would ask Lyamina and her “vice” (there’s no one else to ask) who in recent years has been filling out the ranks of attorneys paying an entrance fee of 110,000 rubles. Olga Talantova told me about coming to the canceled conference and seeing in the hall a vaguely familiar face—yes! . . . It was the investigator she had wrangled with just a month before over a certain case, and here he was already not just an attorney but an elected delegate to the conference. It’s easier for the association’s leadership to work with Bar neophytes. They don’t ask extra questions and most often work on cases “by appointment.”

A prosperous client chooses their attorney like goods in a shop, but Udmurtia is a small entity, and there is hardly enough contract work here for 660 people.

Since supply exceeds demand, a substantial part of the market is made up by so-called article 51—a provision of the Criminal Procedural Code that offers defendants “appointed attorneys.” Their work is paid for out of the state budget—perhaps not as generously, but reliably. Udmurtia’s chamber, like most others, has a computer program that is supposed to divide up this pie equally. The “opposition” believes that the program, which they have not been allowed to examine, operates strangely: some members of the bar association get “appointments” three or four times more often than others.

On the whole, the problems here are the same that have arisen among attorneys in other regions as well. The scale of the scandal in the Udmurtia bar association is less than it was, for example, in the Bashkir association in the years 2017–2020 (see my publication in No. 63, June 2019) or now in St. Petersburg’s association. Vyacheslav Tenishev, the new, recently elected president of the St. Petersburg association, just posted on YouTube a speech to his colleagues in which, without naming names, he talked about similar abuses revealed by the “new broom.” There, the positions of nine vice-presidents alone were cut, contracts were broken worth 4.5 million rubles, replaced by one for 300,000 a year. They were able to save a million just by canceling leases for cars with drivers.

Actually, we have known about these and other details for a couple of years, but I did not delve into the Petersburg swamp. I’m reluctant to raise a hand against attorneys, perhaps the only allies journalists have left in the “law enforcement” sphere. But there are genuine attorneys and there are pseudo-attorneys (as there are pseudo-journalists), and the latter are becoming more and more numerous, therefore it’s impossible to pretend that nothing like this is happening.

***     

First of all, the council by its decision deprived ordinary lawyers of the opportunity to supplement the agenda of the conference and change the order of consideration of topics. The first attempt to start discussion of the agenda failed to pass by a small majority. However, the council’s actions were not wholly in good faith.

Contrary to the association’s charter, the council established that members of the council, qualification and audit commissions would become ex officio delegates to the conference in addition to the elected delegates – there were 23 such voting “bosses”, which guaranteed the necessary results in any vote.

In the meantime, the conference proposed significant amendments to the charter and a number of the association’s other internal documents.

The texts of these complex amendments were published without an explanatory note, piecemeal and without any comparative table, and the old version of the charter, available online, stopped opening for some reason….

It took me about 15 minutes to walk from the hotel to the office which the association rents, down the crooked green Rodnikova Street. The offices are rather spacious, with many rooms, and their use had been obtained twenty years ago through Talantov’s efforts, who already then had good connections. But over the years the association never bought the premises, and now the association is threatened with eviction due to privatization and the expiration of the lease. Down in the gully, the frogs are croaking, as if eager to tell me what the president has been unwilling to say.

There is not a soul in the room, except for the office manager, Svetlana Vladimirovna, who speaks to me extremely kindly, although she seems to have been unaware of my arrival in Izhevsk. “Why, Svetlana Vladimirovna, are the vice-presidents not here either?” – “Alas, no.” – “And none of the council members?” – “Probably, they’re all in the courts, they’re practicing lawyers….”

But with this last explanation she rather spoiled her story. The thing is that the bar association’s leaders, as the “opposition” believes, have long since ceased being practicing lawyers (if they were really ever such) and become full-time officials. How come they were all busy in court on that day?

[…]


Translated by Marian Schwartz and Simon Cosgrove

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