25 January 2021
By Zoya Svetova
Hi, my name is Zoya Svetova. I am a columnist for MBK Media and I have been writing about Russian justice for twenty years, as long as Vladimir Putin has been in power.
I remember well the morning headlines and comments of political experts on 26th of October 2003, the morning after the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky on the plane that landed in Novosibirsk. Then the famous Russian armchair experts spoke and wrote about the same thing: “Today we woke up in another country.”
The detention and subsequent arrest of the top manager of the Yukos oil company, a man whose fortune was then estimated at $15 billion, was not just like a bomb explosion, but resembled a small end of the world in a single country. It marked the beginning of the gradual and final degradation of the Russian judicial system.
The main feeling of that moment was that if even the richest person in Russia can be arrested on dubious charges, anyone can be.
Charged with an economic crime, the best Russian lawyers were involved in the case. The background was political. The arrest warrant came from the very top.
The result: two trials, 14 years in prison for Khodorkovsky and his colleague Platon Lebedev, chair of the board of directors of Menatep Bank, arrests and sentences for Yukos employees and the destruction of the company. Since then, “economic” cases against businessmen and entrepreneurs have become routine, Article 159 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“fraud”) has become a tool for settling scores between partners. And a rich source for investigators, prosecutors and jailers who have learned to “milk” the persons involved in such cases in prisons.
Ten years later, Putin pardoned Khodorkovsky. He pardoned him when he felt that his opponent had already served enough time. Putin, of course, perceived Khodorkovsky as an opponent, as a person who encroached on his power (after all, he financially supported various parliamentary parties and publicly advocated a parliamentary republic). The pardoning of Khodorkovsky, as we now know, was made possible thanks to the former German Deputy Chancellor Genscher who negotiated with Putin on this topic for some time.
During his ten years in captivity, Mikhail Khodorkovsky went from being Russia’s richest man to Putin’s number one political prisoner.
On 17th of January 2021 opposition politician Aleksei Navalny was detained at Sheremetyevo Airport.
This is a completely different story, although it is impossible not to compare them.
One striking difference was that on 18th January 2021 none of the publicists and political experts wrote that “we woke up in another country.” Since 2003, there have already been so many “other countries” that in fact that country and the justice that was conceived in the 90s has sunk and disappeared many times.
The judicial hearing that remanded Navalny in custody, conducted at a police station for the first time in modern Russian history, showed that the judicial “troikas” and tribunals can be not far ahead of us. And then, perhaps the Olga Egorova’s “Bassmany justice” (the term Basmanny justice was first used by Mikhail Khodorkovsky to describe the court in which he was tried, the complete subjugation of the judiciary to the will of the regime, which had happened under Egorova, then chair of Moscow City Court – translator’s note) will appear to be the highest of justice.
What are the similarities and differences between Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003 and Aleksei Navalny in 2021? I repeat, Khodorkovsky, when he was put in prison, was neither the main opposition politician in Russia, nor the number one enemy for Vladimir Putin. Aleksei Navalny is now the main opposition politician and Putin’s number one enemy.
He is far more popular with the Russian people than Khodorkovsky was in 2003. As an oligarch who grew rich off the 1990s, Khodorkovsky was more disliked than popular back then. He was a man disliked by both civil society and the people.
But there is one thing that unites them. After attending Khodorkovsky and Lebedev’s trial, the journalist Ksenia Sokolova wrote in her article that the men sitting in the glass dock definitely “had balls”. Someone recently wrote something similar about Navalny.
Yes, Khodorkovsky and Navalny are both extremely brave and courageous people. In that, they are alike.
I mean, Khodorkovsky returned from America two months before his arrest, although he was strongly discouraged from coming back. Now he says that he could not have done otherwise, because sitting it out abroad while his former Yukos colleagues and employees sat in prison was just not an option.
Aleksei Navalny returned to Russia after being poisoned, knowing that he would be arrested. There was a third politician who returned to Russia from abroad, despite his possible arrest and the danger to his life. This was Boris Nemtsov. He returned – and was murdered.
It is obvious to me that, in 2021 just like in 2003, the authorities, Putin and his entourage, the “mafia” (both with quotation marks and without), they had all had enough and decided to put Navalny in prison for real.
I think the situation is developing in the same way as it did for Khodorkovsky. It is not a coincidence that Navalny was put in Pre-Trial Detention Centre No. 99/1, the so-called “Kremlin Central”.
Khodorkovsky spent about four years there, on and off; and Vladimir Barsukov-Kumarin was there for seven or eight, the so-called “night governor of St. Petersburg” who was not a complete stranger to Putin. He was someone who knew him well, in fact – ever since the days of Anatoly Sobchak.
I think that “Kremlin Central” is a kind of prison for Putin’s personal enemies. And that is exactly where Navalny has ended up.
The Moscow courts, which are no longer under the leadership of Olga Egorova (who resigned and became an advisor to Mayor Sobyanin) but the new chairperson of Moscow City Court Mikhail Ptitsyn, will decide on a lengthy sentence for Navalny.
Will Navalny sit in prison for ten years like Khodorkovsky did? I’m certain he won’t. Where is this certainty coming from? From nowhere. It’s just intuition. And possibly hope.
Russia is not the same country that it was in 2003. The justice system is nowhere to be found, but there are now other realities. Civil society, for example. And most importantly: a new generation has grown up that was born free. A generation raised on Navalny’s investigative films. A generation that lives on YouTube.
My hopes are on them, on this new generation. What else can I do? I, a journalist who has spent twenty years writing about a Russian justice system that does not exist?
I really liked Olga Romanova’s comment on her Facebook page: “Everything has accelerated noticeably. ‘This train is on fire’, as my old comrades sang on the eve of 1991.”
This article is taken from MBKh Media’s mailout. Every Saturday, an editorial staff member sends out a letter about something that has worried, surprised, upset, delighted, or seemed important to them. You can subscribe to it here.