19 June 2021
by Vera Vasilieva, independent journalist, leader of Radio Svoboda’s project Svoboda and Memorial, winner of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize
As of June 19, it will have been 18 years since Aleksei Pichugin was arrested. Memorial Human Rights Centre (forcibly added by the government to the “foreign agents” list) and several other human-rights organizations consider Pichugin to be a political prisoner, and the European Court of Human Rights ruled twice that the principles of the due process of law were violated against the former security department manager at the oil company Yukos. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has repeatedly demanded that the Russian authorities release Pichugin.
18 years — that’s the age of a legal adult. An entire generation has grown up in the years Aleksei has spent in prison. Life has changed to the point of being unrecognizable, not only in socio-political terms, but also in technological terms, in terms of our everyday lives. Instagram, Facebook, and iPhones have become regular parts of our lives… I sometimes find myself at a loss when trying to describe in letters to Aleksei things that are quite routine that he’s never seen before.
Evgenia Ginzburg, writer and political prisoner of Stalin’s Gulag, spent 18 years in prison. According to Evgenia Solomonovna’s recollections, she lived a life of fear after being released from prison. Pichugin surpassed the Count of Monte Cristo four years ago. But we can get an idea of Aleksei’s character from those who are in regular contact with him, and unlike the Count, he would never think to spend the rest of his life seeking revenge. This is apparently difficult for those persecuting him to understand, driven as they are by very different feelings and motives.
It was the Pichugin case that started the collapse of YUKOS, although probably at first even the members of the disgraced oil company didn’t quite realize that this would be such a big story, that the attack was on a global scale. But what happened concerns more than just Yukos. And that’s not just because Russia is a country where the images on TV and speeches of government officials show a striving to emphasize, for all to see, the Soviet Union’s contribution in WWII and in the exploration of outer space — while the country is now known for something else entirely. I’m referring here to the well-known concept of “Basmanny justice,” which emerged when the Yukos case took place.
The point is, in my opinion, that our country’s outlook on the world has changed drastically over the past 18 years. After all, the agents of today’s lawlessness are in no way aliens from outer space. No matter how you look at it, our fellow citizens are, among other things, investigators who fabricate criminal cases and judges who rubber-stamp guilty verdicts. We’ve all heard and read many times about “telephone justice” and censorship, and some among us have had experiences with these phenomena personally. But it seems to me that today the courts aren’t always passing unjust verdicts on orders from above. A minuscule amount, less than one percent of acquittals, isn’t due to the fact that the judges were pressured, intimidated, forced, or anything like that… Sometimes it’s some kind of inertia, or a habit, like self-censorship among certain members of the writing community. You already know what to write or what verdict to pass. If someone goes to prison, that means they’re guilty.
When he’s released, Aleksei Pichugin will find himself in a totally new atmosphere. Apart from new technology, there have also been changes to legislature and how it’s enforced in court. Pichugin is no stranger to the judicial system, since the principles and methods of “Basmanny justice,” and the boundaries of what’s permitted, were tested and determined in the Yukos case. Russia has changed in terms of its thinking, its worldview, its social behavior — and these are not positive changes. But to divide the players into the good “us” (who are dissatisfied and suffering) and the bad “them” (who have seized power) doesn’t seem quite right to me. “Why do we allow ourselves to be treated this way?” That’s the key question that I propose everyone who cares about the future ask themselves.
Translated by Nina dePalma