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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Stalin-Putin Justice: The Bukharin-Khodorkovsky Cases

Dec, 12: Vladimir Putin's reply when asked on a national TV call in show about the upcoming Khodorkovsyky verdict: "Thieves should remain in jail."

When the history of Russian justice is written fifty years from now, two landmark court cases will stand out: The death sentence of Nikolai Bukharin in his Moscow show trial of March 1938 and the second prison sentence of Mikhail Khodorkovsky expected December 27, 2010. Both processes teach the same object lesson: anyone who crosses the Kremlin will be punished without mercy. There will be no protection in the courts for the innocent, and the guilty verdict and sentence will be already predetermined behind the Kremlin walls. It also does not matter how preposterous or ludicrous the charges.

Vladimir Putin was born in 1952, only one year before Stalin’s death. But Stalin’s system of justice was institutionalized and survived Stalin and the collapse of the Soviet Union, for use by apt pupils such as Putin. We have intimate knowledge of Stalin’s use of the courts from his many telegrams ordering arrests and trials and dictating the sentence, such as his 1937 authorization to try a group of bakers in open court “with participation of prosecutor and defense, sentence all to death, and publish results in the press.” We lack such records for the Putin regime. We doubt that its sentences are dictated in writing. A safer approach is “telephone justice” whereby the judge is given the sentence by phone.

The weak link in Stalin-Putin justice occurs when the court proceeding is open and the defendant realizes the verdict is set in stone and there is nothing to lose. Nikolai Bukharin was Stalin’s last standing political rival when he was brought before the court accused of murder, assassination plots (including Stalin’s) and espionage for Germany in March of 1938. He had been worked over since his arrest in February. His “confession” was read before the court. In Stalin’s time, death sentences were carried out immediately; Bukharin understood that he had little to lose if he retracted his confession in his final statement. Here is part of what he said in his final statement before Stalin personally censored it for publication in the trial transcripts:

I declare myself politically responsible for the totality of crimes committed by the “Rightist-Trotskyite bloc.” I accept responsibility even for those crimes about which I did not know or about which I did not have the slightest idea. I deny most of all the prosecutor’s charge of belonging to the group, sitting on the court bench with me, because such a group never existed, and it is clear that such a non-existent group cannot be, contrary to the prosecutors’ conclusion, created by the orders of foreign intelligence.

Bukharin’s retraction of his confession sent the judge and prosecutor into a frenzy. They knew that failure could put them in the dock along with Bukharin. They quickly moved to silence him.

Khodorkovsky today stands accused of the ludicrous charge of stealing virtually all of the oil produced by his Yukos oil company. Brave expert witnesses have testified that such a crime was impossible, but Khodorkovsky, like Bukharin, faces an inevitable guilty verdict on December 27. At least he does not face shooting as did Bukharin. Like Bukharin, Khodorkovsky used his “final statement to the court” to tell the audience, including the foreign press, that his conviction has been ordered by the Kremlin and what it means for the justice system. I attach (with some deletions) his eloquent final statement to the court:

I can recall October 2003. My last day as a free man. Several weeks after my arrest, I was informed that president Putin had decided: I was going to have to “slurp gruel” for 8 years. It was hard to believe that back then. Seven years have gone by already since that day. Seven years – quite a long stretch of time, and all the more so – when you’ve spent it in jail. All of us have had time to reassess and rethink many things. Judging by the prosecutors’ presentation: “give them 14 years” and “spit on previous court decisions”, over these years they have begun to fear me more, and to respect the law – even less.

Nobody is seriously waiting for an admission of guilt from me. It is hardly likely that somebody today would believe me if I were to say that I really did steal all the oil produced by my company. But neither does anybody believe that an acquittal in the YUKOS case is possible in a Moscow court.

I remember the end of the last decade and the beginning of the current one. By then I was 35. We were building the best oil company in Russia. We were putting up sports complexes and cultural centers, laying roads, and resurveying and developing dozens of new fields. In short, – we were doing all those things that Rosneft, which has taken possession of Yukos, is so proud of today. We felt hope that the period of convulsions and unrest – was behind us at last, and that, in the conditions of stability that had been achieved with great effort and sacrifice, we would be able to peacefully build ourselves a new life, a great country.

With the coming of a new President (and more than two years have already passed since that time), hope appeared once again for many of my fellow citizens too. Hope that Russia would yet become a modern country with a developed civil society. Free from the arbitrary behavior of officials, free from corruption, free from unfairness and lawlessness. It is clear that this can not happen all by itself, or in one day. But to pretend that we are developing, while in actuality, – we are merely standing in one place or sliding backwards, even if it is behind the cloak of noble conservatism, – is no longer possible. Impossible and simply dangerous for the country.

I am ashamed to see how certain persons – in the past, respected by me – are attempting to justify unchecked bureaucratic behavior and lawlessness. They exchange their reputation for a life of ease, privileges and handouts. It makes me proud to know that even after 7 years of persecutions, not a single one of the thousands of YUKOS employees has agreed to become a false witness, to sell their soul and conscience. Dozens of people have personally experienced threats, have been cut off from family, and have been thrown in jail. Some have been tortured. But, even after losing their health and years of their lives, people have still kept the thing they deemed to be most important, – human dignity.

I think all of us understand perfectly well – the significance of this trial extends far beyond the scope of my fate, and even the fates of all those who have guiltlessly suffered in the course of the sweeping massacre of YUKOS, those I found myself unable to protect, but about whom I remember every day.
Let us ask ourselves: what must be going through the head of the entrepreneur, the high-level organizer of production, or simply any ordinary educated, creative person, looking today at this trial and knowing that its result is absolutely predictable?

The obvious conclusion a thinking person can make is chilling in its stark simplicity: the power bureaucracy can do anything. There is no right of private property ownership. A person who collides with “the system” has no rights whatsoever. Even though they are enshrined in the law, rights are not protected by the courts. Because the courts are either also afraid, or are themselves a part of “the system”. Who is going to modernize the economy? Prosecutors? Policemen? Chekists? We already tried such a modernization – it did not work.

A country that tolerates a situation where the power bureaucracy holds tens and even hundreds of thousands of talented entrepreneurs, managers, and ordinary people in jail in its own interests, instead of and together with criminals, – this is a sick country. I will not be exaggerating if I say that millions of eyes throughout all of Russia and throughout the whole world are watching for the outcome of this trial. They are watching with the hope that Russia will after all become a country of freedom and of the law, where the law will be above the bureaucratic official.
Where supporting opposition parties will cease being a cause for reprisals.
Where the special services will protect the people and the law, and not the bureaucracy from the people and the law. Where human rights will no longer depend on the mood of the tsar. Good or evil.

I am not at all an ideal person, but I am – a person with an idea. For me, as for anybody, it is hard to live in jail, and I do not want to die there. But if I have to – I will not hesitate. The things I believe in are worth dying for. I think I have proven this. And you opponents? What do you believe in? That the bosses are always right? Do you believe in money? In the impunity of “the system”?

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