Getting Russians to agree on things is a bit like herding cats. Yet I think it’s fairly safe to say that most Russians hate cops and judges - a phenomenon directly responsible for the fact that criminal culture continues to endure, methinks.
There are many historic and political reasons as to why both law enforcement and the courts have so little moral authority in Russia today. The real question is - what’s to be done about them?
Perhaps one of the better things to have come out of Russia’s renewed protest movement is Russia Behind Bars, an organization dedicated to the rights of prisoners and their families. Headed by Olga Romanova, a journalist who saw her businessman husband jailed, released, and then jailed again, Russia Behind Bars takes a practical approach to concrete problems.
Romanova’s critics have sought to discredit her by pointing out that she is a pampered member of Moscow’s elite, and as such, could never possibly connect with ordinary prisoners and their families. But anyone who has interacted with Romanova, knows that she is no elitist and her approach to judicial reform in Russia is holistic - she has often used the example of Charles de Gaulle, who apparently spent a long time monitoring how the judicial system in France operated before firing the key people that, he had determined, stood in the way of fairer, more transparent courts.
Romanova recognizes that the real problem with Russia’s criminal justice system is a lack of accountability - officials within this system are not held accountable before the people, but before each other. A judge will issue guilty verdicts simply so as to not spoil the delicate relationship the courts have with the prosecutors, and not mess up conviction statistics. General lawlessness, of course, also plays a part in all of this - but it’s not as if judges can’t follow rules, they can. It’s just that the rules were designed long ago, in the USSR, and no longer apply.
Romanova’s work is important, because people’s frustration with the criminal justice system is bound to boil over. Already, there was an ugly incident in which a judge that extended the arrest of members of Pussy Riot, the punk rock group, was threatened by some axe-wielding maniac. In a different society, such an act would have probably resulted in immediate sympathy for the judge. But all I’ve heard about the debacle since it happened was: “Well, what do [the judges] expect? Everyone hates them!”
Judges themselves are often bewildered by the amount of vitriol they encounter - you can see as much reflected in interviews with Olga Yegorova, the head of the Moscow City Court. A powerful figure, possibly one of the most powerful people in Moscow, Yegorova appears to be genuinely perplexed by the anger brewing in the Russian capital and elsewhere.
When Yegorova gave comments about a notorious case in which Natalia Gulevich, an entrepreneur slowly dying in pre-trial detention, was given a ridiculously high bail amount to make, she (Yegorova) said that it was understandable that the bail was set so high - after all, Gulevich had stolen a lot of money. An outraged response followed - based on Yegorova’s comments, it became obvious that presumption of innocence in this case was nonexistent. I don’t believe Yegorova expected such a response - to her, it seemed crystal-clear that Gulevich should remain in detention or pay up, anything less would damage the authority of the court or else have the presiding judge accused of having taken a bribe from Gulevich or her supporters.
But even the latter scenario presupposes that judges must ultimately be so strict as to be mortally feared, and authority that is based on fear has an expiration date.
I think lack of real authority is directly responsible for how much attention criminal culture gets in Russia - for how popular the shanson music genre remains, and how frequently gruesome crimes, in all of their awful detail, are discussed on the news. After all, the only remaining counterweight to a serious judicial reform is the high crime rate.
Yet if the issue of local politics continue to dominate and accountability among officials continues to remain a concern, judicial reform will be the only way forward. People are just too angry. They don’t have to be opposition-minded, or even remotely interested in politics, to see that not all is right with the justice system. I was reminded of this when I sat down next to an old man poring over the latest newspaper report on some awful crime or other on a park bench.
“Horrifying, yes!” He said when his eyes met mine. “Too bad nobody will really get to the bottom of this crime!”
“Why not?” I asked him.
“They don’t care,” he said grandly, and took a swig of something that may or may not have been moonshine from a thermos. “There is no law. There’s only keeping up appearances.”
There is good news occasionally, though. Anatoly Ryabov, a famous music teacher accused of pedophilia in a case plagued by inconsistencies, was just handed down a rare "not guilty" verdict, for example. The trial, I must note, was by jury.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the deputy editor of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.