Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Power Vertical

The Advocate: Yury Shmidt, 1937-2013

Yury Shmidt "went toe-to-toe with the darkest, most intimidating elements within Russia’s security apparatus and never flinched."
Yury Shmidt "went toe-to-toe with the darkest, most intimidating elements within Russia’s security apparatus and never flinched."
Don't say anybody's name unless you have to. If you do, that person could also be called in for interrogation.

They will take down everything you say, so talk as long as you can about the most banal things possible and let them fill their notebooks up with nonsense.
Those were two of the many useful pieces of advice I remember receiving from attorney Yury Shmidt before being interrogated by the Federal Security Service (FSB) some 14 years ago.
It was January 1999 and I was working as a reporter in St. Petersburg. The story of the moment was the assassination of State Duma Deputy and human rights activist Galina Starovoitova, who was gunned down in the stairwell of her apartment building in the city on November 20, 1998.
The FSB, which showed little interest in solving the crime, had been busy summoning journalists who were close to Starovoitova and pressuring them into giving false and compromising testimony about the slain politician. I got subpoenaed shortly after writing a story about the experience of two such Russian journalists who had endured these interrogations.
I retained Shmidt as an attorney, as much for legal counsel as for advice on how to handle myself once inside the "Bolshoi Dom," or the "Big House," as the St. Petersburg FSB headquarters is known.
The son of two Soviet-era political prisoners and a longtime human rights lawyer, Shmidt knew this territory better than most. In his trademark kindly, wise, and yet no-nonsense style, he gave me a thorough rundown of my rights and obligations as well as an invaluable checklist of dos and don'ts while dealing with the FSB.

When I went into the Big House and handed the officer who would be questioning me a document indicating that I was represented by an attorney, and that attorney was Yury Shmidt, the deflated look on my interrogator's face said it all.
Such was Shmidt's reputation. He, after all, was on the verge of securing the acquittal of ecologist Aleksandr Nikitin, a retired navy captain the FSB had accused of espionage due to his environmental work.

"Why did you go and hire Shmidt?" I remember the officer, who identified himself only as "Colonel Ivanov," saying. "He's just trying to scare you."

From that point on the interrogation was pretty painless. (And no, I didn't mention any names. And yes, I spent a lot of time talking about banal things.)

I recall this old story now for the saddest of reasons. Shmidt died in St. Petersburg this weekend at the age of 75 after a long battle with cancer.
In recent years, Shmidt was most famous as the lead defense attorney for jailed Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He began his career in the 1960s as a criminal attorney. Shmidt wanted to defend political prisoners but due to his family's history was not allowed to.
"My father was imprisoned for 27 years in Soviet times. My mother was in internal exile. My social circle was that of dissidents. My anti-Soviet convictions came very early in my life," he said in a recent interview.
When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Shmidt founded the Lawyers' Committee for the Defense of Human Rights. The Nikitin case, which ended in acquittal in December 1999, secured his reputation as one of Russia's premier defense attorneys.

Some of his other notable cases included the defense of two journalists in Perm accused by the FSB of revealing state secrets in their articles and of Yury Samodurov, director of the Sakharov Museum, on charges of inciting religious hatred. He also represented Starovoitova's family following the lawmaker's assassination.
"To describe this man as a legend in his field would barely do justice to the intelligence, compassion, and courage he displayed on a daily basis, tirelessly working for his beliefs long after it would have been more comfortable to relent and conform," wrote Robert Amsterdam, an attorney who served on Khodorkovsky's international defense team.
"He went toe-to-toe with the darkest, most intimidating elements within Russia’s security apparatus and never flinched."
The last time I saw Shmidt was during a visit to RFE/RL in June 2010. He looked much frailer than I remembered him in the 1990s and he was visibly less animated.
He lamented that the legal profession had become overly commercialized and dominated by big money. When I asked him if there was anybody among Russia's young attorneys who impressed him, he said he had considered Stanislav Markelov, the rights lawyer who was assassinated in January 2009, to be his "spiritual successor" and was deeply troubled by his death.
"There will be somebody," he said. "I don't want to think the situation is so hopeless."

There surely will be somebody. But I doubt there will ever be another like you, Yury Markovich.

-- Brian Whitmore
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Mila from: NYC
January 15, 2013 04:07
Thank you for your great article about Yuri Scmidt. This is the perfect way to celebrate his remarkable life!

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
January 15, 2013 16:01
Does anyone know, by any chance, if Mr. Schmidt pictured above maybe was one of the sons of the legendary Leutenant Schmidt :-))?

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In this space, I will regularly comment on events in Russia, repost content and tweets I find interesting and informative, and shamelessly promote myself (and others, whose work I like). The traditional Power Vertical Blog remains for larger and more developed items. The Podcast, of course, will continue to appear every Friday. I hope you find the new Power Vertical Feed to be a useful resource and welcome your feedback. More

15:34 November 26, 2014


So by now, we've all seen how passengers in Krasnoyarsk had to get out and push their flight out of the snow...

...and we've all seen the snarky Twitter memes this has inspired...

...but have you heard about onboard drunken onboard brawl that grounded a flight in Novosibirsk?

12:41 November 26, 2014


12:33 November 26, 2014


Via The Moscow Times:

A lawmaker on the State Duma's Defense Committee has proposed banning the import of French wines in response to Paris' decision to suspend delivery of the first of two helicopter carriers to Russia.

"Let's ban the sale of French wine in Russia," Deputy Vladimir Bessonov told Russian News Service radio on Tuesday. "Even talking about this can bring about desired results," he said, without specifying what these would be.

France, under pressure from its Western allies to cancel a 1.2 billion euro contract ($1.58 billion) with Russia for Mistral-class warships, said earlier Tuesday that it was suspending delivery of the first of two carriers because of Russia's meddling in eastern Ukraine.


12:21 November 26, 2014
12:20 November 26, 2014


12:18 November 26, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


By RFE/RL's Russian Service

The editor-in-chief of an independent Russian news website says he will seek political asylum in the United States.

Oleg Potapenko told RFE/RL on November 26 that he has arrived in the United States despite efforts by Russian authorities to prevent him from leaving the country.

Potapenko is editor of, a news site in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk that has reported about the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine.

On November 12, the openly gay Potapenko and his partner were prevented from boarding a flight from Khabarovsk to Hong Kong after border guards said a page was missing from Potapenko's passport.

Potapenko says the page was cut out by a police officer who requested his passport for a check earlier that day.

He told RFE/RL that he had managed to leave Russia from another city, Vladivostok, on November 16.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel says Russia's actions in Ukraine are a violation of international law and a threat to peace in Europe.

Speaking bluntly in an address to Germany's parliament on November 26, Merkel said, "Nothing justifies the direct or indirect participation of Russia in the fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk."

She told the Bundestag that Russia's actions have "called the peaceful order in Europe into question and are a violation of international law."

But she suggested there was no swift solution, saying, "Our efforts to overcome this crisis will require patience and staying power."

Germany has become increasingly frustrated over Moscow's refusal to heed Western calls to stop supporting pro-Russian separatists who have seized control of large parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in eastern Ukraine.

Close ties between Russia and Germany have been strained by the Ukraine crisis.

(Based on reporting by Reuters)


Ukraine has leveled fresh charges that Russia is sending military support to pro-Russian separatists in the east.

A foreign ministry spokesman said five columns of heavy equipment were spotted crossing into Ukrainian territory on November 24.

Evhen Perebyinis told journalists on November 25 that a total of 85 vehicles had been detected in the five columns that entered at the Izvaryne border crossing point from Russia.

"The Russian side is continuing to provide the terrorist organizations of the Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics with heavy armaments," said Perebynisis.

Separately, the Ukrainian military said one soldier had been killed and five others wounded in the past 24 hours as a shaky cease-fire declared on September 5 continued to come under pressure.

The six-month conflict in the east of Ukraine has left more than 4,300 people dead, according to the United Nations.

(Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters)



Russia has rejected accusations that it is planning to annex Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told RFE/RL’s Current Time program on November 25: “There can be no question about any annexations.”

Georgia and the West have criticized a "strategic partnership" agreement between Russia and Abkhazia signed on November 24.

Tbilisi condemned the pact as an attempt by Moscow to annex the region.

Karasin also said Russia will “continue sparing no effort, nerves, financial expenses” to make sure its neighbors “do not feel endangered.”

"As a large state and a powerful country, Russia is constantly responsible for stability on its borders and everything that is under way along its borders," he added.

Under the "strategic partnership," Russian and Abkhaz forces in the territory will turn into a joint force led by a Russian commander.


19:16 November 21, 2014


On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we use the one-year anniversary of the Euromaidan uprising to look at how it changed both Ukraine and Russia. My guests are Sean Guillory and Alexander Motyl.

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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It covers emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or