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Undeniably, President Vladimir Putin’s era has been marked and marred by a number of recurring events: terror attacks, deadly disasters in which the human toll has been exacerbated by human error, often committed by officials of the Russian state, and -- less lethal but also defining -- politically charged trials.
While Putin came to power at the turn of the 21st century, it would be tough to pinpoint a Trial Of The Century so far, one-fifth of the way in. After all, two of the most prominent Russians to be tried since 2000, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Aleksei Navalny, have been tried twice -- and convicted twice -- on charges they contend were trumped up with the goal of protecting Putin and his system of rule.
Over 20 years in power as president or prime minister, Putin has strengthened Kremlin control over electoral politics, squeezing liberal opposition figures out of parliament -- a place one of his allies, policeman-turned-politician Boris Gryzlov, said when he was head of the State Duma, the lower house, was no place for “political battles.”
In that oxygen-poor atmosphere, one arena where political battles are fought -- or at least, where political statements can be made with reasonable expectation that they will be heard -- is the courts.
In contrast to many other countries, several opposition politicians in Russia have spent time behind bars, in courtrooms as defendants, or both -- some before they became politicians, others after.
The most prominent example may be Navalny, who was given suspended sentences following both convictions, and as a result has not served any long term in prison -- but who has spent hundreds of days in jail for what courts have deemed administrative offenses, mainly linked to the street protests he has organized.
Navalny and his supporters say he has avoided prison because Putin is afraid to put him there, lest he become a martyr. They cite the jaw-dropping flip-flop that unfolded after Navalny’s first conviction, in 2013, when he was initially handed a five-year prison term -- but got a reprieve after thousands of people protested the ruling near the Kremlin, and ended up with a suspended sentence on appeal.
The same thing may have happened with Yegor Zhukov, a 21-year-old political science student and video blogger whose trial this fall was one of several stemming from the state crackdown on protests in July and August over decisions by officials to bar a raft of independent and opposition candidates from the ballot in the September elections for the Moscow City Duma.
On December 6, Zhukov was convicted of using the Internet to call for “actions aimed at the violation of Russia’s territorial integrity” and was given a three-year suspended sentence -- “as close as you get to 'not guilty' in Russian courts these days,” as one journalist put it on Twitter.
The acquittal rate in Russian courts in 2018 was 0.25 percent, meaning that about 1 in 400 cases referred to court ended with verdicts of not guilty.
Zhukov is the latest, and perhaps the youngest, in a long line of defendants who have turned the tables in Russian courtrooms, delivering stinging verdicts against the state before the seemingly inevitable guilty verdict.
There have been several examples of defiant closing statements at trials in the Putin era, but a tradition of testy courtroom exchanges seems to go back at least as far as Joseph Brodsky, who -- tried in 1964 for alleged crimes against the Soviet state -- sparred with a court over whether poetry is work, among other things. Accused of living “a parasitical way of life,” Brodsky argued that what the judge called his “so-called poems” will “be of use to people not only now, but also to future generations.”
'Learn To Not Be Afraid'
In a final message from court during his 2013 trial, Navalny likened Putin to a toad sucking on an oil pipeline -- a metaphor for the state’s reliance on energy revenues -- and implicitly urged supporters to keep up protests, tweeting: “Okay, don’t miss me. More important -- don’t be idle.”
Aleksei Ulyukayev, a former economy minister who was sentenced to eight years in prison in December 2017 after being convicted of taking a $2 million bribe from state oil company CEO Igor Sechin in a sting operation, said in his final statement that he was “the victim of a monstrous and cruel provocation.” He described Sechin, a close Putin ally, as a “skilled mastermind or dubious dealings.”
In impassioned closing remarks at his trial in 2015, Oleh Sentsov, a native of Crimea who was sentenced to 20 years in prison by what he called a “court of occupiers” after opposing Moscow’s seizure of the Ukrainian region, said that Russia was “governed by criminals” and voiced hope that its citizens “will learn how not to be afraid.”
Some defendants have used their final statements to point to the perceived and sometimes clearly apparent absurdities of the charges against them. In what one journalist called “potentially a historic speech which deals with the most pressing problems faced by Russian society,” Zhukov took a broader approach.
In the course of contending that he is no extremist, the political science student took aim at the Russian government, pointing out crucial problems such as corruption and wealth inequality and accusing the state of “barbaric treatment” of its own citizens.
A Truly Happy Place
Lambasting the state over what he suggested has been its hypocritical and deeply flawed advocacy of “traditional values” as it perceives them, he said that “if you just take a look, it becomes apparent that the only traditional institution the current Russian government genuinely venerates and strengthens is autocracy. An autocracy that goes out of its way to destroy the life of anybody who genuinely wishes their homeland well, who is unafraid to love and to take responsibility.
“As a result, the citizens of our long-suffering country have had to learn that…happiness may be possible here -- just not for them,” he wrote, describing “people drinking themselves to death out of exhaustion, people freezing to death in unheated hospitals, people who have been murdered, people who have killed themselves.... People. Just like us.”
Zhukov also offered a vision of the future, saying that when he looks “over the horizon of years to come” he sees a “Russia full of responsible, loving people.”
“It will be a truly happy place,” he said. "Let each one of us imagine that Russia. And may that image guide you and your work just as it guides me.”