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The Week In Russia: Impunity From Magnitsky To The Moika

A tale of two treatments: Oleg Sokolov (left) and Sergei Magnitsky

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Beneath the grisly details of graduate student Anastasia Yeshchenko’s killing lies a more banal, less tabloid-friendly tale -- a seemingly never-ending story about the impunity of people who hold power in Russia. Activists say other chapters include the jailhouse death of whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky 10 years ago and the long rule of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, whose suggestion that those who dishonor officials online should be slain has caused concern but no consequences.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Domestic Violence

At first glance -- and even second or third, as more gory details emerged – the violent death of Anastasia Yeshchenko seemed like a crime story and nothing more, if one that fit more closely into the fabric of St. Petersburg, the city of Raskolnikov and revolutionary bloodshed, than of most other places.

Surely, the sickeningly baroque details -- a noted history professor and Napoleon buff fished out of the Moika River with the victim’s arms or hands in a knapsack, and her severed head reportedly found back at his apartment -- could not be part of some larger logic, a piece of a puzzle that would somehow make sense.

Turns out they do, in a way: The larger story, told mainly by students and former students at the university where the 24-year-old’s confessed killer, Oleg Sokolov, taught for years until his firing shortly after her slaying -- is about the impunity of people who hold power in Russia.

In this particular case, the spotlight is on the impunity of men who hold power -- even just a little bit of it, in a limited setting such as a college classroom -- over women and girls who don’t.

The killing of Yeshchenko, who was in a relationship with Sokolov, appeared to be a grim and glaring example of the persistent problem of domestic abuse and violence against women in Russia, where activists say victims -- and potential victims -- are far from adequately protected by the law.

While much of the media focus following her death was centered on the details of the crime and of Sokolov’s public activity -- he dressed up in Napoleon-era costumes for battle reenactments and was awarded the Legion of Honor, France's highest civilian decoration, in 2003 -- questions about his past quickly emerged.

Hot Iron

Or rather, resurfaced, as he had faced criticism of his conduct at St. Petersburg State University in the past -- as well as an accusation from a woman who told law enforcement authorities that he tied her to a chair, beat her severely, and held a hot iron close to her face.

But he had faced few consequences beyond a reprimand from the school’s Ethics Committee -- which mixed its rebuke with praise for Sokolov as an internationally known specialist whose views on Napoleon-era France are “the result of many years of scholarly research” -- saying he had “violated ethical norms” during a 2018 incident in which, accounts suggest, a student who challenged him was chased from the lecture hall at his expletive-filled request and beaten by supporters.

On November 15, Oleg Sokolov (center), dressed in bullet-proof clothing, was brought to his apartment in St. Petersburg, where his alleged victim's head had been found.
On November 15, Oleg Sokolov (center), dressed in bullet-proof clothing, was brought to his apartment in St. Petersburg, where his alleged victim's head had been found.

Meanwhile, suggestions that the main state university in Russia’s second-largest city is steeped in a culture of sexual harassment also have emerged, in part courtesy of one former student who said on Facebook that “hard-core prehistoric sexism” was the “everyday norm” when she was a student in the History Department there in 2005-10.

In the wake of Yeshchenko’s killing, St. Petersburg State, which is President Vladimir Putin’s alma mater, said it will establish a center for the study of domestic violence.

In a report last year, Human Rights Watch cited a 2011 government study that found that 1 in 5 Russian women have reported being the targets of domestic violence.

Sokolov, 63, will likely face up to 15 years in prison if convicted of murder, so if he is tried soon and gets the maximum he could be out around the same time Yeshchenko would have turned 40, had she not been shot four times and dismembered. A lawyer for the suspect has suggested he would seek a lesser punishment, possibly by claiming temporary mental incapacity.

Ample Attention

In the meantime, Sokolov received bizarre backing of sorts from controversial Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, an acquaintance of the historian who was quoted as telling journalists this week, “Before you were all asking me about [the Hollywood film] Joker, now it’s Oleg Sokolov. I’d like to say: If you like Joker so much, why don’t you like Oleg Sokolov?”

Sokolov also got a touch of what observers said was unusual kid-glove treatment for a murder suspect on the day he appeared in court, sitting down with a member of a government-linked NGO for an interview that was posted online.

In it, he asks for eyeglasses, giving his prescription and saying he is a scholar who will “go crazy” if he cannot read, and discusses whether his pretrial jail cell will have a television. (Answer: Possibly.)

Sokolov also makes a kind of plea for mercy, saying, “Whatever I have done now, I stumbled only once in life -- a long and honest life,” and asks that his cellmates be “people like me” -- though he does not explain what he means by that.

The suspect was the center of attention again on November 15, wearing a big black helmet and bulletproof vest as he was escorted by police to the Moika, near the spot where he was found there six days earlier, as part of the investigation.

10 Years Gone

One Russian who experienced little or no leniency behind bars was Sergei Magnitsky, who died at the Matrosskaya Tishina prison in Moscow 10 years ago, on November 16, 2009, at the age of 37.

Magnitsky was a whistle-blower who accused a group of law enforcement officers and officials of stealing the equivalent of about $230 million from the Russian state through fraudulent tax refunds.

Some of the people Magnitsky accused turned things around and essentially accused him of carrying out the fraud. He was jailed without formal charge and died after almost a year behind bars, during which he said he was denied adequate medical treatment as his health deteriorated.

Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in Moscow in 2007
Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in Moscow in 2007

Supporters said the treatment and conditions he was subjected to amounted to torture, and the Kremlin’s own advisory human rights body said there was evidence he may have been beaten to death.

Magnitsky was not charged until after his death. In 2013, he was convicted of tax evasion in what is believed to have been the only posthumous trial held in the Soviet Union or Russia. Magnitsky’s relatives charged that his trial was illegal and his former boss, investor William Browder, called the verdict “one of the most shameful moments for Russia since the days of Josef Stalin.”

A measure of justice also came posthumously, however, nearly a decade after his death. In August of this year, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the Russian state committed “multiple violations” against Magnitsky, including “manifestly inadequate” medical treatment in jail and an “inherently unfair” posthumous trial.

Meanwhile, none of those who Magnitsky’s supporters blame for his death -- several of them mid-level police officers and tax officials -- has been prosecuted. Activists have found evidence that suggests some are wealthy far beyond their official means.

Law And Lawlessness

Magnitsky’s death led to legislation in the United States and elsewhere that is designed to punish human rights violators from Russia and other countries by imposing sanctions such as travel bans and asset freezes.

In Russia, however, rights groups and Kremlin critics say abuses are committed with impunity by many people who hold power -- a little or a lot.

One of the latter is the head of the Chechnya region, Ramzan Kadyrov, who has ruled the region in the North Caucasus since his appointment by Putin in 2007.

In televised comments on November 5, Kadyrov advocated killing people who offend the "honor" of others online -- apparently a rococo reference to recent legislation that enables the Russian state to punish citizens deemed to have disrespected officials or state symbols in any form of communication on the Internet.

Rights activists say that Kadyrov rules through repressive measures and has created a climate of fear in Chechnya. They assert that he is directly or ultimately responsible for abuses that include abductions, torture, and killings, and that Putin turns a blind eye because he relies on Kadyrov to keep a lid on separatist sentiment in the war-scarred region.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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