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Grigory Pasko: Khodorkovsky, Chita, and the Decembrists

The Land Where You Sit: Khodorkovsky, Chita, and the Decembrists By Grigory Pasko, journalist The term of confinement for Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev in the investigative isolator of Chita was extended by decision of the Ingodinsky District Court to 2 July of this year. This decision was no doubt coordinated with and approved by the investigative brigade of the Procuracy-General of Russia, which for some reason presented new charges to the former managers of the YUKOS oil company in Chita. By law this ought to have been done in Moscow, that is in the place where the crime was allegedly committed.

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Photo of Chita today by Grigory Pasko

Until recently, when the Moscow City Court upheld a Basmanny District Court decision that conducting the investigation in Chita was indeed unlawful, Khodorkovsky, Lebedev, and their lawyers had been studying the materials of the new criminal case. Nearly 130 volumes. At this time, it is a big question when this process will recommence – and where. Everybody knows the Duma elections are coming up later this year, and it is safe to assume that nobody will want the new trial to vie for public attention with the active phase of the pre-election battles. The question on the minds of many today is: where will the trial on the new charges take place? Many factors would seem to suggest that it still might be Chita. For one thing, it’s far away. This makes it difficult for the defense lawyers to function at their best. It would certainly limit the influx of journalists and politicians, which in its turn would create a certain informational vacuum as far as coverage of the trial goes. Second, in Chita they’ve already got the system of police support for the delivery of the accuseds from the isolator to the procuracy and the courts all worked out. Third, the public in Chita, in the main, is inert, which doesn’t augur mass actions against the arbitrariness of the courts and in defense of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev. (And today’s power in the Kremlin is very afraid of mass actions). And finally, fourth, Chita is historically the place in Russia for deportation and hard labor in exile of anybody inconvenient that those in power don’t want to see around. It is this historical aspect that we’ll talk about today. It so happened that at the end of last year and the beginning of the current one, the staff of the Decembrists’ Museum in Chita were celebrating two memorable dates – the 180th anniversary of the arrival of the first consignment of convicted Decembrists for penal servitude at hard labor in the Blagodatsky mines, and the 180th anniversary of the arrival of the Decembrists in Chita.

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Watercolor of Chita in the time of the Decembrists (reproduced from museum brochure)

It just so happened that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were staged to Chita from the colony where they were serving their sentences under the first verdict also in December. So they too are Decembrists of a sort… What do we remember about THOSE Decembrists? It is known that on 14 December 1825, there was an unsuccessful insurrection in St. Petersburg organized by guards officers – members of a secret political society. Eighty five of these officers became exiles to Chita – a small village at the time. And why Chita? Historians say it is because the system in place at that time for sending people to perform hard labor in the factories of Eastern Siberia threatened to blow up into a general rebellion. Sending the Decembrists to such a faraway backwater as Chita deprived them of the opportunity to influence the mass of thousands of criminals and settlers.

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Photo of portraits of Decembrists in the museum of Chita by Grigory Pasko

Chita Oblast today is still a faraway backwater of sorts. It’s unlikely that Khodorkovsky in his current situation is in any position to influence many thousand-strong masses, but in such regions as Moscow and the central Oblasts of Russia, there would be many more opportunities to disseminate information about his and Lebedev’s trial. And the people in these Oblasts is politically more active. That means the likelihood of mass demonstrations is also large. This is why the power, in order not to tempt fate, went through the effort of sending these inconvenient people it doesn’t want to see around to Trans-Baikal region. It can’t be ruled out that the power will become so scared that it will actually decide to conduct the court sessions in Krasnokamensk – the place where Khodorkovsky was serving his sentence in a camp. This little town today is practically as much of a faraway backwater as Chita was 180 years ago! On my most recent visit to Chita, I visited the Old-Chita Michael-the-Archangel church – the only wooden building from the 1700s still left standing in the city. Nowadays, since 1985, this church building has been the home of the Decembrists’ Museum. The church still remembers the actual Decembrists themselves. In 1828, it witnessed the betrothal of the Frenchwoman Pauline Gueble and the Decembrist Ivan Annenkov. By the walls of the church you may see two graves – those of the wife of the Decembrist Zavalishin and of the daughter of the Volkonskys. The exhibition in the museum is modest, but interesting. Many documents, works of pictorial art, books, household objects, the personal things of the Decembrists. The particular attention of visitors, as a rule, is attracted by the tools of the convicts, their shackles.

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Photo of Michael-the-Archangel church in Chita today by Grigory Pasko

There exist many testimonies of how the Decembrists lived in Chita. The museum booklet “Prisoners of the Chita Fort” tells how in time free from work, the Decembrists cultivated a garden, taught the Chitans how to grow hitherto unheard-of vegetables; they established the first sundials in Chita; they set up workshops, including a bookbindery. They conducted topographic research of the environs of Chita; conducted meteorological observations; provided free medical aid to the local inhabitants…

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Michael-the-Archangel church 180 years ago, from a watercolor by the Decembrist N. Bestuzhev (reproduced from museum brochure)

…I recall how Khodorkovsky – far from the stupidest person in Russia – had expressed the desire to become an instructor at the school in the Krasnokamensk colony. He was denied in this. Under the tsarist regime, the Decembrists were NOT denied the opportunity to be teachers to the Chitan merchants and gold miners. Probably because the tsarist power may have been cruel, but it was at least somewhat magnanimous. Today’s power is not only cowardly – it is vindictive too.