Sergei Kovalev: Judicial Pillaging at Khodorkovsky Trial


The following is a letter from the human rights advocate Sergei Kovalev in support of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The letter was also published on and

With the YUKOS trial, the power is engaging not only and not so much in judicial pillaging as in educational work. Which is not to say that it didn’t indeed pillage and divide up the oil company, stuffing billions into its pockets in the process. But what worried it and continues to worry it most of all in this affair is educational objectives — the updating, refinement, and universal introduction of the Stalinist political model.

There are several lessons to be taught here at once. And not only to society as a whole, but also specifically to its big-business stratum.

Fact is, with the disintegration of the USSR, a large quantity ofvery rich people appeared in the country. They had lots of money, andthey were concerned about keeping it. It comes as no surprise that thedesire to live in a country where the inviolability of their wealthwould be guaranteed gradually awakened in the smartest of thesecaptains and admirals of business. But such a thing is possible only ina country were there truly is rule of law. Yes, you’ll need to pay lotsof taxes, to deny yourself many things, to restrict yourself in manyways — but in the end it’s all worth it.

Correspondingly, representatives of business began to do everythingthey could to create such a country — spending big money on this task,and getting involved in politics. Just like this was done and is beingdone all over the world.

But our power — they’re shrewd characters. They understoodperfectly well what kinds of things are possible in politics if you’vegot lots of money. They are veritable professors at this, with way moreexperience at it than the businessmen have. And so the power gotscared, very scared. Scared that the system it had created would bedestroyed, and that consequently, everything the leaders and theirservants had amassed would be lost.

The YUKOS trial is a direct result of the need to beat any desire toengage in politics out of business once and for all. Anyone who had anykind of serious capital at that moment was taught a good lesson: listenup, guys, if you try anything you will fail, so forget about politics,your participation in it starts and ends with your unquestioningobedience and readiness to donate money — as much money as we tell you.

At first, the business community, including the government and eventhe prime minister personally, voiced its objection to the trial. Butwhen Putin spoke out in no uncertain terms on this account, theprotests stopped instantly. Of course, many continued to express theiroutrage and indignation privately amongst themselves. But they nolonger had the resolve to voice their disagreement publicly. Theobjective was achieved.

Together with that, the first Khodorkovsky trial had put the powerinto a corner. After all, nothing is permanent. It was obvious thatwhen Khodorkovsky left prison, he would do so unrepentant andembittered, and would most certainly go back into politics. The statewas faced with a question: “What to do next with Khodorkovsky? Kill himoff in jail, maybe?” A repeat of the Litvinenko story seemedundesirable. Another idea arose: “Let’s extend the term forKhodorkovsky, and then we’ll see”. And so it is that we have the secondtrial.

I completely don’t understand what’s happening in the second trial.

At least I’ve got a vague idea about the first one, even with all myignorance of economics. Back then it was at least clear where thepowers were coming from. I never accepted their arguments, but at leastI understood them.

But now, by all appearances, the state is being guided by only oneobsessive idea: now is not the time to be letting the “scoundrels” out.And that’s it, their entire motivation. In keeping with along-established and now resurrected tradition in our country, thisactually seems to work with the court for some reason.

Which is why I totally believe the accused and their lawyers whenthey say they don’t understand the essence of what they have beencharged with. What did Khodorkovsky and his colleagues steal — oil,money? And even more importantly — from whom?

In this situation, the best the state can do is repeat the oldSoviet chestnut: “from the people”. In this way, it returns to thestandard Marxist formula: the big businessman is always an enemy ofsociety (the people), because he robs the workers. Here we see theStalinist model of political organization, not only in essence, butalso in form.

Another lesson that the state taught society via the Khodorkovskycase became the demonstrative annihilation of law-based judicialproceedings, of an independent judiciary power. There was a briefperiod in the mid-1990s when the courts actually maintained trueindependence. But this did not last long. Step by step, the powergradually brought back the painfully familiar Soviet “your wish is mycommand, o master” court. They gave society to understand that nobodycan reckon on victory in court in a dispute with the state. ThisStalinist model of obedient justice has already been enforced in aseries of court trials. The end result of the YUKOS case could mark itsultimate consolidation.

Together with that, I’m not losing hope that Khodorkovsky and hisassociates will be released. And there are some grounds for hope –this trial is just too ludicrous, the position of the prosecution isjust too weak, its claims are just too baseless. It’s going to be veryhard for the prosecutors to attain the result the powers need withoutan angry outcry of indignation from society, including in the west.

A chance for a positive outcome in this trial therefore does exist.

And if this happens, it will be a very major victory for the entire social, economic, political, and judicial system of Russia.


Sergey Kovalev
human rights advocate