Is Russian justice going soft? On Tuesday afternoon, RIA Novosti reported that the Moscow City Court had reduced the sentences of the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner, Platon Lebedev, who have been serving time in a remote Siberian prison since 2005 on charges of fraud, embezzlement, and money-laundering.
Alas, the sentences were reduced by just a single year -- from 14 years to an unlucky 13. Lest Russians forget the pair's Kafkaesque legal odyssey, Vadim Zaitsev of Kommersant-Online provided a detailed summation, which commenced with Khodorkovsky’s arrest at Novosibirsk’s airport in 2003. Many bizarre episodes followed, including an occasion in November 2006, when "prisoner Alexander Kuchma inflicted a knife wound on Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s face as he slept. He justified his act as a response to sexual harassment from the former oligarch, but later recanted his words."
Khodorkovsky and his partner will remain in detention until well after the Russian presidential elections scheduled for 2012 – a salient point given that the case is widely construed as politically motivated.
In preparation for the campaign, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin last week announced the creation of an All-Russian People’s Front that, presumably, will be a vehicle for his still unannounced run for the top office. Two other political heavyweights challenged the previously unchallengeable Putin by founding their own fronts. As Pravda.ru reported, Putin responded to this act of insolence with a confident retort:
"I don’t find it particularly noteworthy that similar fronts are being created. Any party has a right to do this, and no one really thought that the All-Russian People’s Front would vacuum up all political structures and interests . . . .We need a sufficiently varied political palette. [But] a copy cannot be better than the original."
Many Russians had hoped that Putin's ostensible boss, President Dmitry Medvedev, would announce his own bid for reelection at a press conference on May 18. Victor Davidoff, in an op-ed published in The Moscow Times, damped those wishes, along with any speculation that the election might end in anything but a tidily-arranged landslide for Putin. Davidoff wrote"
"In the end, the highlight of the news conference was a joke that began to circulate on the Internet while [Medvedev] was still speaking: “It’s clear that now there are two new political camps in Russia — Putin’s party and Medvedev’s party. Unfortunately, it’s not yet clear which party Medvedev belongs to.”
Davidoff also cited journalist Leonid Radzikhovsky, who thought that Medvedev’s performance was nothing more than “a job request with assurances that he had no ambitions for power.”
As Radzikhovsky explained on his own blog:
“Medvedev wants to keep the title of president. But that depends on Putin. Medvedev is showing Putin that he could never find a less dangerous and more malleable seat-warmer than him.”
With Putin dominating Russian business, politics and life, could anything undermine his iron rule? How about an intern? (Hey -- it's happened to other great men.) Moskovsky Komsomolets delighted in the tale told by a pseudonymous intern -- “a certain Yeenzo” – in a blog post on ZhivoyZhurnal (LiveJournal). Our young "Yeenzo" paints a scene of aristocratic dissipation worthy of Chekhov:
"Deputies bring their friends [into the Duma building], loll around doing nothing . . . [and] play cards during sessions."
Card-playing passes for the commanding heights of industry, "Yeenzo" claims, compared to the apparatchik ennui on display at a private -- “attendance restricted” -- Duma session he witnessed:
"The [Duma] was only a quarter full, and those present busied themselves with anything but the session and the laws. Everyone wandered around chatting, some read newspapers, in the back they played cards. United Russia deputies played on their Ipads. . . . On command, when the time came, everyone just went up to their seats and pushed the [voting buttons] and then returned to their own business. Oh, sure, you say Putin and Medvedev are the most important ones and decide everything. . . [but] a chubby lady in red really decides. . . Her job is to run up and down the aisles and tell everyone whom to vote for. . . This is all sad and shameful. It’s not a parliament, but an office smoking room."
The intern was subsequently unmasked as one Yevgeny Starshov, who was promptly fired. In a report on the affair by Alexander Bratersky in The Moscow Times, Duma deputy Oleg Shein conceded there was much truth in the ex-intern's observations.
To take their minds off a political system that manages to be alternately monotonous and calamitous, Russians take an occasional interest in the troubles of others. In an informative article about President Obama's recent visit to London, Mikhail Ozerov of Izvestiya.ru examined the friction within the Anglo-American "special relationship." President Barack Obama, he noted:
"gave the British their first cold shower as soon as he got to the White House. He ordered the bust of Churchill removed from the Oval Office. [During then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s visit to Washington] the president of the USA . . . proffered him no tsar-worthy gift, but a couple of dozen DVDs, which of all things can’t even be played on European-formatted DVD players."
The topic of misaligned entertainment formats arose in a different context on the Russian web, where readers learned that scandal-plagued television actor Charlie Sheen had been contracted to lecture at a summer camp run by Nashi, the pro-Putin nationalist youth group. Sheen's topic? The virtues of a healthy lifestyle. Natalya Krainova of The Moscow Times reported:
"The information that Sheen, known for his substance abuse and sex exploits as much as his talent, would give health tips to campers appeared Wednesday on the web site Zamnoi.org, which is run by the Federal Agency for Youth Affairs."
Enlisting Charlie Sheen as a youth role model seemed a bit much to some. As it turned out, it was. Here's Krainova again:
"Nashi spokeswoman Kristina Potupchik said Sheen had not accepted an invitation to attend this summer's outing on the banks of Lake Seliger in the Tver region."
In fact, the actor’s scheduled homilies to sobriety turned out to be a hacker-generated hoax, which several prestigious Russian news sites unwittingly published. Nashi authorities, Krainova wrote, were not amused:
"Potupchik called the Sheen story a 'provocation' aimed at 'discrediting' the Federal Agency for Youth Affairs, which organizes the camp and whose leader she also represents as spokeswoman. . . .Nashi will file a complaint about the hacker attack with law enforcement agencies."
That hacker may want to lie low for a time. If Putin gets his hands on him, Mikhail Khodorkovsky may soon be making room for a Siberian roommate.
(Jeffrey Tayler is the Moscow correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)