Tale of Fatherly Love and Crime for Our Time

Much that seems commonplace in today's Russia would have been unthinkable in the not-too-distant past. The former director of a struggling collective farm becomes the farm's owner and now spends the fall months in Mallorca. The mayor of a large city on the Volga River meets one night with local organized crime figures. He hopes to placate them in order to stop the bloody shootouts on his city's streets.

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Even those things we most prize in human relations -- sympathy for those in trouble, a helping hand to those in need -- have gotten mixed up with the criminal world.

Not long ago, the Moscow city court heard a singular case involving four residents of the Moscow region. They had committed a robbery to help pay for an expensive operation urgently needed by the dying daughter of their friend, Vladimir Misyurev. I was in court that day. I listened as the four gave their testimony, haltingly, fighting the lumps in their throats.

"Oksanka had a sarcoma. ... On her right thigh. ... Shots every day. ... She would scream. ... She was in agony."

The judge, Mr. Govorov, listened without interrupting, his head propped on one hand.

"The whole village knew. They collected money, enough for a month. ... For the pain-killing injections. ... And then the girl was screaming again."

There was one person beside me on the bench set aside for the public -- an elderly man in a shiny blazer. I tried to guess who he was. Misyurev's father and Oksana's grandfather?

"You have to understand, I was prepared to do anything at that time," Misyurev told the court.

Misyurev worked as a truck driver for Prodkomplekt, a company trading in foodstuffs. Everyone at work, from Mr. Zavinsky, the general director, to Ms. Gavrilova, the head of accounting, knew about his troubles. Misyurev rose at 5 a.m. and commuted to Moscow from Beloozyorsk by train, arriving at work by 8 a.m. He delivered canned goods to the markets, loading and unloading by himself to save money. The former director had paid him the amount that would have gone to hire a partner, but when Zavinsky arrived, he cut off this source of extra income. He also stopped paying Misyurev a weekly bonus and compensated him for gas strictly by mileage. When Misyurev asked for a large loan -- about $20,000 -- for his daughter's operation, Zavinsky told him: "We have no money." But Misyurev knew that at the end of every month the office safe contained three or four times that amount -- cash kept off the books, tax-free. And he decided to go into business for himself.

The judge announced a recess. In the hallway, I got acquainted with my neighbor. He wasn't Misyurev Sr., but Mr. Anfalov, the father of another defendant, Yury. He lived in Beloozyorsk. The villagers had fallen on hard times because all the factories in the area had shut down. They lived on what they could grow in the garden. His son, Yury, had been in the same class as Natasha, Misyurev's wife. She had asked Yury to drive Oksana to the oncology clinic. Yury drove her and that's how it all started.

Misyurev came up with all sorts of business ideas. At first he wanted to trade wood products and visited sawmills to see how things worked. On a trip to the Smolensk region to buy cheap potatoes, he learned that the locals still found guns in the collapsing dug-outs left over from World War II. They sold the guns for a song. Misyurev told his friend, Sergei Lisnyak, that they could buy up the guns, then resell them to dealers in Moscow for a profit.

Lisnyak liked the plan and they set off. In Tyomkino, a village in the Smolensk region, they asked the first person they met where to find guns. That person was Valery Trusov, head of the village fire brigade. He sold them two revolvers. But Misyurev had no luck reselling the guns. After that, Misyurev and Lisnyak came up with the idea of talking to Zavinsky, the general director, "man to man." After all, he was making money hand over fist. Twenty thousand dollars was nothing to him!

After the recess, Yury Anfalov told the court how the pair had approached Zavinsky. On that December day, Anfalov had agreed to drive Misyurev and Lisnyak to Zavinsky's apartment building on Ulitsa Prishvina in Moscow. The plan was to grab Zavinsky in the podyezd, drive him to the office and force him to open the safe. Things turned out differently. According to Anfalov, Zavinsky was a pathological coward. Without waiting to hear out Lisnyak and Anfalov (Misyurev stayed in the car), Zavinsky bolted, throwing his handbag on the stairs.

Zavinsky told a different story. He said the pair beat him and shoved a pistol barrel in his mouth, tearing one of his lips. But he couldn't explain why he hadn't called the police or reported the injury at an emergency room. Maybe he was ashamed of what had happened. Maybe he couldn't spare the time. It wasn't clear. But one thing was crystal clear: Neither Zavinsky nor his attackers considered this "manly discussion" illegal.

In a country whose populace is forced to live in an unlawful manner, its wages always paid in cash off the books, it's only natural that people resort to violence in their dealings with others. The only reason the court knew about the handbag episode was that Misyurev told investigators about it in a fit of repentance.

Before their date with the detectives, however, Misyurev and Lisnyak had decided to become gangsters and take Zavinsky's money themselves. They hadn't exactly been angels prior to this. Several years before, Misyurev, unemployed and desperate, had stolen a cow but was caught trying to sell it and given a suspended sentence. Lisnyak had two convictions for petty theft. Anfalov refused to go along with this new plan, so the duo enlisted Misyurev's younger brother, Dmitry. Nine days after the "man-to-man talk," the three partners arrived in Moscow by train at 8 a.m.

Everything went smoothly. Once in the office, Vladimir Misyurev invited the chief bookkeeper, Gavrilova, the driver, Puchkov, and the mechanic, Kuznetsov (Zavinsky was out of town), to have some tea. He went out into the hallway for water, "forgetting" to latch the metal door. His brother and Lisnyak were waiting in the bathroom. The three donned balaclava caps and burst into the office, shouting: "Everyone on the floor!" They ordered the safe opened and the money removed.

Then something unexpected happened: Kuznetsov deliberately took his time transferring the money from the safe into the burglars' bags. Lisnyak couldn't handle the strain. He menacingly waved a kitchen knife he had brought from home, nicking Kuznetsov's face in the process. But everything else went according to plan. The money was stuffed into two large sacks. Gavrilova, Puchkov and Kuznetsov were locked in a store room. Soon an apparently beaten Misyurev was thrown into the same room, pointedly holding his head in his hands.

His co-conspirators removed their masks and rode the train back to Beloozyorsk. Rather than divvying up the take when they arrived, as gangsters are supposed to do, they dumped the money (about $80,000 in rubles) into a heap on the bed in Lisnyak's apartment. And they decided to celebrate. The only thing they bought with the stolen money was a bottle of cheap brandy from a nearby kiosk.

Meanwhile, back at the Prodkomplekt office, the captives managed to open the door and call security. The head of security, who knew about Misyurev's family troubles, asked him point-blank: "Is this your handywork?" And Misyurev, realizing that he was in over his head, confessed. The police took him into custody and drove him to Beloozyorsk to find the stolen money. Arriving late at night, they found the money still heaped on Lisnyak's bed.

Oksana Misyureva did not live to see the trial; she died during the investigation.

And now the perpetrators rose one by one in the defendants' cage. They testified. Lisnyak was outraged by the implication that they had committed the crime for personal gain. "Before the cops arrived, we could have easily hidden the money and left Misyurev his share! We had nearly $80,000 in Russian money, and the operation only cost $20,000. But we didn't touch that money!"

It's true. They didn't touch it.

The three also faced the maximum sentence allowed by law if convicted on the charge. The detectives described them as a "gang." The "man-to-man talk" with Zavinsky, along with the robbery and the pistols found in Lisnyak's apartment, qualified as "serial crimes involving the use of firearms." Misyurev had confessed and returned the stolen money, leaving the detectives with little opportunity to demonstrate their prowess. But they nevertheless labeled him as the "ringleader." This strange detail is easily explained: For every criminal gang brought to justice, the detectives involved receive a commendation and stars on their epaulettes.

My long experience as a court reporter told me that the prosecutor, Ms. Krasavina, was closely tied to the detectives in charge of the investigation and wouldn't change anything in their report. She would recite a prepared text in court. I watched the prosecutor's face. Would she do as she had been told? Or would she correct the obvious falsifications in the state's case? Krasavina stood up and coughed.

Behind her, through the window, I could see the cars moving along Borodinsky Val. The busy life of the capital was buzzing out there, and Krasavina was going to speak on behalf of that life. Her speech was brief and forceful. She dropped the charge of "gangsterism," and asked the court to take the unique circumstances of the case into account and hand down a sentence "under the minimum." On behalf of life in this country today, the prosecutor asked the court to show mercy to the accused.

I understand that neither the prosecutor, Krasavina, nor the judge, Govorov -- who gave the defendants the lightest possible sentence -- could venture beyond the criminal case at hand. But beyond that case lies not only the death of a 13-year-old girl. There is also the fact that the majority of Russian children who live in poor families have no access to high-cost medical care. Every child in those families could at any moment find himself at death's door. Can you be sure that while you've been reading these lines another child hasn't landed at that door? I can't, and I don't know how to square that with my conscience.

Igor Gamayunov writes for Literaturnaya Gazeta. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.