Russian Law Metes Out Justice Only to Weak

A young investigator, who found himself in the dock, disappeared before his sentence was delivered. He hid from the Russian federal authorities for more than a year. And when he was caught and was once again before the court, it became clear that the time he had spent in hiding was more torturous than any punishment.

He could have escaped earlier because he was had not been taken into police custody. But apparently he hoped that he would only be sentenced to two or three years probation and left at liberty. During the plea bargaining, however, the prosecutor had demanded six years imprisonment. The sentence was to be handed down the following day, but the accused did not show up in court. He disappeared from the city of Sochi, leaving behind his wife and 4-year-old son.

Almost two years ago, I wrote about how this investigator was brought to trial. The repeat trial is now behind. A new sentence has been passed. On my dictaphone is a tape of the accused's confession, which was recorded in the investigation isolation chamber. I listen to the broken voice of Oleg Savostyan (not his real name), to his hasty patter and agonizing pauses:

"You probably think that I was hiding out in some basement. Not at all. I visited friends in St. Petersburg and worked as a dockworker. Was there a search? No. No one was ever looking for anyone. The real detectives in Russia are either doing other kinds of work or sitting in prison for one reason or another. But this still doesn't save you from the feeling that some day somebody will come for you. It's a sickening feeling. And they caught me by chance. Although, of course, nothing is ever only by chance. It was harder when the family in Sochi had not come to Petersburg. It's difficult without your wife and son. I slogged away, loading crates of vodka. Every day, bottles would be written off as broken. We could drink glasses of vodka, without snacking, as long as our stomachs did not fill with blood. And while I was working, I thought: Just punish me with something other than prison. I myself sent criminals to prison. Do anything you like. Cut off my ears, but let me work freely. Let me feed my family."

Here is a brief summary of the story of Savostyan's fall. One evening, he was on night duty at the prosecutor's office. A young woman, whom we'll call Valentina Vaneyeva, accompanied by a relative, Maria Orekhova, appeared at the police station and said she had been raped. It was a rather typical case except for one detail: The alleged rapist had left Vaneyeva his name, Alexei Lukin, and home address.

To the surprise of the police, the address turned out to be authentic. During the investigation Alexei admitted that the incident had occurred, but he said there was mutual consent and no force was used. It soon became clear that there were little grounds for a case. But Vaneyeva was counting on something else. She knew that Alexei was married and wouldn't want the affair to be made public. Rather, she was hoping for compensation for "moral damages." These were not her words but those of her energetic relative Orekhova. And this is where Savostyan got involved in the affair.

Savostyan later testified that he was not thinking of receiving any money and only wanted to smooth over the situation. The investigator went on to help settle the conflict, however, in a very peculiar way. He proposed to Orekhova that the alleged rape victim make a statement that there was no rape.

"What will I get out of it?" Vaneyeva asked Orekhova. "Half the sum," her relative replied.

Orekhova then set out to smooth over the conflict by calling Alexei's wife, Alexia Lukina.

"If you want to rescue your husband, get the money ready," Orekhova said, adding that the guarantee would be that the investigator would get half the money.

All that was left was to hand over the money. RUOP, the regional directorate on the fight against organized crime, was already at work. They had marked up the money with special ink that read in blue letters under light: "RUOP. BRIBE."

Savostyan did not deny his participation in the affair. But he categorically denied asking for any money. According to Savostyan, Orekhova, who turned out to be on the dock with him, was carrying out the work of the intelligence services which, he said, were entrapping him. This is what he used in his defense until he understood that it wouldn't work. And then he decided to hide.

Savostyan had spoken of how the burden of work as an investigator was so great that he hadn't seen any way out. He and his wife were not getting along for this reason. They had a new apartment, but it had been empty for a long time. There was no money to buy furniture. This would not have meant much if they had not seen so many resourceful people in the neighboring resort town who did not lack for anything. Still, this was not the main point.

"Why did I want to abandon investigation work?" Savostyan recalled. "Two of my colleagues became lawyers and their material positions have straightened themselves out. But that doesn't matter. Rather, that's not all that matters. It's all about being weak. I can be strong, but I can't bear being weak. And, as it turned out, I was only arresting the weak. The strong protected themselves from prison by money and connections."

As he spoke of his inability to be weak, I was thinking how over these past few years the weakness of Russia's law-enforcement organizations has been tied to unsolved slaying of bankers and journalists, corruption among officials and fraudulent pyramid schemes.

"In Petersburg," Oleg told me, "friends helped me find reasonable work in a bank security service. Among my responsibilities was to collect information on people who took out big loans in order not to run up against swindlers. And I ran into one such scoundrel. I visited him to work out why he hadn't returned his loan. And he in turn found out everything about me and called the criminal investigation department. They brought me by train back to Sochi.

He recalled how he was brought back. They were afraid he would run away and handcuffed him as if they were crucifying him. He was held in this position for several hours and allowed to move only when he went to the toilet. His wife brought a ticket on the same train and came from another car with food. She fed him like a child. The police escort drank vodka, told jokes and looked his wife up and down. They told very bad jokes. Savostyan lapsed into silence and knotted the muscles around his cheek bones. He raised his eyes and repeated what he had said from the beginning: "I was wrong. Punish me. Only not with prison. Cut off my ears but let me work at liberty. Let me feed my family."

The court sentenced Oleg Savostyan to two years of deprivation of freedom. Two long, almost endless years.

Igor Gamayunov is a staff writer for Literaturnaya Gazeta. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.