Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Court Proves No Match for Top Brass

A military court last week acquitted six officers accused of the murder of journalist Dmitry Kholodov. This fact in itself was exceptional, because Russian courts rarely acquit anyone at all.

Rare is the Russian who truly believes in the judicial system. The courts have too often been used as a tool by the state. The phrase "independent judiciary" carries no meaning whatsoever.

For this reason I want to emphasize that the Kholodov verdict was unjust; the court caved in to pressure from the top brass.

All of the defendants, on the other hand, asserted that they had been pressured themselves. To a man they disavowed their official statements made during the investigation. And each maintained his innocence.

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

We all know how our investigators operate. Forcing testimony from suspects is par for the course. The planting of evidence comes as no surprise. There's no good reason to trust the courts, and even less reason to trust the investigators.

So whom are we to believe? The independent press? In this case the press split from the very beginning into two camps -- those who knew for a certainty that the accused were guilty, and those who called for their acquittal just as vigorously. No arguments or facts could sway either side.

It was clear to the liberal-minded public that the officers were guilty because they were in uniform. The military is full of murderers and criminals by definition.

The failure of the investigation was the result of maneuvering by the military lobby and intrigue by the enemies of democracy. In short, the officers should have been sent up the river whether they killed Kholodov or not.

Our dyed-in-the-wool patriots think the officers involved are fine and upstanding people simply because they wear caps emblazoned with the double-headed eagle and stars. Even if they happened to kill someone, it's not that big a deal. Any attempt to bring a military officer to justice is nothing less than a threat to Russia's military preparedness. And anyone who talks about such a thing is obviously a spy.

Guilty or not, in other words, they had to walk.

Dozens of journalists have died in the past few years. Their killers have not been found. Not that anyone ever really tried to hunt them down. But the Kholodov case was something different.

His death acquired political significance because he worked for a mass-market newspaper with a huge circulation. His death was not like other deaths. It was played out on the front page. The Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper wanted blood. And as the scandal grew, so did sales of the paper. This was to be expected, of course. Professional instinct drove the paper to fuel the drama.

Television went about its work with the same level of professionalism. Savik Shuster hosts a talk show on NTV television called "Svoboda Slova," or "Freedom of Speech," on which he gave air time to just about anyone -- the acquitted colonel Pavel Popovskikh, the lawyers, the prosecutors, the journalists. A specially selected focus group weighed in with its opinion on various issues.

The prosecutor explained that the ranks of criminal investigators are filled with greenhorns who could never frighten a battle-hardened officer. Popovskikh declined to repeat what he had said to investigators during questioning. He wasn't afraid, just ashamed. Of what? That he got scared and incriminated himself while sitting behind bars? Or because he was lying now?

Groups of supporters applauded or booed behind the speakers' backs. Passions ran high. The cost of advertising time during the show soared. And no one came across as credible.

While the trial was in progress, the press was not allowed into the courtroom. The public had no information about the proceedings and no way to form its own opinion. After the conclusion of the trial a wave of fact and conjecture, proof and obfuscation, crashed over us. None of this enhanced our understanding of what had happened, however. Instead, it muddied the waters forever.

In essence the question is no longer who did the killing. That sort of question really only interests aficionados of the detective novel. The acquitted soldiers more than likely know whether or not they killed anyone, of course. But we have no way of knowing if they're telling the truth. The remaining players in this drama are concerned with other things entirely.

All of the parties involved are taking care of their own business, fighting their own foes and rivals, and mobilizing their own supporters. The dead journalist and the soldiers standing trial are actually of secondary importance. They're not the real issue.

Guilt and innocence are turning into abstract notions that can be hurled at the other side. Objective investigation of the case has become not only impossible but unthinkable. One could, of course, get to the bottom of it. But for that to happen there would have to be at least one person involved in the drama who wanted to get to the bottom of it. Not to convict or acquit, but to reveal the truth.

You'll find no one like that here. This isn't that kind of play.

RTR is wasting its time showing Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot mysteries. He would find no role to play in our political theater.

If Popovskikh were a lucky man he would have joined the military elite by now, rather than ending up with a ruined career and a tarnished reputation. If Kholodov had been a lucky man, he would still be alive today.

But in our theater there are no happy endings.

Boris Kagarlitsky, a regular columnist for The Moscow Times, is a Moscow-based sociologist.