No Comment — March 17, 2011, 8:47 am

A Culture of Legal Nihilism

Last year, two Russian oligarchs, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, both nearing the end of lengthy jail terms on corruption charges, were tried and convicted a second time. Observers of the Russian business scene largely agreed that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev had been engaged in shady business practices. They seemed to have done no worse than many of the nation’s other oligarchs, but Khodorkovsky had done something unforgivable: he had sharply criticized Putin and mounted a political campaign against him. The second trial drew harsh criticism around the world from journalists and political leaders. Secretary of State Clinton leveled an unusually harsh charge at the Russian government over the trial, saying it raised “serious questions about selective prosecution—and about the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations.”

Last month, Russia’s legal community was rocked by a dramatic disclosure when an aide to the judge who presided over the Khodorkovsky-Lebedev trial disclosed in an interview with Gazeta.ru that the judge had been forced to issue a judgment that was not his own:

When you have these sorts of political cases, these things where someone has given an order, they are targeted in advance toward a specific result. And if you refuse that means you’re out of your court. And that’s that. I can tell you that the entire judicial community understands very well that this case has been ordered, that this trial has been ordered.

In an interview with Russian television’s Channel One, the judge involved quickly denied his assistant’s accusations. But the accusations are being widely accepted. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev:

I fully trust her [the judge’s aide]. People can’t stand it anymore – she saw what was happening with her own eyes. This fact should make up a subject of investigation. There’s no weaseling your way out when you find yourselves in a situation like that. The most assured road to salvation is to tell everything the way it really was.

When lawyer Dmitri Medvedev stood as the establishment’s candidate for the Russian presidency in 2008, he presented a well-honed and passionate critique of the struggle for the rule of law in his homeland. Russia had a “culture of legal nihilism that in its cynicism has no equal anywhere on the European continent,” he said. “We need to understand clearly: if we want to become a civilized state, first of all we need to become a lawful one.” He spelled out what this meant in considerable detail, starting with an overhaul of legal education, better guarantees for the independence of judges, and a more powerful media. Even many of those who had their reservations about Medvedev were taken by this particular criticism and the apparent earnestness with which it was delivered. Now Russia is presented with the most vivid demonstration of its culture of legal nihilism to appear in recent memory, and it happened on President Medvedev’s watch and serving his ostensible interests.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2016

Four in Prose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Don the Realtor

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Atlas Aggregated

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Origins of Speech

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Verse

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Sigh and a Salute

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Martin Amis on the rise of Trump, Tom Wolfe on the origins of speech, Art Spiegelman on Si Lewen, a story by Diane Williams, and more

In Havana, the past year has been marked by a parade of bold-faced names from the north — John Kerry reopening the United States Embassy; Andrew Cuomo bringing a delegation of American business leaders; celebrities ranging from Joe Torre, traveling on behalf of Major League Baseball to oversee an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, to Jimmy Buffett, said to be considering opening one of his Margaritaville restaurants there. All this culminated with a three-day trip in March by Barack Obama, the first American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. But to those who know the city well, perhaps nothing said as much about the transformation of political relations between the United States and Cuba that began in December 2014 as a concert in the Tribuna Antiimperialista.

Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Don the Realtor·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"If you have ever wondered what it’s like, being a young and avaricious teetotal German-American philistine on the make in Manhattan, then your curiosity will be quenched by The Art of the Deal."
Photograph (detail) © Polly Borland/Exclusive by Getty Images
Article
The Origins of Speech·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"To Chomsky...every child’s language organ could use the 'deep structure,' 'universal grammar,' and 'language acquisition device' he was born with to express what he had to say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese."
Illustration (detail) by Darrel Rees. Source photograph © Miroslav Dakov/Alamy Live News
Article
A Sigh and a Salute·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Si told me that various paintings had spoken to him, but he wished they had been hung closer together 'so they could talk to each other.' This observation planted a seed that would come to fruition years later in his mature work."
Artwork (detail) by Si Lewen
Article
El Bloqueo·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Amid the festivities and the flood of celebrities, it would be easy for Americans to miss that the central plank of the long-standing cold war against Cuba — the economic embargo — remains very much alive and well."
Photograph (detail) by Rose Marie Cromwell

Chances that a Republican man believes that “poor people have hard lives”:

1 in 4

A school in South Korea was planning to deploy a robot to protect students from unwanted seductions.

Nuremberg’s Neues Museum filed a criminal complaint against a 91-year-old woman who completed a crossword puzzle that was in fact a $116,000 piece of avant-garde Danish art.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today