For anyone who thinks that the Soviet Union is buried in the ash heap of history, the wrenching plight of Igor Sutyagin is a timely reminder that the more things change in Russia, the more they remain the same.
Sutyagin is the alleged Russian "spy" who was freed last month in a spy swap between the U.S. and Russia after spending 11 years in a succession of Russian prisons. What makes Sutyagin's case unique is that, unlike the others involved in the swap, he was never actually a spy. A scientist by training, Sutyagin found work in the 1990s as a military analyst with the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies (ISKRAN), a Moscow-based think-tank. In that capacity, he supplied a British company with reports about Russian weapons systems. Since Sutyagin never had security clearance, all of the information he provided was gleaned from public sources like western newspapers and official government statements. Espionage this was not.
That didn't stop the FSB, the secret police successor to the dreaded KGB, from charging Sutyagin with treason and arresting him in October 1999. Due to the glaring lack of evidence, a judge initially dismissed the FSB's case. Pressure from the agency mounted, however, and before long Sutyagin was facing a Soviet-style sham trial that did not pause to consider the most serious charge against him - whether or not the information he supplied was in fact state secret.
Sutyagin's defense attorneys made a convincing case that it wasn't. Prosecutors charged, for instance, that he had revealed classified intelligence about Russia's PBB-AE missile. But Sutyagin's lawyers provided written testimony from the missile's manufacturers confirming that the technology was not a secret; it had in fact been on open display at international air shows since 1992. Privately, too, according to Sutyagin, authorities acknowledged that the case against him was bogus. No matter. In April 2004, five years after his initial arrest, Sutyagin received a 15-year prison sentence and was sent off to a maximum security penal colony near the Arctic Circle. The whole trial had been a perversion of the legal process. But justice, as the FSB understood it, had been done.
Freedom has not come free for Sutyagin. In winning his release last month, he was forced to confess out of necessity what he had long denied out of principle: that he had been a "spy" all along. Then he was sent away to London as part of his release. Although Sutyagin now wants to return to Russia, he worries, with good reason, what may be in store for him if he did.
Such blatant miscarriages of justice, all too reminiscent of the kangaroo courts of the Soviet era, are now a regular feature of modern Russia. Most prominent is the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed former head of Russia's biggest oil company, Yukos, who has been imprisoned since 2003. Tenuous to begin with, the charges against Khodorkovsky have been periodically inflated to keep him behind bars.
Like Sutyagin, Khodorkovsky has tried to challenge his imprisonment by pointing to the glaring flaws, contradictions and flat-out lies that make up the government's case against him. All this is, of course, irrelevant. The Russian government does not dispense justice on the basis of guilt but purely by political whim. After stints in and out of Siberian prison, Khodorkovsky faces yet another trial that could see him locked away for two decades or more.
If there is a marginal difference between modern Russia and its Soviet predecessor, it is in the fact that the country's leadership has at least acknowledged that the courts are instruments of political vengeance and personal score-settling. President Dmitry Medvedev has spoken out about corruption in Russia and has condemned the "legal nihilism" in the country.
But even if Medvedev, the former law professor, is sincere in his push for reform of the legal system, the fact that he governs at the whim of the true power base in Russian politics, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the former KGB colonel, guarantees that such efforts will go nowhere. Amid domestic outcry and international criticism of FSB abuses, the Kremlin's brazen response has been to increase the agency's power by authorizing it to arrest people even before they've committed a crime. Putin himself has encouraged legal abuses.
In Khodorkovsky's case, for instance, Putin has gone beyond even the dubious official charges, accusing the prisoner of being responsible for several murders, a crime with which he has never been charged. It's a grim warning about Khodorkovsky's future - and Russia's.
The accompanying tragedy of Russia's political regression is that the victims of its legal nihilism are also the biggest optimists; the most determined to believe that the country has truly broken with its repressive past. Thus Khodorkovsky, trapped deep inside a legal black hole, still clings to the belief that he can prove his innocence. "I'm going to prove that I am in the right so comprehensively that nobody will have any room left for doubt," he vowed in a recent interview. Alas, for Khodorkovsky, those who control his fate don't much care for such trivialities as innocence or guilt. To them, the outcome has already been determined.
And Igor Sutyagin, despite his 11-year nightmare, has not been disabused of his hope that things are now different. "It's my country. I am not on the run," he has said from his current London exile. But Sutyagin is wrong. The county is not his - it is Vladimir Putin's. And it has not changed.