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Biography of Aleksei Pichugin Published

Vera Vasilyeva, 14/11/11


The Prague publishing house Human Rights Publishers has brought out a book about Aleksei Pichugin, former employee of the Yukos oil company, Aleksei Pichugin: Roads and Crossroads (A Biographical Essay). Reports from the trials of Aleksei Pichugin have been published earlier, but this is the full story of a man who became a hostage in the war for the control of oil resources and who, in this conflict without rules, managed to preserve his honour and human dignity. Aleksei Pichugin himself, together with his colleagues, companions, family and friends, tells about the intimidation he underwent, the key moments in his trials, and how he had the strength to continue the fight.  

The extract printed below is the preface to the publication in which I tell how and why I came to take up the case of Aleksei Pichugin.

...Oh the painful struggle of a person to preserve himself, a struggle in which there is practically no hope of success … the right of a natural superiority against stupid, blind, and stubborn forces, that know neither honour, nobility, nor compassion, and are able to do only one thing – to achieve the goals they have set themselves – by any means and always without fail.
Boris Strugatsky, Commentaries On What Has Gone Before

I first became interested in the Yukos Affair, or more accurately the criminal prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, a long time ago, almost at the very beginning of their first trial. From 2004 I eagerly followed all the news I could find on this topic, attended the trial at Moscow’s Meshchansky district court, and took part in demonstrations in support of the accused. Gradually, under the influence of what I saw and heard, I formed my views about this trial, views that I expressed in my reports from that time, although mostly I was then engaged in an area of journalism far removed from judicial or political affairs.

In Aleksei Pichugin’s case, things were much more complicated. His first trial, which began in Moscow City Court in the summer of 2004, took place behind closed doors. All that was available to come to any conclusions about whether the evidence produced by the General Prosecutor’s Office was convincing, or about the general character of the trial, were the comments made to the media by trial participants. But this seemed to me to be inadequate. At the same time, I could not get out of my head the question of whether the accused was guilty: Aleksei Pichugin, after all, was accused of very serious crimes.

This explains why I attended the first court hearing in his second trial, which was held in public, on 3 April 2006.

“I’ll go to three or four sessions, make up my own mind about whether Pichugin is guilty or not, and that will be that,” I thought.

Outside the doors of Courtroom 507 on the fifth floor of Moscow City Court all was quiet. Apart from those directly taking part in the trial, there was a small group of journalists and a few others. The situation was quite different from what I had seen at the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev. Then, outside the doors of a small courtroom at Moscow’s Meshansky district court, each morning there almost always formed a long line of people who wished to attend the trial, their way blocked by someone who said his name was Ivan Ivanovich and who, as rumour had it, was an ex-FSB officer.

Here the large court room was literally shocking in its emptiness. I had an unpleasant feeling, as though I was on a podium and everyone else was watching me. I ran out, but then was angry with myself for this silliness, and returned.

Aleksei Pichugin, pale, thin, physically worn out, was calm and behaved with dignity. His physical resemblance to one of the women attending the trial and sitting in the court room was astonishing. Eyes, hair, facial features…I wouldn’t have believed that two people could so resemble each other.

The trial stretched on day after day, and I wrote about my impressions in my LiveJournal blog. What happened in the courtroom did not tie in with my notions of what should happen at a trial, despite my previous experience. At the same time, my journalist colleagues ceased attending. This was hugely disappointing, but came as no great surprise. The daily routine of a trial rarely gives the press a lively topic for comment, and Aleksei Pichugin was not one of the main newsmakers in the Yukos Affair.

“Thank you for coming,” on one occasion I heard a whispered voice behind my back. I turned round and saw the woman who had attracted my attention by her resemblance to the accused on the first day of the trial. This turned out to be Aleksei Pichugin’s mother, Alla Nikolaevna, and we became close friends.

A turning point in my understanding of what was taking place was a phrase pronounced by the prosecutor Kira Gudim during the court hearing on 7 June 2006 in response to a riposte by Aleksei Pichugin’s lawyer, Georgy Kaganer.

Kira Gudim, a short, dark-haired woman in glasses, had the habit of presenting the case materials in a very particular way: she uttered individual phrases, as a result of which, out of context, the meaning of what she was saying was changed. Judge Vladimir Usov did not have the text in front of him, and relied exclusively on what Kira Gudim said in the courtroom.

“Kira Stanislavovna, let’s be more exact in quoting the materials of the case. After all, a person’s fate is being decided here,” Georgy Kaganer said, exasperated.

“It’s already decided,” Kira Gudim cut him short.

To my amazement, the judge showed complete indifference to the fact that, in essence, he had just been shown his true status as a merely decorative figure at the trial.

The questions I had formerly asked myself about Aleksei Pichugin were now largely answered. I could have satisfied myself with this and considered the matter closed. But instead I went home and wrote Aleksei Pichugin a letter, and sent it to him at the Sailors’ Rest pre-trail detention centre.

“Dear Aleksei Vladimirovich, My name is Vera Vasilyeva and I am from Moscow. I have decided to write you this letter. Of course, the words of someone you do not know cannot give real help, but I hope that my wishes for strength of spirit and faith that evil will not triumph will give you at least some support.

I am furious at my own inability to change what is happening, and also at the fact that attempts that are made don’t bring any evident results. I think that the solution lies in the consolidation of society, in the awakening of civic consciousness among the general public. We should have understood a long time ago that human rights, including the right to a fair and impartial trial, are for everyone, irrespective of circumstances,” I wrote.

I did not expect a reply, although before this I had received several letters from Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to whom I had also expressed my sympathy and support in letters. But, unlike the former head of Yukos, Aleksei Pichugin was not a public figure. His situation was desperate, and to expect that he would spend time on anything other than preparing for his trial and communicating with his family and friends seemed unlikely.

Once, when I was leaving Moscow City Court after one of the trial sessions, Georgy Kaganer, Aleksei Pichugin’s lawyer, called me over to him.

“Tell me, please, is it you who wrote from N street?” he asked.

I answered in the affirmative.

“Aleksei asked me to tell you that if you can, please do come again to the trial,” the lawyer said.

At home I found in my post box a letter with a blue stamp “Pre-Trial Detention Centre 99/1” on a nice envelope. The letter was written in a large, careful hand on both sides of a page from a school exercise book.

“Greetings, Vera. This is Aleksei Pichugin writing to you. I would like with all my soul to thank you for your letter, for your warm words of support and understanding. Now, when things are so hard for me, for my family and close friends, the words of a right-thinking, honest and good person give such strength that they help to continue the fight, despite everything, the fight to the victory we shall achieve, because truth and the best people of our society are on our side. And your letter is a clear confirmation of this.

And it is utterly unimportant that these words come from someone I do not know. What is important is that you and many others have not remained indifferent to our need for victory, and to all that is happening. This is cause for happiness and gives grounds for faith and hope that not all is lost for our society. And this means that in the end we shall one day succeed. I very much hope that we shall not have long to wait.

Vera, I want one more time to express my sincerest gratitude for your support, kind words and wishes. From all my heart I wish you, your family and close friends good health, peace, well-being, very best wishes and all the very best in every way! I wish you success.

With sincere respect and very best wishes, Aleksei Pichugin.”

Putting the letter to one side I understood that it was too soon for me to consider this matter closed, and that I must do something about this case.

In the Yukos case we have no right to forget anyone. I have attentively read every single one of Vera Vasilyeva’s courtroom reports on the trial of Aleksei Pichugin. In all these trials it is clear to any unprejudiced reader that the judge is not meeting the main requirement of a judicial trial – the equality of the prosecution and the defence – and gives preference to the prosecutors, violating the rights of lawyers for the defence.

Elena Bonner, public figure, dissident, writer, wife of Andrei Sakharov, 21 June 2010.
Appeal to those present at a banquet given by Marion and Elie Wiesel in New York in support of Mikhail Khodorkovsky

This book about Aleksei Pichugin is important for us all. We need to know not only about the trial, but also to understand what kind of people they are who have been prosecuted in the course of the Yukos affair, what gives them the strength to remain defiant and to live, despite everything. After all to live, in the real meaning of this word, is not something that is given to those who have persecuted them – those who are so deep in lies, fear and envy.

Svetlana Gannushkina, board member, Memorial Human Rights Centre

This is a story about our terrible time. A story about what the state machine can do with a person today, if it does not want to kill them, but simply exclude them from among those really living. This is a demonstration of what can happen tomorrow to any one of us. It is the story of an everyday tragedy. Let’s learn about it, feel compassion and not forget.

Boris Strugatsky, writer

Rights in Russia,
17 Nov 2011, 08:47