Russia Behind Bars

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Sergei Magnitsky, and now, Pussy Riot. While these highly publicized cases are mostly known for their political nature, they also hint at deeper problems within the Russian justice system. Unwarranted arrests, unjust trials and unfair verdicts. Members of the social movement ‘Russia Behind Bars’ have personally encountered these injustices. Now, the mostly female group dedicates its time and energy to helping others who have the misfortune to be going up against what Russians cynically call ‘the system’.

Lora Kudelko is a woman with presence. Blond, elegant and beautiful. Of Polish and Lithuanian descent, she has lived in Moscow with her husband since the mid-1990s. As a law-abiding citizen, she will not even cross the street on a red light, no matter how far away the traffic. She speaks to the point, gives instructions with an air of urgency and walks around with an overflowing notebook. Kudelko is an activist, a true rights defender. As one of the original members of the social movement ‘Russia Behind Bars’ (RBB), Lora spends her time attending court hearings, donating food to prisoners and raising awareness of corruption in the Russian justice system. Yet, until only recently Kudelko lived a carefree life as the wife of a successful businessman. All that changed five years ago when her family’s “journey into the whirlwind” began.

Russia Behind BarsKudelko’s husband, Nikolai, was one of the largest coffee distributors in Russia. In April 2007, while away on a business trip, police arrived at his warehouse and confiscated almost $2 million in goods, with no investigation launched for six months. The company’s entire import stock was seized, despite the fact that police claimed only one of the coffee brands was counterfeit. Upon returning to Moscow, Nikolai began knocking on every administrative door in an attempt to retrieve his merchandise. The police demanded $500,000 for its return. In a desperate bid to keep his business afloat, Nikolai paid the sum. His goods, however, were not returned. Indeed, friends were soon calling from outside of Moscow to warn that specific brands of coffee, which only Nikolai distributed in Russia, were showing up in the provinces. “[The police] thought that since he is a foreigner, he would just leave and not fight,” explained Kudelko. “When he gathered compromising material, which was very strong because there were some well known figures involved, they put him in prison for three years.” Kudelko was left alone to fight for the release of her husband. “The scariest are the first days of arrest, the first week of arrest. When you come back to your apartment after a search, you understand that your life has drastically changed,” recalled Kudelko with an air of sadness. She did not know whom she could trust or turn to for advice, changing lawyers eight times in three years. Each had been paid off, just like the police. In search of help, Kudelko turned to the Lithuanian authorities – the country of Nikolai’s and her own citizenship – but was informed by consular staff that they could not intervene in the trial until a verdict was issued. While Kudelko had plenty of prominent connections, an arrest is the type of affliction that most acquaintances prefer to avoid. Among Russians, misfortune is considered contagious, reflected in a common saying: “don’t bring misfortune into my home.”

As a result, Kudelko began a life of trials and jails. “When one person sits [in prison], the whole family sits,” she explained, recalling how her daughter was forced to suspend her studies in order to take care of her younger brother. Fortunately for Kudelko and her family, Nikolai was released after three years. The couple has continued to fight for justice, however, demanding the return of their goods as well as punishment for the corrupt officials involved. To date, their efforts have been fruitless. On 20 July, the Moscow City Court decided within a mere 15 minutes that Nikolai was not entitled to the return of his goods. Kudelko suspected that the confiscated items had been sold off and the money had “disappeared.”

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Report by Kira Youdina.

Photography by Ziyoda Kurbanova for The Global Journal.