MOSCOW, Russia — Russians returned en masse from their extended New Year’s holiday on Monday, flying home from holidays abroad and returning to work after long stays at their country houses.
The mood was, understandably, sour — except at the small Khamovnichesky Courthouse, on a quiet street perched above the banks of the Moskva River.
Outside room seven on the courthouse’s third floor, a small crowd of about 30 gathered, greeting each other with handshakes and New Year’s well wishes.
At 10 to noon, a handful of armed guards ushered the crowd onto the stairwell, clearing space for the country’s most famous prisoners.
As Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the founder of Yukos oil company, and his partner Platon Lebedev descended the stairs, the crowd erupted into shouts of “Happy New Year!” Khodorkovsky and Lebedev wore massive smiles, studying and searching the crowd for familiar faces. They were each handcuffed to a guard. One woman yelled, “Hold on, guys!”
Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are 10 months into a trial for charges of money laundering and embezzlement. They are already serving eight-year sentences for fraud and tax evasion, of which they were convicted in 2005. The new charges carry sentences of up to 22 years in prison.
The trial had been adjourned since Dec. 29, when the court went on break for the New Year holiday, which lasts about two weeks in Russia. Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were forbidden from seeing their lawyers during that time. They spent the holiday in Matrosskaya Tishina, Moscow’s most infamous pre-detention center. That made the wide smiles and enthusiastic handwaves easier to understand.
Khodorkosvky and Lebedev spend the trial in a glass cage framed by brown metal, its door held shut with a pair of black handcuffs. Members of their seven-person legal team take turns going up to the five-inch spaces open on either side of the cage, through which they can speak to their clients.
On either side of the cage sit two guards outfitted in blue camoflauge, with faux fur hats dyed blue to match. On Monday, their faces were red and puffy, as though still recovering from hangovers. These guards are less ominous-looking than the ones that sit outside the courtroom, dressed in black berets, black outfits and thick black boots, constantly fingering their machine guns.
The crowd is composed of a handful of dedicated Russian reporters, mainly for liberal outlets like the Novaya Gazeta newspaper and Echo Moskvy radio station. There are always at least five old women, in full make-up — they call themselves Khodorkovsky's fan club, and hold him up as the country's only hope for salvation. Before the trial re-started on Monday, they made comments like grandmothers: "He's lost weight," said one. "Look, there's a new guard. He looks like all the rest," said another.
The courtroom is wood panelled, and behind the judge’s table a large Russian flag is pinned to the wall so it looks forever fluttering, giving the scene the atmosphere of a high school play. There is no jury.
The prosecution began presenting witnesses in September, following nearly half a year of daily hearings during which the charges were read out. They have so far called several dozen witnesses in a list said to number 250. Few in Russia believe the proceedings to be meaningful, and the defense team has called the charges politically motivated. President Dmitry Medvedev has vowed to build an independent court system, but there is no evidence of that happening so far.
On Monday, the prosecution called Mikhail Rudoy, a former Yukos employee in charge of exports who now works at Rosneft, the state-run oil company that bought Yukos’ main oil fields in a series of bankruptcy auctions. Rosneft has now replaced Yukos as the country’s largest oil company, and Khodorkovsky has accused the chairman of its board, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, of orchestrating the campaign against him.
Valery Lakhtin, the lead prosecutor in the four-person prosecution team, led the questioning. He asked Rudoy if he had ever heard of Yukos and if so what his relationship to it. As Rudoy began to answer, Lakhtin interrupted and sharply reminded his witness that he was to use Yukos’ full name — OAO NK Yukos (a sort of Russian abbreviation for Yukos Oil Company Inc.) — when referring to it.
As Lakhtin continued his answers, Judge Viktor Danilkin jumped in to tell him to slow down because the court secretary couldn’t keep up with him. Even though she sits in front of a computer monitor, the secretary was taking notes by hand in slow cursive script.
As the line of questioning continued, the giggles from the glass cage grew more obvious. Even the judge had to jump in and intervene when Lakhtin asked his witness, “Could you disagree with the amount of oil that was to be delivered?” The judge asked Lakhtin if he understood what a contract was.
For most of the proceedings, Khodorkovsky, dressed in a black shirt and suit jacket and blue jeans, sat quietly, reading defense documents. Lebedev, in a gray tracksuit, was more animated, trying to catch the attention of members of the crowd and laughing or showing shock at the prosecutors’ statements.
Before the mid-day break on Monday, Lakhtin turned to the witness and asked, “Who was the final seller of the oil?” It seemed no one understood the question — not even the judge. “What are we to do with these questions?” he asked, to no one in particular.
As the trial went to break and a reporter left the courthouse, one of the guards on the ground floor asked, “So, has the trial been cancelled?” It’s a joke he must make hundreds of times a month, ensuring an absurd end to an absurd day.