In Gorbachev’s Courts

I recently visited the Soviet Union as a member of a Helsinki Watch mission investigating the current state of human rights there.1 In our official meetings we concentrated on the questions of emigration, psychiatric abuse, informal political activity, free speech,2 but I also wanted to find out how ordinary criminals are tried in the courts. Does the pervasive talk in the capital about glasnost and human rights make a difference in daily life, particularly in the provinces, where neither Sakharov nor the foreign press can observe what happens?

The Kiev regional courthouse, a modest, salmon-colored office building, houses the courts that hear the most serious charges brought under the Ukrainian criminal code. The electric signs above Courtrooms One and Two say sud idyot—“court in session.” I knock at the first door and as a militiaman opens it a few inches, I catch a glimpse of a trial in progress. I try to negotiate with him in Russian whispers, but the door closes without a “nyet.” Whatever the constitution says about open and public trials, this particular courtroom is not for strangers. I try again at Courtroom Two. This time my hallway arguments get me past the guard and I try to blend into the second row, behind a well-dressed young man.

The courtroom is not all that different from one in New York. The judge, wearing a business suit, sits on a raised bench; on the wall behind him hangs the conventional symbol of Soviet authority—the hammer and sickle, and next to it the words: “Workers of the World Unite.” Two lawyers and a prosecutor, a representative of the all-powerful “procuracy”—the state agency responsible not only for criminal prosecution but for administering criminal justice generally—sit at a long table attached at a right angle to the judge’s bench. The man in his late twenties who sits in front of me is Boris Levitchuk, one of the defendants in the case. His codefendant, Igor Patov, sits behind a low partition to the left, under the watchful eye of the court guards. From their seats in the courtroom, it is obvious that Levitchuk is still (or once again) at liberty, and Patov is in the custody of the procuracy.

On each side of the judge sit the “people’s assessors”—the Soviet counterpart of American lay jurors. These matronly women in their fifties will officially decide the case with him and, unofficially, defer to his views, much as members of an American grand jury usually defer to a district attorney’s views. Whether the judge will defer to anyone, particularly to the local Party officials, has become a central question of criminal justice under Gorbachev.

The Soviet press has published stories acknowledging that in about 10 percent of the cases, Party officials intervene by talking to the presiding judge. What do they say when they do so? The chief judge of the Leningrad court concedes that the figure is accurate, but insists that in Leningrad the Party officials who made calls to…

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