Remembering one of Russia's greatest legal crusaders
Those were two of the many useful pieces of advise I remember receiving
from attorney Yury Shmidt before being interrogated by the Federal
Security Service (FSB) some 14 years ago. It was January 1999 and I was working as a reporter in St. Petersburg.
The story of the moment was the assassination of State Duma Deputy and
human rights activist Galina Starovoitova, who was gunned down in the
stairwell of her apartment building in the city on November 20, 1998.
The FSB, which showed little interest in solving the crime, had been
busy summoning journalists who were close to Starovoitova and pressuring
them into giving false and compromising testimony about the slain
politician. I got subpoenaed shortly after writing a story about the experience of two such Russian journalists who had endured these interrogations.
I retained Shmidt as an attorney, as much for legal counsel as for advice on how to handle myself once inside the "Bolshoi Dom," or the "Big House," as the St. Petersburg FSB headquarters is known.
The son of two Soviet-era political prisoners and a longtime human rights lawyer, Shmidt knew this territory better than most. In his trademark kindly, wise, and yet no-nonsense style, he gave me a thorough rundown of my rights and obligations as well as an invaluable checklist of dos and don'ts while dealing with the FSB.
When I went in for questioning and handed the officer who would be questioning me a document indicating that I was represented by attorney, and that attorney was Yury Shmidt, the deflated look on my interrogator's face said it all. Such was Shmidt's reputation. He, after all, was on the verge of securing the acquittal of ecologist Aleksandr Nikitin, a retired navy captain the FSB had accused of espionage due to his environmental work. "Why did you go and hire Shmidt?" I remember the officer, who identified himself only as "Ivanov," saying. "He's just trying to scare you." From that point on, the interrogation was pretty painless. (And no, I didn't mention any names. And yes, I spent a lot of time talking about banal things.)
I recall this old story now for the saddest of reasons. Shmidt died in St. Petersburg this weekend at the age of 75 after a long battle with cancer.
In recent years, Shmidt was most famous as the lead defense attorney for jailed Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He began his career in the 1960s as a criminal attorney. Shmidt wanted to defend political prisoners, but due to his family's history was not allowed to. "My father was imprisoned for 27 years in Soviet times. My mother was in internal exile. My social circle was that of dissidents. My anti-Soviet convictions came very early in my life," he said in a recent interview.
When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Shmidt founded the Lawyers' Committee for the Defense of Human Rights. The Nikitin case, which ended in acquittal in December 1999, secured his reputation as one of Russia's premier defense attorneys. Some of his other notable cases included the defense of two journalists in Perm accused by the FSB of revealing state secrets in their articles and of Yury Samodurov, director of the Sakharov Museum, on charges of inciting religious hatred. He also represented Starovoitova's family following the lawmaker's assassination.
"To describe this man as a legend in his field would barely do justice to the intelligence, compassion, and courage he displayed on a daily basis, tirelessly working for his beliefs long after it would have been more comfortable to relent and conform," wrote Robert Amsterdam, an attorney who served on Khodorkovsky's international defense team. "He went toe-to-toe with the darkest, most intimidating elements within Russia's security apparatus and never flinched."
The last time I saw Shmidt was during a visit to RFE/RL back in June 2010. He looked much frailer than I remembered him in the 1990s and he was visibly less animated. He lamented that the legal profession had become overly commercialized and dominated by big money. When I asked him if there was anybody among Russia's young attorneys who impressed him, he said he had considered Stanislav Markelov, the rights lawyer who was assassinated in January 2009, to be his "spiritual successor" and was deeply troubled by his death.
"There will be somebody," he said. "I don't want to think the situation is so hopeless."
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
- Don't say anybody's name unless you have to. If you do, that person could also be called in for interrogation.
- They will take down everything you say, so talk as long as you can about the most banal things possible and let them fill their notebooks up with nonsense.