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
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
"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.