In March 2010, I wrote a piece for THE WEEKLY STANDARD about some incidents in which the Moscow police had shown that ordinary citizens’ lives did not count for much in Putin’s Russia.
In one case, the police forced motorists to park their automobiles at oblique angles to block traffic on one of the highways on the outskirts of the city. What the unsuspecting motorists did not know was that they were being used as human shields to stop a car driven by an armed criminal that was headed towards the police roadside checkpoint. The parked automobiles were supposed to be a barricade that would block the criminal’s car.
Instead, the fleeing automobile crashed through the parked cars, damaging several of them, and kept on going. The police not only did not apologize for placing these innocent civilians in harm’s way, they also refused at first to pay for repairs to those cars.
The other case, which brought about even more public outcry, was the death of two women, an elderly obstetrician and her daughter, in a Moscow traffic accident. They were killed when their automobile was plowed into head-on by a much larger Mercedes sedan driven by a vice president of the powerful Lukoil petroleum company, Anatoliy Barkov.
Barkov and his driver claimed that the C3 Citroën driven by the two women had veered into oncoming traffic in his lane. But, several witnesses stated that it was the Lukoil VP’s Mercedes that had crossed the double yellow line in order to pass all of the other automobiles stacked in a rush hour traffic snarl.
The Mercedes was one of those automobiles with a “special” number plate that indicates membership in that exclusive fraternity of senior executives employed by the former Soviet state enterprises that were privatized in the 1990s. Barkov’s mysteriously opaque background gave rise to speculation that he was another of the many former KGB colleagues of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who have enriched themselves in those enterprises in recent years, which would explain why the Moscow police were willing to go along with his version of the accident and ignore all witnesses to the contrary.
However, the Russian justice system is not infallibly corrupt. On July 14 the constitutional court ruled that the case be reopened. Relatives of the two victims, Vera Sidelnikova, 72, and her daughter-in-law Olga Alexandrina, 35, have been pushing for a criminal investigation against Barkov and finally got their wish with this ruling—16 months after the two women were killed.
The ruling has immediate significance for the family, who may possibly finally see some punishment meted out to Barkov. But beyond this, the lawyers representing the dead women’s surviving family say that this precedent would make it harder for the police to close cases by blaming accidents on the dead victims rather than conducting a proper inquiry.
Many people—both inside and outside of Russia—spoke out, demonstrated, petitioned, and wrote letters in the wake of this incident, and the immense publicity it generated probably has more to do with the case being reopened than anything else. Still, a system that responds to public pressure represents an advance for Russian justice that deserves recognition.