- Mr. Sheriff, I’d like to make a confession. I’ve come here voluntarily, without any subpoenas. I’m standing here in front of you at my own will.
- Honestly speaking, it’s a very long while since I used to be addressed that way. Quite possibly, the last time that happened was when I served as the Prosecutor of the Irkutsk Region. Or even earlier, when I was investigating the high-profile Tulun prison riot affair. As you may have heard, there had been an insurrection at special penitentiary No. 2. Each day I had to go there for questioning. I recall it was then that I was addressed as “Mr. Sheriff”.
- What kind of case was that?
- Back then it was the hottest topic around. The subject was on everybody’s lips. In 1978, convicted felons at the central penitentiary in Tulun (many mob bosses, including Vyacheslav Ivankov, nicknamed Yaponchik, or Little Japanese) were imprisoned there, rose up in revolt against bad conditions and the administration’s corruption. The penitentiary’s Deputy Chief for Security, Major Vedernikov, was taken hostage. Given this reason, after so many years, I still remember his name. Five men died in the rioting. My team spent six months investigating the case. We had to conduct an in-depth inquiry – into legal violations by prison officials and into who was responsible for the killings. The bodies bore more than a hundred wounds. As the victims were dragged along the corridors, everybody was free to join in on the carnage: punch, kick, cut with sharpened pieces of metal, and break bones… This brutal punishment was used against those who opposed the revival of the mob world’s unwritten code of conduct.
It was a really hard case to investigate. At the request of the defendants’ lawyers I was questioned by a district court for two and a half hours.
- What for?
- Everybody was sincerely surprised and could not believe we had managed to prove what in our legal jargon is known “cause-and-effect connection” between the wounds and the death and persuaded the accused to confess. All of the Tulun convicts were hardened criminals. Each of them was a tough nut to crack. It was really difficult to “make them sing.” When the defendants realized that they were fighting a losing battle, they followed their lawyers’ advice to come up with all sorts of preposterous depositions. For instance, we had been accused of offering them drugs in exchange for a confession. A complaint was dispatched to Moscow to the Communist Party’s main disciplinary watchdog. Demands were made to hold us accountable for abusing the Communist’s code of conduct. Sheer nonsense! Yet the whole team of investigators had to face a court interrogation. It did not help. Nine convicts were handed long prison terms…
- Did you have to appear in court often in the capacity of state prosecutor?
- Why, naturally I did. When I held a position at an interregional prosecutor’s office. I was an investigator for a while. I think I did a good job then. Back in the 1970s, I managed to halt the prosecution of several cases involving necessary self-defense. Such precedents were extremely rare then! The cases were scrutinized even by the USSR Prosecutor-General’s Office. Heated debates on this subject are still raging today. In the meantime, yours truly used that article in practice in a remote province, the Ust Uda district. The local people there were all tough guys – convicts serving penal labor terms at hazardous factories, lumberjacks, pine resin collectors and the like. All of them were men of honor and never broke a promise. In a word, it’s a long while since I participated in court proceedings personally.
- Some of your predecessors seldom missed a chance to appear in public in such capacity. Take Andrey Vyshinsky, for instance.
- Those were very different days. Any comparison would be wrong. Many trials were fast-tracked. It took hours to pass a sentence. Confession was regarded as “the Queen of Evidence”, as Vishinsky used to say. We all know in what way those confessions were often obtained and what their real worth was.
These days there is no need for the Prosecutor-General to participate in court hearings personally. Many cases consist of quite a few sub-cases – episodes we call them. Hearings may last many months. Neck-deep involvement in criminal proceedings will leave no chance for doing day-to-day work. Many current affairs would have to be shifted onto the shoulders of my deputies. I do not think this will be right.
I’m not a guest star. I cannot afford to stand up and read out what my subordinates who have in-depth knowledge of the case have written for me. Should I start doing so, I’d stop respecting myself.
I have to delve into the details to sort things out myself. Only then will I have the right to voice an opinion.
Earlier today I was briefed on another case two of my deputies are in charge of. I like the investigator’s job. Let me say once again: back in the 1970s I started my career as an investigator. I also led the investigation department at the office of the East Siberian transport prosecutor, I was in charge of the investigation division of a regional prosecutor’s office. I have first-hand understanding on the ins and outs of that job from the inside, at the grass-roots level, but I have to confess that my current position leaves no chance of focusing on something in particular. It would be a waste of time and energy and a strategic mistake on my part, for I’m keen to use my working hours most effectively.
- What is your attitude to out-of-court settlements and plea bargaining?
- Why do you ask?
- There’s a widespread belief that fast-track legal proceedings save time.
- They do, but if you want to know my personal opinion, I’m strongly opposed to such deals. They generate inequality. The one who agrees to such a bargain may falsely accuse other defendants and get off with a lighter sentence, while everybody else will be convicted and handed the harshest sentence possible.
- Have there been any acquittals in your professional career?
- None, if you are asking me about the cases I investigated myself. A couple of cases were reinvestigated on some minor grounds, but not a single defendant was set free in the courtroom.
- Having served over 40 years, what do you think has changed in the system?
- In all fairness, I must say that I was a career Communist Party functionary for sometime. Also, I was Russia’s Justice Minister, but it is true that most of the years of my legal career were in various jobs with the prosecution system. Getting a prosecutor’s job in the 1970s was hard, in fact incredibly difficult. Only the very best were selected. The specialists were trained mostly at three law schools – in Sverdlovsk, Kharkov and Saratov. I graduated from the institute in Sverdlovsk, in the Urals.
The changes over the past four decades were colossal. The fundamental, basic principles and commitment to law remain the same, while many other aspects have changed. For instance, back then there were no business people in the modern sense of the word. We had only black market profiteers and shadow economy manufacturers of substandard products operating underground. All faced criminal charges. These days we work in close contact with the business community and do our outmost to protect it from illegal interference. There has emerged a robust civil and arbitration legislation structure. Over the past ten years the special network of prosecutors’ offices supervising transport has been re-created. Special units have been set up to fight corruption, extremism, terrorism and boost law and order in inter-ethnic relations.
I’d particularly like to say a couple of words about the struggle against corruption. In January 2013, prosecutors were given new powers in that sphere and they have now used them to the fullest extent. We have initiated more than 600 litigation cases to control civil servants’ spending. More than thirty lawsuits demanding conversion of concealed assets to state property were sent to the courts. Courts have already sustained twelve lawsuits more than a hundred million ruble worth that had been filed by prosecutors.
- Do you think this is much? In contrast to the nine billion rubles seized from Police Colonel Dmitry Zakharchenko…
- Let me finish first! I’m drawing no parallels, I’m briefing you on the facts and figures related to our work. Over the past two years the investigators have confiscated 11.8 billion rubles worth of properties, cash and valuables and carried out asset confiscations worth another 62.3 billion rubles.
Furthermore, over the past three years prosecutors used article 19.28 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (Illegal Reward on behalf of a Legal Entity) to hold more than 1,000 legal entities liable. The courts have levied fines totaling 1.5 million rubles. In 2016, inspections by prosecutors resulted in the dismissal of 380 civil servants (mostly at the municipal level) over loss of confidence. All of them were proven guilty of corruption. More than 300 cases of violations of anti-corruption legislation were exposed last year. At prosecutors’ demands nearly 70,000 officials were disciplined and investigative authorities launched more than 3,700 criminal proceedings. A total of 13,183 culprits were convicted on corruption charges last year.
- It is common knowledge that your relationship with Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin has been a strained one from the outset. Wouldn’t you like to take over the Investigative Committee again?
- I’ve never had any ambitions like that. I’ve always been for creating an integral investigative committee as an independent body, but at the same time I always said that it is extremely important to maintain a balance of powers. In any civilized country the prosecutor either investigates a criminal case himself or oversees the investigation process. This is very logical. It is the prosecutor who on behalf of the state performs the function of prosecuting the criminal charges. It is not normal to have a situation in which somebody else conducts the investigation work, while the prosecutor is barred from the process and eventually faces an accomplished fact: here is the collected evidence, your job is to go to court and support the charges. That’s wrong. In the meantime, this is precisely the way it is.
- We’ve had it this way since 2007, when the Investigative Committee was separated from the Prosecutor-General’s Office.
- Does it make any difference? We hadn’t had any procedural powers before, either. We can join legal proceedings only at the very beginning, when a criminal case is opened. The prosecutor’s office has just twenty four yours to overturn the decision or to accept it. And then we step in at the very end, when we receive the case together with the bill of indictment. Let me say this again, we are barred from the investigation process. The balance of powers must be restored and the investigation made an integral process again.
- Does this apply to the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service (FSB)?
- Regarding the security service an exception may be made. It deals with cases of special importance to the state and the requirements there are very special, too. As for the Interior Ministry’s investigative bodies, they should be merged with the Investigative Committee to become one agency.
- What cases do you personally oversee?
- First and foremost, those concerning social issues – wages for state workers, retirement age and disability pensions, children’s benefits and the healthcare service. I pay unremitting attention to what is happening in the housing and utilities sector – resettlement from slums, semi-finished embattled construction projects, and its quality, in addition to utility services and utility bills. You will have a clearer understanding of the scale of this, if I tell you that every year we receive about 4 million messages from individuals and their number keeps growing by 10% on the average every year. More than half of the grievances that are related with labor legislation abuse turn out to be well-founded. Nearly a quarter of complaints about violations of housing and pension laws are sustained. Over the past 18 months, at our initiative nearly 9,000 various ranking civil servants have been penalized for carelessness or negligence in responding to requests they get from individuals and organizations.
And, of course, I am well-informed about all prominent criminal cases.
- Including the Boris Nemtsov murder case?
- That goes without saying. It is important to note that I have full confidence in my subordinates, my deputies, the chiefs of departments and the individual staffers. We have a solid professional team. These people know how to do their job and they do it well. I don’t have to look into the details and to check and re-check everything myself.
- And still…the driver, Ruslan Mukhudinov has been named as the one, who put a hit out on Nemtsov and who masterminded the killing. But isn’t he too insignificant of an individual to qualify as the key culprit?
- This isn’t a small fry that we are talking about, but an individual. Is there a yardstick to gauge? Everything can happen in life, you know. It is up to politicians, journalists and public figures to come up with theories and easily and freely interpret publicly-available information to handle the facts.
A court of law has before it a specific criminal case launched over the murder of Nemtsov. I believe that the investigators have gathered enough evidence and did a good job. I have no doubts on that score. And, what is still more important, the state prosecutors believe so, too. Should any of the prosecutors involved have found something confusing during the trial, I would’ve already known about that. Meanwhile, everything is following along its due course. Let us not jump to hasty conclusions.
- What would you say about the Ulyukayev case?
- Total felony! And I know what I’m saying. The evidence is more than convincing.
That man does not distinguish between a civil service job and his own pocket. How dare he demand a surcharge for doing what he is obliged to do by virtue of his office? If a civil servant’s salary is not enough for him, he can go and start a private business of his own to try and make money that way!
- It’s rather confusing given that investigators dwell at length upon different lines of inquiry in public and do so rather eagerly, while the defense lawyers have to keep their mouths shut, because they made a written promise not to disclose details.
- Let us put the emphases correctly. The investigator is in the position to decide how to go about the business of inquiries and what details should be kept secret. Nobody can influence that not even the Prosecutor-General. Here it is a totally different matter, all parties concerned should be making fewer public statements and less noise in the media, and focus more on practical work instead. The principle of presumption of innocence should remain sacrosanct. President Putin stated exactly just that in his latest message to the Federal Assembly. I always get angry when I see it ignored. Should someone be detained, he or she is branded guilty at once even though no charges have been formulated yet. Now we’ll see far less of this. And this is good.
- And why is your grip on Dmitry Strashnov, of the Russian Post, is so firm? True, a monthly salary of 10 million rubles seems remarkable for a village postman (and not only for him), but some other civil servants get a whole lot more.
- But that’s outrageous! The average wage in the industry falls short of 20,000 rubles while he approves a hundred-million-ruble bonus for himself! Where is his conscience? Strashnov’s salary is higher than that of any other top manager of a state unitarian enterprise. True, in government-run corporations and joint stock societies salaries are substantial, but not so in the federal unitarian enterprises. That’s an anti-record.
- What is your reply to critics who see political motives behind certain actions taken by the prosecutors?
- You should not look at plain criminal offenses from the standpoint of ideology. When I had a meeting with the President of the European Court of Human Rights, Guido Raimondi, last December, I told him precisely that. Over the past decades, tens of billions of dollars have fled Russia to London together with runaway bankers and other oligarchs, who have long been taken in and used for their purposes by Western secret services. Their money works for other economies, not for Russia’s. In the meantime, we are being told that we seek the extradition of ‘politically-persecuted’ emigrants who have taken refuge from a bloody regime. Nonsense! Wouldn’t you agree?
The Prosecutor-General’s Office has dispatched to London four dozen requests for such “refugees”, who feel pretty well overseas and lead a wealthy life on the money stolen from our state. Russia, Britain and other countries are signatories to the European Convention on Extradition for bringing those responsible to justice, or for enforcing the already declared sentences. You’ve asked me about high-profile cases. In April 2016, Italy extradited to Russia the former chief of the Federal Agency for the Development of State Border Infrastructure, Rosgranitsa, Dmitry Bezdelov, who misappropriated more than one billion rubles of budget money. The funds had been earmarked for building the Adler railway checkpoint.
Some countries, with which we have no extradition treaties, too, have agreed to expel wanted criminals to Russia. Ghana, Cambodia, the United Arab Emirates, Paraguay and Chile are among them. We cooperate with our counterparts in more than 80 countries along many lines, in such areas as searching for, arresting, confiscating and repatriating ill-gotten properties. Over the past five years, Russia has regained tens of millions of rubles of cash and valuables. Say, 1.5 billion rubles were returned to the plaintiffs in the Sovcomflot case and an amount as much as that to those involved in the Aeroflot case. In March 2016, after considering our request the United States handed over to Russia, 28 antiquated Russian documents dated from 18th-20th centuries, including decrees by Russian emperors, which are of tremendous historical and scientific value. In cooperation with other agencies concerned we will be pressing for the repatriation of other illegally disposed assets and working far more effectively.
- Your agency is already way ahead of many others in terms of efficiency. The charges you bring forward are accepted by courts in 99% of cases. Even under Stalin, acquittals were more frequent.
- You misjudge statistics. It is true we have top-of-the-line professionals. If we agree to take action on any case, we do so only based on a solid reason, thus such, the results. But prosecutors’ tasks are not confined to accusing. We safeguard citizens’ constitutional rights, we protect the interests of society and the state. Our chief mission is to promote legal and fair decisions by the courts, by all means. Whether the court decides to convict or to acquit is a different matter. The prosecutor’s office is certainly not a punitive agency. You will not find a bias towards conviction in our actions. We are not determined to gain a conviction against a defendant at any cost, so we do not regard acquittals as our defeat. Take a look at how many criminal cases we have closed.
- And still acquittals constitute less than one percent of all sentences pronounced. And most of the “not guilty” verdicts are brought in by jurors. And nearly one-third of their decisions are overturned by higher courts.
- This percentage is quite common around the world. We are at a level of most democratic countries. In the United States, for instance, the rate is below Russia’s. It’s wrong to manipulate opinion with pallid statistics, since this creates a distorted picture. In 2015, Russian courts pronounced 763 acquittals of 968 defendants, and in the first half of 2016, there were 406 acquittals of 498 men and women in the dock. In evaluating the presented evidence the prosecutor, just as the judge and the jurors, relies on his or her inner feeling and is guided by the law and conscience. The power to halt a state prosecution procedure is employed quite often. In 2015, that measure was taken towards 323 individuals, and in the first six months of 2016, towards another 119 people. Over the past 18 months, prosecutors have refused to support investigators’ court requests for remanding 6,500 defendants in custody.
One’s heart should not harden. These are not just fine words. In January-November 2016, prosecutors exposed nearly 3 million violations of the laws concerning elections and citizens’ rights, including about 200,000 illegal acts. We remember that there are individual human lives behind every single digit in our statistics.
True, mistakes do happen, but exclusively due to inexperience. And not by somebody’s ill wish. Naturally, if a court acquits someone, then it is clear that it was an attempt to send an innocent person to jail without reason. We look into each such case most thoroughly.
But there are situations where I do not recognize compromises. As soon as I learn that any employee of a prosecutor’s office is involved in some shady schemes, I always take harsh action. I do not tolerate gifts and bribes. Honor comes first. I was brought up to think that way. Decency is the most important of all. Business qualities follow next. Experience can be gained, while lost conscience can never be recovered. If a professional has turned out to be a scoundrel, he is doomed to remain so. There is no way of curing or reforming such a person. I judge people by certain qualities.
- Nonetheless, flak about personal interest and bias, when it comes to businessmen’s cases continue to be heaped upon your subordinates now and then.
- This flak looks like fiction to me. By virtue of my profession, I’m in the habit of using facts.
I’m not trying to look at it with rose-colored spectacles. It would be foolish to deny the rocky relations between businesses and law enforcement agencies. We established a special department for addressing them. An inter-departmental working group for the protection of businessmen’s rights was set up. We maintain an ongoing dialogue with the business community, we exchange information about unreasonable interference in economic activities, we carry out special inspections and take measures. Six months ago we opened a special hotline e-mail address for businesses to contact the Prosecutor-General personally. I received 500 complaints about groundless criminal prosecution, unjustified actions against the property of enterprises. It is common knowledge that criminal proceedings are often used as a means for seizing businesses. All this information is being closely examined. A quarter of the complaints have been settled already.
Say, in the Vladimir Region the CEO of a thermal power utility was indicted on criminal charges for maintaining an illegal enterprise. His company was providing thermal power for local households without a license. Those who initiated the lawsuit ignored the fact that the boiler room was the only one in the whole community. If it halted operations, the community would be left without any central heating. The prosecutor’s office managed to have the case closed as it found no evidence of a corpus delicti.
Over the past five years the number of those convicted of economic crimes fell 75% – from 8,000 in 2010 to 2,000 in 2015. That’s 0.2% of the total number of defendants. In the first half of 2016, about 1,000 individuals were convicted, including 60% of them for fraud. One in four got real prison terms.
- Wouldn’t you consider the following dubious say if a parent, in other words you, holds a high position in the halls of government, while his sons, like yours - Artyom and Igor - have successful business careers?
- Why should I feel uncomfortable about that? My boys have achieved everything on their own. They work hard, they are smart boys, they’ve got brains. I’ve never put in a word for them. They’ve built their businesses on their own, from scratch! Both of them, the younger one and the older one.
- What about government contracts?
- There were some, among others. But there’s never been anything like the 300 billion rubles the daily Vedomosti mentioned in 2015. There’ve never been any figures even remotely close to that. All sums were far smaller.
And, mind you, Igor has always complied with the assumed commitments on time and met all quality expectations. For about two years he acted an adviser to Andrey Vorobyov, the Moscow Region’s Governor. His position was an unsalaried. He was doing it out of sheer enthusiasm. And do you know how much of Igor’s own money is invested in various charities in the Moscow Region? Hundreds of millions of rubles! There were preparations for the 700th anniversary of St. Sergius, of Radonezh, in Sergiyev Posad, a great variety of cultural festivals and sports events… They were too many to count! Be sure my boy will not be happy at all, if her learns that I disclose such personal information to the public at large. He prefers to keep a very low profile in that respect, but I’m telling you the truth. Just recently Igor saw a story on our Channel One TV about a woman parathlete who had no place where to live in Moscow. He instantly bought her a two-room apartment in the quiet residential neighborhood of Izmailovo, with his own money. It took that woman a long while to realize it was not a dream. Also, Igor has long cooperated with the Rusfond foundation, which provides assistance to children with serious diseases. My son is involved in charity activities not for the sake of gaining awards or public acclaim. He feels it is his calling and that come from us - my wife and I – bringing him up to be like so.
I can say the same about Artyom, my elder son. He devotes much of his time to assisting those who need help. He never hesitates to take on a challenge and he often sets off to accomplish something, which others have already given up on, out of the fear they will fail. Let’s take a look at the facts. In 2014, he bought PNK, a company that has nearly two dozen gravel mills and that was severely in the red, from the Russian Railways, and promptly turned it around into a profit-making enterprise. It now boasts financial figures that are a far cry from what they used to be.
- Also, Artyom Chaika has become a co-owner of a company that is the largest table salt manufacturer in Siberia and the Far East. Its salt mine in the Irutsk Region is Russia’s number two producer of salt.
- Oh, yes, and for that reason my son is labeled “the salt market monopolist.” Only incompetent people or those who deliberately spread misinformation can say such things. I’ll make it clear for you: his company’s real share constitutes a minuscule eight percent of the overall amount of salt produced in Russia. This is not exactly what one calls monopoly. Nonsense!
Artyom has plans for building a new mill in the Kaluga Region and for developing the Vorobyovskoye rock salt deposit. Investments are estimated at 2-2.5 billion rubles. He is going to spend his own money on that. Who will stand to lose?
Also in Kaluga Artyom last October opened a plant for the production of … what do you call it… autoclaved aerated concrete. Another two billion rubles was invested into the region’s economy and 140 new jobs were created. But that is not all. The smart guys who were tuning up the equipment introduced some 200 innovative changes into the manufacturing process. The specialists from the German provider of the equipment were dumbfounded when they saw all that and eventually asked for permission to use the same knowhow in Germany.
Igor is only 28, but he has already accomplished so much. He latches on to promising ideas in the wink of an eye and he easily finds a common language with any conversational partner. I don’t think I have to explain to you what the Alibaba Group is? One of the largest e-commerce companies in the world. Its capitalization is three times bigger than Gazprom’s and its annual turnover stands at $500 billion. Last autumn Igor started talks on creating a Russian national pavilion on the platform of the Chinese on-line retailer. The talks have been very productive and my son hopes they will soon enter the final phase.
Igor has a company marketing foodstuffs in Russia. It went in business last summer both online and offline. Contracts have been signed with 12 major Chinese retailers who own 4,500 outlets. It is a booming company. When Igor opened an office in Shanghai, delegates from 150 leading Chinese firms eager to cooperate gathered for the presentation. Some officials from the Communist Party Central Committee’s departments concerned and regional officials were present, too. Agriculture Minister Aleksandr Tkachyov was among those representing Russia. It’s going to be a rather promising project.
Also, Igor keeps working on a number of infrastructure projects in Iran and is building a mushroom farm and a composting business near Moscow.
Yet he finds the time for post-graduate studies at the Kutafin Law University. This year he plans to defend a dissertation on the international aspects of trade and its legal control. He uses China as an example. His team consists of mostly young, promising people aged 30-35. They are fluent in foreign languages and are well up on the latest trends in business. They are regular visitors to all major international economic forums and platforms. Theirs is a diversified business. The future belongs to them!
No, I’m quite realistic about their performance. I’ve never meddled in the details of their businesses. They live by their wits, although they may turn an attentive ear to my advice on day-to-day, practical matters. Sometimes they do as they are told. That’s normal. That’s the way it should be. Parents deserve respect.
- Why has the Federal Service for State Registration amended the entries concerning your sons? Instead of their names one can only see some hocus-pocus mixture of letters and digits…
- Do you think I’m the right person to ask such questions? Neither my sons nor I have the slightest bearing on this. Why should we conceal something? What’s the reason? Everything we have in our possession, everything we’ve earned we declare officially and report it to the authorities. My son’s house where I live has been photographed from a helicopter and from a plane. I suppose no images from space have been taken yet, though. The place is called Uspenskoye, Gorki-8. What is it they are looking for there, what is it they would like to see?
I’ve gotten used to being in the public eye, I would not say that I like it, but there is no way of getting away from it. It’s an inalienable part of the Prosecutor-General’s job. I do understand that apriori the nature of my work may be not to somebody’s liking. Any step aimed at restoring justice invariably implies some action against the abusers. The prosecutor’s office is obliged to ensure supervision. The more effective we are in this respect, the less reasons there will be for criticism, and not only against us.
As far as slander is concerned, it is important to remember that those who spread it as a rule try to cause the public at large to get a negative impression of the system in general, to distract attention from the exposure of abuse. It is vital not to succumb to emotion and not to enter into debate. A well-done job is far stronger than any of the possible immunities.
Russia is confronted with major external antagonists. We are subject to a powerful attack. In a sense, this attack is against yours truly, too. As for the attacks inside the country, regrettably people may say nasty things out of envy. Such people are unable to accomplish anything on their own, while others around appear successful. “How come somebody else has something that I don’t have?” The revolution that happened a hundred years ago stemmed from the wish to take away and redistribute somebody else’s wealth.
I’m an Orthodox Christian, I go to church and I make pilgrimages to Mount Athos. Our faith teaches us to forgive. We are all in God’s hands. Each is to be repaid according to his deeds. Sooner or later.
- To continue the discussion of family matters, how far back do you know your family roots?
- Well, far enough. I know that may ancestors are from the Zaporozhian Sich – a semi-autonomous polity of the Cossacks in the 16th-18th centuries in the lower reaches of the Dniepr River in the territory of today’s Ukraine. Back in 1809, to continue the Russian Empire’s effort to strengthen the southern borders, launched by Catherine the Great, they moved from the Zaporozhian Sich to the coastal areas of the Azov Sea and the banks of the Kuban River.
My family tree is more or less clear since 1756. As for the details, I know my family’s history starting from granddad. Since the last decade of the 19th century, all information had to be painstakingly collected and put together bit by bit. Here is an example to make it easier for you to understand. We often hear about the horrors of the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire, where 1.5 million people were slaughtered. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union 1.5 - 2 million Cossacks were eliminated. That was a genocide of the Cossacks, Leon Trotsky used to say that the Cossacks were the sole part of the Russian nation capable of self-revival and self-organization and for that reason they must be wiped out. So an attempt was made to uproot them all.
My granddad remained loyal to his military oath. He was an active participant in the underground resistance to the Bolsheviks in the Kuban River area. We unearthed that evidence in the archives of the OGPU security police. Of course, my father knew about that and as soon as he graduated from a teachers’ training college he preferred to resettle as far away as possible. Eventually, he found himself in the Far East. He went there to build what is now the city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur.
- Did your granddad perish without a trace?
- We’ve failed to find any clues to this day. We’ve scrutinized the VCHK-KGB archives and even sent some queries to other countries. We found nothing, almost nothing. There is documentary proof that in December 1919 my granddad was a cornet, a commander of a reserve Cossack hundred in the Taman district. In a group photo taken a year later he was wearing a lieutenant’s shoulder straps. That’s all we got. All further traces were lost.
That’s all we got. All further traces were lost.
I should also say there are some remarkable papers that belonged to the last Cossack general, who had immigrated to the United States to die there. His archive was bought out and returned to Russia at the initiative of Alexander Tkachev, the then Governor of the Krasnoyarsk Region. Among other documents there is a small photo dated 1939. It was taken in Macedonia’s capital of Skopje. In it there is a group of Don and Kuban Cossacks. One of them looks pretty much like my granddad. True, I may be indulging in wishful thinking, but the resemblance is striking, indeed. You don’t even have to examine it forensically.
According to my grandmother’s recollections, she lived with the family of my cousin Nikolai in St. Petersburg, my granddad was killed in an artillery bombardment during the Civil War period. Possibly, it was really so. We shall never find out the truth.
I would like to publish the facts and evidence I’ve gathered in a book meant for family use. The draft is ready for print. The title is The Eight War Years of Mikhail Chaika. Here is a remarkable document: ‘I hereby declare my personal gratitude to the below-listed officers of the village of Brinkovskaya for their courage and energy displayed in the struggle with the Bolsheviks and confirmed by the Cossack assemblies and chieftains. Signature: Military Chieftain Filimonov.’ One of the officers on this list is Cornet Mikhail Chaika.
Collecting has never been a hobby of mine, but I am proud of the unique collection of White Guard awards. I have all orders and medals. They say such collections are very few round the world. One of them is mine. My son Igor found it somewhere and purchased it for me.
That’s what I can say about the paternal lineage.
On my mother’s side the picture is very different. My other granddad was an active participant in the revolutionary uprising unrest in Nizhny Novgorod’s Sormovo district in 1905. The police issued a warrant for his arrest. Together with his family he fled the Volga river area to Siberia, hoping to get lost on Russia’s vast expanses. My mother was born in Chita in 1914. Later the family moved to Tomsk.
It turns out that one of my ancestors was a staunch counter-revolutionary, and another, an ardent revolutionary. Life pushed them in those directions. I believe such things happened in many other families. What the country saw in 1917 was a disaster.
- How long ago did you come to think so? After all in the past you were a Communist Party member and felt no confusion at all, right?
- We did not know anything then! My father never told me about my grandfather, the Cossack officer. Everybody preferred to keep quiet about such matters during the Soviet years. It took decades to sort things out. Just recently, I had a talk about all that with His Holiness Patriarch Kirill. My granddad was in the military escort of His Imperial Highness’s Vicegerent in the Caucasus, Nikolai Nikolayevich Romanov. There is a photo in which my grandfather is standing next to Nicholas II, who, as we all know, was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. I told Patriarch Kirill many argued that the Emperor had no right to abdicate the throne in 1917, that by doing so he betrayed Russia and the people, that he displayed weakness and a lack of willpower. So why has the Russian Orthodox Church praised him so much? His Holiness replied Nicholas II and his family died martyrs’ death and that should be never forgotten. Naturally, I agreed and don’t argue with that, but everything could have turned out differently, had the monarch chosen not to abandon the nation to the mercy of its fate. The genie was released from the bottle and really terrible events followed. It was a brother-against-brother carnage. Whole villages were burnt down. So many people were starved to death…
It’s really terrible to recall all this.
- The agency of state power that you are in charge of by no means dodged involvement. It did play a certain role in the extermination of the people.
- No denying that. That’s why I preferred to leave the building in Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street, there where Andrey Vishinsky whom you’ve mentioned had his office. The aura there is very different. There’s negative energy all around. You may even ask the Holy Synod – all of its members – to come to rescue. It will not help.
- Did you invite a priest to bless your office?
- Of course, in 1995 when I was appointed First Deputy Prosecutor-General and moved to Moscow, I was given an office in Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street. The moment I entered it I felt like I was suffocating, gasping for air. I was beside myself with anxiety. I used to keep all windows open, but that did not help. I asked a priest to come and bless the room. It became slightly better but the depressing atmosphere still surrounded the building.
I moved here, to Petrovka Steet, six or seven years ago. It used to be Count Vorontsov’s estate. The original mansion, built here in 1805, burned down completely during the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. Later on, the property was taken over by the Rayevsky family. In the middle of the 19th century it was restored, together with its side wings.
In the Soviet era, it served as the office of the Industrial Construction Ministry. Vyacheslav Lebedev, the current head of the Supreme Court, started his career there, and the mother of late Mikhail Lesin was in charge of the minister’s staff…
In the 1990s, the building was for some time used by the Aum Shinrikyo University, this sect is now outlawed as a terrorist organization.
When this architectural complex was transferred to the balance sheet of the Prosecutor-General’s Office, it was in terrible condition. It housed two cheap restaurants and several other very suspicious-looking organizations… We had the building overhauled and refurbished. At a certain point only bare walls could be seen inside. Now, we are not ashamed when we invite guests here. On New Year’s Eve we welcomed a delegation from the Council of Europe under Philippe Boillat, the CE Director-General of Human Rights and Law. We are old acquaintances. The first time we met was when Philippe had served as Switzerland’s Deputy Justice Minister. We’ve maintained a very good relationship since. This time we had a very meaningful discussion in a very comfortable environment. The Bolshaya Dmitrovka office has been gathering dust for decades. The floor and doors squeak terribly… cosmetic repairs will not help. The old rubbish is to be thrown out and everything needs to be done anew.
Incidentally, the first thing I did in the Justice Ministry was to put the building at Vorontsovo Polye in order. It was a ramshackle ruin. Imagine old women trading sunflower seeds in the ground floor’s main lobby. It is not an exaggeration! When the roof began to be patched up, one worker fell through the rotten floor right into the office of my deputy. It was a real nightmare. The building was eventually repaired, but there was not enough room for the ministry anyway. With great difficulties were allowed to use a 17-story-building on Zhitnaya Street. We obtained a permission to move in. We had everything repaired first, of course. It looks chic.
I’m quite experienced now as far as construction and repairs are concerned. We have leased several buildings from the city – on Bolshaya Dmitrovka and Petrovka streets. It’s very convenient: all of our main divisions are within one block, just a few steps away one from another. You don’t have to rush about the city. My great thanks to Sergey Sobyanin. He’s been very helpful.
- I’d like to witness the moment he might dare deny something to the Prosecutor-General’s Office!
- You shouldn’t be saying things like that. Had Sergey Sobyanin decided we wished to lay claim to something we are not entitled to by the law, he would have never granted his permission. Sobyanin is very knowledgeable in legal matters and he is a competent manager. Also, you should remember he has a Siberian background. Like anyone who’s grown up and matured east of the Ural mountains he has a firm and straightforward character. He is a reliable partner. We got along on great terms in the late 1990s, when he was First Deputy Chairman of the Committee for Constitutional Legislation and Judicial and Legal Affairs in the Federation Council, and I was First Deputy Prosecutor-General. We had quite a few common issues to discuss then. We’ve kept in touch further down the road. Let me say it again: Sobyanin is a very decent personality.
- Is it true that you might have never become a prosecutor, if you hadn’t been expelled from the polytechnic institute in Komsomolsk-on-Amur? Then you would’ve been in the engineering profession then now, wouldn’t you?
- I was not expelled. This misconception keeps drifting from one edition of my biography to another. Shortly after I entered the Polytechnic, I realized that it was certainly not my cup of tea. I had been struggling there, trudging through my studies to the middle of the second year and then made up my mind to quit. It was my own decision. At first they would not let me go. The rector even made a phone call to my father and asked him to persuade me to stay. Besides, I played for the Polytechnic’s football team rather well. But I made my decision and vowed not to go back on it. First, I spent four months working as an electrician’s apprentice at a ship-building yard and obtained a qualification. Then I was drafted into the army. I had an excellent school of life. I am very grateful for my good luck for gaining that kind of experience. My army service was in an elite mechanized infantry division in Khabarovsk. I was very fond of sports, in particular, Greco-Roman wrestling, table tennis and football…
Although I served in a special automotive battalion, I never took the wheel myself. I still don’t have a driving license. Driving is not a favorite pastime of mine. And I don’t play musical instruments. When a little boy I tried to play the accordion for about a year but promptly gave up…
In the 1990s, the division where I served was disbanded, but its museum still remains. A small section of it is titled From Rank-and-File to Prosecutor-General. Just recently I was there together with my grandchildren.
- Do you take them to Mount Athos with you?
- I have five grandchildren. Three girls and two boys. Artyom has four children and Igor, one. The elder grandson, Sergey, is now fifteen. He went to Mount Athos with me and he liked it very much. Sergey is good at sports. He likes kart racing and is due to take part in a national contest soon. The youngest grandson is named Mikhail, after his great-grandfather.
As you surely know, women are not allowed to Mount Athos. As for men, I believe each of them is obliged to visit this holy shrine. I was there first time in 2002 and I try to go there as often as I can. I like Mount Athos and I feel I am a welcome guest there. We’ve created a Russian society of Mount Athos friends, which has twelve founders.
- As many as there are Apostles.
- It so happened…Georgy Poltavchenko is a member, Viktor Zubkov, too, and other worthy people. We help the monastery with what we can, while the monks keep praying there day and night. They certainly pray for Russia, too. I’m sure that Our Lord and Our Lady love our country and this explains why they put it to test now and then. We, too, know well how to create problems for ourselves. First, we let them pile up and then we display great heroism in overcoming them. No other country would have survived, had it encountered what Russia had to struggle with in the 1990s. At some places in Siberia people had nothing but cattle fodder to eat. But we held firm and we pulled through!
I am certain that the worst is all in the past, although we should not feel relaxed. God created us without us, but he will not protect us without us. That’s my firm rule in life. And the other rule is: “Lord, let Your will be done in my life.” You know, I start each morning with a prayer. It’s an urgent need of my soul. Before entering my office I spend several minutes in a special room where I keep icons brought from Mount Athos.
Only after that I feel I can get down to my daily duties, with Almighty God’s blessing…
- Why can’t people fly like birds?
- They have no wings, regrettably, but still the wish to fly may be overwhelming at times.