On the Death of Yury Schmidt

12 January 2013

By Jens Siegert

Source: Russland-Blog

On 12 January 2013, following a long illness, Yury Schmidt passed away in his native St. Petersburg. In actual fact, the name of Yury Schmidt’s native city wasn’t St. Petersburg. It was Leningrad. For it was in Leningrad that he was born in 1937, in – of all times – the year of the Great Terror.

Yury Schmidt’s entire life was associated with Leningrad. It was here that he survived the blockade together with his mother. It was here that he went to school and enrolled in university in 1955. Through all these years he knew nothing about the fate of his father. Father and son met for the first time in 1956. His father, Mark Levin, was then 47 years old and had spent 26 years of his life in the GULAG, an impressive figure even by Soviet standards. The young Mark Levin, a social democrat, had joined the resistance against the Bolsheviks, was arrested for the first time at the end of the 1920s, and from then onwards his life consisted of constant exile or camp imprisonment. Yury’s mother had also been exiled on political grounds. This is how the future lawyer’s parents met in Siberia in the mid-1930s. Fortunately, his mother was able to return to Leningrad before long.

Following his return to Leningrad in the mid-1950s Yury Schmidt’s father and his experiences shaped an entire generation of future dissidents in Leningrad. Yury Schmidt himself had no opportunity to defend Soviet dissidents in the political trials of the late sixties, in the seventies and early eighties. The KGB did not allow him to practise as a defence lawyer: it seemed to have had a pretty good idea as to what it might expect of a defence lawyer of Schmidt’s ilk and why it could not risk a new dissident lawyer emerging on the public scene.

Yury Schmidt earned his reputation as defence lawyer in ordinary, rather than political, trials. This was rather untypical in the Soviet so-called justice system, where defence lawyers were just props in lending the farce that went by the name of trial – in which over 98 per cent of indictments ended with guilty verdicts – the appearance of a genuine hearing. Yury Schmidt became renowned as a defence lawyer who, unlike all the rest, ensured that his clients got the best possible outcome whatever the circumstances.

Perestroika allowed Yury Schmidt to develop his twin talents as an expert on the minutiae of the law as well as a political orator. All his cases had a political background: in 1989 he won the case of Arkadi Manucharov, an Armenian leader from Nagorno-Karabakh; in 1991 he successfully defended Tores Kulumbekov, whom the Georgian authorities had accused of seeking an independent Ossetia and stirring up mass protests; in 1993 Abdumanov Pulatov, an Uzbek dissident who had applied for refugee status in Russia; and in 1996 he defended Afghan asylum seekers that the Russian state wanted to send back to certain death in the then Taliban-ruled country. Last but not least, in 1997 he won the case of Valery Miroshnichenko, a retired military man from Estonia, who had been expelled by the Estonian government.

Two cases deserve special mention since they made Yury Schmidt’s name as an acclaimed (human rights) defence lawyer outside the former Soviet Union. The first was the Nikitin case. In 1996 the Russian secret service, the FSB, had Alexander Nikitin arrested. The former nuclear submarine officer and safety inspector with the Northern Fleet had written a report for Bellona, a Norwegian environmental organisation, outlining the environmental dangers posed by scrapped nuclear reactors. The FSB charged him with espionage and high treason. Yury Schmidt managed to prove that the FSB had faked the evidence, and that the allegedly secret documents had been classified only after Nikitin had published his report. In 1999 Alexander Nikitin was acquitted. To this day he is the only person ever to be cleared of an FSB espionage charge.

In 2005 Yury Schmidt became the chief lawyer of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s defence team, as he came to believe that the charges against the latter were politically motivated. He never tired of repeating that, regardless of whether the charges were bona fide, the trial itself was unlawful. Nevertheless, Khodorkovsky was sentenced to seven years in a penal colony. Yury Schmidt, although already ill, visited Khodorkovsky in the Siberian colony, about six thousand kilometres from St. Petersburg. He also defended him in the second trial in which, in Schmidt’s firm conviction, Khodorkovsky was sentenced for the second time for the same crime he did not commit.

For Yury Schmidt the Khodorkovsky case became the case of his life, a matter of principle close to his heart. In an interview in 2011, already emaciated and ravaged by illness, Yury Schmidt admitted: “I have told Mikhail Khodorkovsky that I can’t accept the idea of dying with the feeling that I was unable to have him acquitted. And I thanked him for ‘sustaining’ me. He really does sustain me. I want to live to see him walk free.” It was this hope that kept Yury Schmidt going in the last year of his life.

Yury Schmidt received a number of national and international awards for his commitment to human rights and the rule of law. In 2006 Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung honoured him with the PetraKelly Award, and in 2012 he was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.