I have watched this short clip a dozen times: an empty pavement, two women, talking, are coming towards us. Suddenly a car at high speed gets onto the pavement from the road on the left and smashes the women against the wall. The car slowly rolls back, a well-dressed woman driver gets out and goes around the car, looking at the damage done to it. Passers-by hurry on, yet some are starting to slow down, gazing at the car and crushed bodies…
Irkutsk TV showed the clip of this accident in the city centre in its news programme on the day it happened – 2nd December 2009. The incredible indifference of the driver who had not gone up to her victims was immediately noticed – the clip was posted on YouTube. In Irkutsk it soon became known that one of the women, 34-year-old Yelena Pyatkova, died in hospital and her sister, 27-year old Yulia Pyatkova, remained disabled.
The issues of whether the driver had pushed the gas pedal instead of the brakes or she had alcohol in her blood or, as somebody immediately suggested, the condition of the road was very bad, should, normally, have been discussed in court. Only the criminal proceedings did not start – the 28-year-old Anna Shavenkova was not brought to trial and even her breathalysing test either had not been done or had been lost.
Why? The answer is simple: Anna Shavenkova is the daughter of Irkutsk region’s election committee chairwoman. Her mother belongs to the privileged elite of the city. Once you know this fact, everything else falls into place – a foreign car, smart clothes, Anna Shavenkova’s own position as an adviser to the ruling United Russia party in the local legislature and, finally, a complete lack of interest in the victims. Anna Shavenkova, and the Pyatkova sisters, although roughly of the same age, come from different worlds.
In the Soviet Leningrad of my childhood, the street where we lived led directly to the Smolny, the seat of the Communist party regional committee, and we often witnessed a procession of big black cars racing either there or back preceded by militiamen on motorcycles shouting through megaphones: “Everyone stop!” “Everyone stop!” “Everyone stop!” Those who sat in the speeding black cars were not spoken of as “the elite” – they were jokingly referred to as “the people’s servants.” The ethics of the revolution had been forgotten, but the words remained, making room for jokes.
In the much more straightforward world of today, everybody knows that those who have power can pull strings – any strings, especially those of the judiciary. I don’t think anybody in Irkutsk was very surprised to learn that Anna Shavenkova had not faced any criminal charges till mid-February. The semi-official explanation of the delay was that in December Anna Shavenkova was 6 months pregnant and doctors, allegedly, did not allow her to be interrogated. The pregnancy, if true, proved very convenient, but it was not the pregnancy that stopped Anna Shavenkova from calling Yulia Pyatkova and her family or offering her help.
Suddenly it became known that the investigation was not treating Anna as a suspect in the case, but just as a witness. This caused an outburst of indignation. People wondered: who, then, or what was responsible for the accident? The car? The road? The victims themselves? The CCTV clip watched, thanks to YouTube, by the whole country left no doubt. Usually, something that happens in the depths of Siberia would not necessarily attract the attention of the sophisticated citizens of the capital. But in this case bloggers and media all over Russia could not help expressing their anger. The protest became so loud that it forced the Irkutsk militia to deny the “rumours”. On 24th February the Irkutsk militia issued a statement confirming that they were investigating the offence and that Anna Shavenkova had the status of a “suspect”. Hopefully now the case will be monitored to the end.
Radio Echo Moskvy called Shavenkova’s story “a small victory” for public opinion. The victory obviously does not extend to other cases of offenders’ impunity. Even if we restrict ourselves to traffic accidents, the list of those involving high-ranking officials published by Vladimir Pribylovsky on his website (see“An official’s car is a murder weapon (from Kiryanov to Putin)”) reveals that the “elite” and their relatives as a rule escape prosecution, even when all the evidence would seem to indicate their guilt. And this happens in the relatively straightforward sphere of traffic violations. What kind of equality before the law can be expected in other areas of life, when even CCTV installed at every corner is unlikely to help much?
26 February 2010