Editor’s Note: Milwaukee attorney Diane Slomowitz spent two weeks in St. Petersburg teaching Russian students about U.S. law. This week, she discusses the specter of the recent presidential elections held right before her visit.
By the second week of my two-week teaching post at Herzen University in St. Petersburg, Russia, I was like any tourist in any foreign city. But St. Petersburg is not just any foreign city.
It is a city steeped in revolutionary history, in a culture unfamiliar with democracy or, until very recently, capitalism. Its national elections, which occurred days before my teaching began, were, as a practical matter, predetermined. Upon the election of President Vladimir Putin’s chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, opposition party leaders based in St. Petersburg and elsewhere were imprisoned.
Russia’s unique political history and current political climate were brought home to me during my meeting with Elena Barikhnovskaya, a St. Petersburg attorney with the international law firm Salans. Barikhnovskaya, a slight woman in her late 50s, greeted me warmly at Salans’ 8th-floor offices on the Moika River in the Gostiny Dvor section of St. Petersburg’s city center.
I was aware when we met that Barikhnovskaya is a litigator. I was also aware that she had some involvement in the human rights arena. I was unaware, however, of the extent of her participation in the human rights movement, or that involvement’s resulting psychological toll.
For many of her early professional years, Barikhnovskaya was a human rights lawyer. She and her husband, a criminal defense attorney, were friends with many artists, including painters, writers and musicians. The government viewed several as dissidents, and periodically arrested one or more of them on what Barikhnovskaya described as trumped-up charges.
Barikhnovskaya recalled that one such artist was jailed for more than two years. When his trial came, Barikhnovskaya prepared the defendant and the witnesses, so that they knew what their “rights” were, what to say, and what not to say. And so that the officials knew that the government’s treatment of this defendant was being closely watched.
I asked Barikhnovskaya if such work made her afraid for the safety of herself and her family. She said, “yes.” She also said that she has stopped doing human rights work, because of her age and her ill health. Barikhnovskaya’s husband, however, continues to take political cases. He is currently defending an opposition party leader who was jailed after the recent national elections.
When asked her thoughts on the elections, Barikhnovskaya’s response was precise and unwavering. She believes that the elections will change nothing, notwithstanding the nearly 70 percent voter turnout. For change to occur, according to Barikhnovskaya, the opposition parties must strengthen, and for that to occur, they must stop bickering among themselves and continue their work.
When I had arrived at Salans one hour earlier, I expected that Barikhnovskaya and I would politely discuss the similarities and differences between United States and Russian law firms. Instead, I was privileged to receive an expert tutorial on Russia’s current and historical political system.
As I left Salans and walked back down the Moika towards Herzen University and my waiting students, I began to realize the full impact of my teaching assignment. I was not just teaching U.S. business law to Russian students. I was, as the Center for International Legal Studies had suggested I would be, an ambassador. An ambassador of my country in all of its forms — in its flaws and mistakes, but also in its goals and ideals.
I have been back in the United States for two weeks. My experience was remarkable, and I plan to teach again. I hope I taught my students well, both of the law and the United States’ culture. I know, in any event, that my students, Barikhnovskaya, and the others whom I met during my stay, certainly taught me.