e-flux Conversations has been closed to new contributions and will remain online as an archive. Check out our new platform for short-form writing, e-flux Notes.

e-flux conversations

Colleague of Russian opposition leader stands trial for stealing street art

Image of stolen painting via Meduza.

On Meduza, Andrei Kozenko reports from the Russian city of Vladimir on the trial of Georgy Alburov, a close ally of opposition leader Alexey Navalny and analyst at Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. Alburov is accused of stealing a painting titled “Bad Good Person” by the Vladmir-based artist Sergei Sotov in June 2014. The painting was removed from a publicly accessible fence and gifted to Navalny, allegedly without the consent of the artist.

Read Kozenko’s report on the trail which began March 26th:

Yury Yevtukhov, the the district court judge, is double-checking the journalists who have been accredited to cover the trial. “No objections by either party?” he asks.

“I don’t object, except for Lifenews and NTV, they’re going to film a derogatory report about us,” Alburov fires back.

“You fat prick!” hisses an offended female journalist from Lifenews in the press gallery.

“Everyone here is equal, I’m not going to make any distinctions,” clarifies the judge, “But I wish to remind you that we’re filming a trial here, not a reality show. Please act accordingly.”

The state prosecutor, Assistant DA for the city of Vladimir, reads his version of events aloud. According to him, in May 2014, two employees of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, Georgy Alburov and Nikita Kulachenkov (who is now in hiding) began a criminal conspiracy. After setting up a criminal group, they planned to steal a painting titled “Bad Good Person,” created by Vladimir-based artist Sergei Sotov. They received information that the desired painting was kept on a wooden fence between Karl Marx Street and Bolshoi Moskovsky Street in the city of Vladimir, in an area locals refer to as “Station Descent.” On June 3, at 10:38 PM, the two conspirators left Moscow by car with the aim of putting their plan into action. They arrived in Vladimir at 2:42 AM, and by approximately 3 AM, they made it to Sotov’s painting on the fence. They proceeded to steal “Bad Good Person” and afterwards made their getaway. In doing this, they violated Article 158 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, “Premeditated theft resulting in significant loss of property,” a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.

Kulachenkov preferred not to take any chances with the investigation and went into hiding, supposedly abroad. Alburov stayed in Russia. He and other employees at the Anti-Corruption Foundation saw a massive criminal investigation unfold before their eyes. Their office was raided by security agents wearing balaclavas, and the case was handled by one of the Investigative Committee’s priority case units.

The “Bad Good Person” case caused some harsh correspondence between the head of the Investigative Committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin and the Prosecutor General, Yury Chaika. Alburov got access to the correspondence after viewing his case file and published a photograph of the letters online. The letters reveal that the head of the Investigative Committee Bastrykin did not want to sign off on documents which claimed that Sotov estimated his painting to be worth only 100 rubles (about $2), while the Prosecutor General spoke out in favor of presenting all the evidence. The Investigative Committee ended up giving in. As a result, the trial has begun only now, after an unprecedented delay considering the scale of the investigation.

In court, Alburov states that he absolutely denies any guilt and that he sees no crime in taking a painting from a publicly accessible fence. He attempts to read out quotes from the extremely angry letter Chaika sent Bastrykin, but the judge instantly puts a stop to this.

“We absolutely dispute the qualification of this case. There simply aren’t any components of a crime here,” Anna Polozova, Alburov’s lawyer, repeats. “A fence cannot be a place for the protection of one’s property.”

The two have filed a formal petition to have Alexey Navalny testify as a witness in the case. “No one knows what sort of circumstances will prevent this from happening. He’s constantly either under arrest for administrative charges, or under a travel ban,” said Alburov and Polozova.

“He isn’t under a travel ban already?” asks the judge with surprise. The defense answers that he is not, and that it would be best to issue a subpoena.

“Navalny only comes to court under subpoena?” A note of respect sounds in Yevtukhov’s voice. Prosecutor Volodin is against the idea. According to him, Navalny is free, and may come if he wishes. But the main line of argument from the prosecution against having Navalny testify in court was that Navalny allegedly said practically nothing when he was questioned by the Investigative Committee. For this reason, according to the prosecution, he does not make for a good witness. Volodin asks the court to support this position. The court declines to issue a subpoena this time. The issue is filed away, to be reviewed later.

Sotov, the artist, arrives at the court. He is retired, and earns some extra money by working as a street-sweeper. “How are you feeling?” the prosecutor asks with concern.

“I’m nervous,” answers Sotov.

The prosecutor poses an existential question: “You’re a street-sweeper now. But tell us, who are you in essence?” Anyone could spend a lifetime considering such an issue. Sotov answers that he is an artist. After serving in the military, he took courses and worked as a designer. In the 1990s, he tried to make some money by painting landscapes on demand, but was not very successful.

“I consider myself a well-known artist,” Sotov tells the court. “I once had an exhibition in Moscow, I’ve taken part in exhibitions in artists’ clubs, schools, and cultural centers. I draw what passers-by ask me to draw. I’ve done a lot of work for convenience stores.”

“Is your work helpful and important?” continues the prosecutor.

“All well known artists in Vladimir know me!” Sotov responds with satisfaction. “Once…[here Sotov slurs the name of the person in question – ed] came up to me, may he rest in peace. He saw me, and he said, ‘how are you doing? I respect you’. He looked at me and then left.”

“Many passers-by have complimented me,” Sotov continues, beginning to really enjoy himself. “I go to all the city exhibitions. I always leave my signature in the visitors’ book. Sometimes they even let me in for free because of this.”

“Where do you find a sense of purpose?” asks Prosecutor Volodin, once again posing a rather difficult question.

“I have children, grandchildren. I still work in the garden. Peasant matters, so to say,” the artist says, going off script. The prosecutor is forced to rephrase the question.

“I live a moral life, I’m pleased with my success,” Sotov says, easily returning to the script.

However, the closer the discussion gets to the details of the theft, the more vague Sotov’s testimony becomes. He remembers that he first displayed his black and white drawings at the train station, but that passers-by didn’t like them very much. Then he switched to colorful pictures, and this was a success. “They started taking a lot more photos,” he said. One of the pictures he hung on the fence was “Bad Good Person.” Sotov spent two hours creating it. The artist didn’t immediately notice its disappearance. He’s generally used to drawings disappearing, and he replaces them with new ones or with copies. One evening – he doesn’t remember when exactly – a certain person came up to him and asked if it bothered him that his paintings had disappeared. Sotov replied that it did. And then the person convinced him to write a statement to the police. Amazingly, a police car turned out to be standing right beside them. He wrote a statement, or, to be more precise, he dictated one. He asked them to call him if they managed to find the painting.

He is asked what value he ascribes to the picture. “5,000 rubles,” Sotov answers confidently, although during the investigation he varied in his appraisal from 100 rubles to 2,500 rubles. “Would I ask for a million? No. Five thousand. I like that. Yes. I consider this to be significant damage. I could have lived on that amount of money for a month.”

Polozova asks if he based the image of the bad person in the picture on Navalny. The prosecutor objects and asks that the question be withdrawn, and Sotov waved his hand in fright, indicating a negative answer. The image simply came from “bad pictures.” Alburov posits that Sotov may be mistaken. Having explained that the total income of Sotov’s family (he’s divorced from his wife, but they continue to live together) comprises 50,000 rubles, can Sotov clarify if 5,000 rubles really constitutes significant damage. The Sotov, the prosecutor and possibly the judge all answer affirmatively in unison.

Alburov and Polozova accused Sotov of contradictory statements. In court he said that he wanted to withdraw his complaint in the summer, but didn’t get around to it, but in an interview he gave earlier, he said that not only had he wanted to withdraw his statement, but that he had in fact tried to do so, but the police said that they had lost it. “I don’t know, I don’t remember,” the artist says, trying to avoid the awkward question.

The questioning ends on this note. The witnesses were called. The first, police officer Yevgeny Myasnikov, says that he received information concerning a theft and wrote the statement from Sotov’s words, doing everything exactly by the book. Moreover, according to the law, even if Sotov hadn’t written a statement, the police officer would still be required to report a theft to his superiors. As for the fact that Sotov had used a fence as a place to keep his personal belongings, Myasnikov said he saw nothing unusual in this.

After this, Anna Chermisinkova, a journalist working for pro-Kremlin channel NTV, is called to the stand. She says that she works for a TV show called “Extraordinary Events.” On the morning of June 4, 2014, her producer asked her to go to Lyublinskaya Street in Moscow, to the building where Alexey Navalny lives, and to record him being presented with the painting “Bad Good Person” for his birthday. That evening, Cheremisinova saw Alburov with the picture. He told her that he bought it in a pedestrian underpass. Then, Alburov went into the building and gave the painting to Navalny’s wife, Yulia, who was simultaneously shooing the journalists out from the hall. Navalny himself was under house arrest at the time and was required to stay isolated. In the middle of the night, the police came to search the premises and confiscated the painting.

Cheremisinova is asked how she knew the painting was there half a day before Sotov made a statement to the police. “The producer told me,” she shrugs.

Seven more witnesses for the prosecution did not make it to court. Volodin proposes to read out their statements from interrogations made during the investigation, but the defense is against the idea and the judge takes their side. The trial will continue on March 31.

Sotov was led out of the court by his lawyer, who helped walk to a car and climb into it. “We’re going to ask for a lenient sentence,” assured the lawyer. Navalny’s supporters, a few dozen of which had come to Vladimir, went to the fence near the train station to hang up their own paintings, styled after Sotov’s works.