The Cadaver Synod
If you are in the mood for some really creepy obscure trivia from the Dark Ages, how about this little tidbit: circa 897 A.D., pope Stephen VI (VII) had his predecessor, Formosus, exhumed and put on trial for perjury and various vaguely defined offenses, such as doing priestly things “while being a layman”. The rotting corpse, still in its papal vestments, was propped up on a chair, and wires were attached to the dead man’s jaws. A deacon crouched behind the defendant’s chair, and as the corpse was being asked whether he admits his guilt on each of the charges, the deacon pulled on the wires to move Formosus’ lower jaw up and down and answered “yes” in a voice meant to imitate Formosus’, like a bizarre ventriloquist act. Surprising as it may be, the trial culminated in Formosus being found guilty of all charges, stripped of his papal robes, mutilated, and dumped in a communal grave for foreigners. Later, he was dug up again and cast into the Tiber. The current pope and his advisors reasoned that this would be a good way to show everyone what a bad guy Formosus had been and how righteous his successor was. The effect, of course, was the exact opposite. In fact, the whole episode proved so damaging to the Catholic Church, it outlawed posthumous trials in the aftermath of the debacle.
But alas, the most important lesson of history is that people do not learn from history.
And medievalists hate it when people call the period “the Dark Ages”. It’s a loaded term, which hints at our supposed superiority: look at how ridiculously barbaric people were then, and how reasonable and evolved we are now. Some events in modern history would suggest that this view is entirely too self-serving. But surely, at least people living in the industrialized world would never be so quaint as to put a dead man on trial, and on obviously trumped up charges to boot. Especially civilized people, who call themselves “European” and pride themselves endlessly on their superior kul’tura. Right? Right??
I hope you are sitting down.
In the mid- 2000’s, the Russian government accused Hermitage Capital Management, an investment firm owned by a British businessman, William Browder, of tax evasion. Russia’s Federal Tax Service eventually issued a statement that Hermitage had, in fact, overpaid taxes, but the firm’s lawyer, Sergey Magnitsky, uncovered that the reason for the initial error was that a number of high-ranking government officials simply took the tax money paid by Hermitage over several previous years, totalling approximately $230 million, and transferred it to themselves. In response to Magnitsky’s publication of his findings, the Russian law enforcement raided the offices of both Hermitage and Magnitsky’s law firm, and later fabricated documents for non-existent debts to shell companies totalling over $1 billion. Compliant Russian judges issued bogus judgments against Hermitage without any judicial proceedings or even notice to the company. (In other words, the Russian officials, ticked off that their embezzlement of Hermitage’s taxes had been exposed, punished Hermitage by simply taking it.)
To top it all off, Hermitage’s lawyer, Sergey Magnitsky, was arrested and held in the notorious Butyrka prison, where he was tortured to death over the next 11 months. Subsequent to his death in 2009 (in a jail cell), none of the officials involved in his case were punished or even dismissed, and most were, in fact, promoted.
In late 2012, U.S. Congress passed the bipartisan Magnitsky Act, which barred the subject Russian officials from entering the United States or using the American banking system. Vladimir Putin’s government retaliated by passing a law barring American citizens from adopting Russian orphans, who, of course, ended up being the party most hurt by the measure.
But Russia was not done showing the world who wears the pants, not by a long shot. On July 11, 2013, a Moscow court posthumously convicted Sergey Magnitsky in an absurd show trial of the very tax fraud that he had exposed. Why? Because that’s precisely the kind of thing that would discredit Magnitsky and raise the government’s prestige in the eyes of most Russians. Naturally, Russian officials expect the rest of the world to react the same way.
Words fail to describe how disgusted I am at this. I am DONE with Russia. Done, done, done. I don’t care what happens there anymore. It is the Sewer of the World, its Gehenna, an accursed pit of iniquity, inhumanity, utter brutality. Nothing good, beautiful or pure survives its poison; nothing good, beautiful or pure will ever happen there. And if you live there (or do business there), you have only two options: become corrupted or die. It is a horrible, horrible place. The fact that I am from there is a source of embarrassment to me.
I know what you are thinking: Russian people and the Russian government are not the same, etc., etc., etc. Look: I am perfectly aware that there are some lovely people in Russia still walking about free, probably numbering no less than a few hundred. That much I’ll concede. But the overwhelming majority of Russians who can be characterized as decent human beings are (1) dead; (2) abroad; or (3) in jail. For hundreds of years, starting with the reign of Ivan the Terrible, Russian society slowly, but relentlessly cleansed itself not only of the best and the brightest, but even the minimally upright. As its most cherished values, it cultivated cruelty, dishonesty and hate.
Now, this is the culmination. Not even in Saudi Arabia would a dead person be put on trial. Nowhere in the world would corrupt officials retaliate against a detractor so ostentatiously, so brazenly, so extravagantly as in Magnitsky’s case. (People like Magnitsky do get murdered in other countries sometimes, but accusing a man of the very crime he uncovered, torturing him to death and then posthumously putting him on trial? There is a level of nonchalant brutality here that defies words.)
And most Russian people are okay with this — because it shows the government is mean, violent and in control, and there is nothing that the bulk of today’s Russian society likes better than to see its leaders crush an uppity “trouble-maker” underfoot while giving the rest of the planet the middle finger. It is a society characterized by insatiable bloodlust, virulent ethnocentrism, unspeakable cruelty, a fawning love of authoritarianism, a sense of unmet national entitlement and an utter, absolute lack of empathy. This psychopathic bundle thrives underneath a transparent veneer of disingenuous, self-serving, showy religiosity and feeble pretense at cultural refinement. That’s the “mysterious Russian soul” in a nutshell, and it is, in my opinion, beyond salvation.
Oh, I’m sorry, did I say something about “inhumanity”? What a regrettable overreaction on my part. Following the conviction, there was apparently a brief sentencing phase, and the trial judge handed down a truly magnanimous decision not to impose a prison term on the dead man. (Wait, what?? Yes.) Which was very generous indeed to Magnitsky’s family, who are doubtless happy and grateful to learn that they won’t have to sell their kidneys to pay for exhuming Magnitsky’s remains and transporting them to storage in a gulag somewhere. No one can blame the Russian justice system for being unfair or inhumane! Especially not defendants who got torture-murdered prior to trial.
William Browder was tried in absentia, convicted (quelle surprise) and sentenced to nine years’ incarceration (for now — Russian judges can tack on decades to convicts’ initial sentences for such grave offenses as legal research or sharing food with a fellow prisoner). No word yet on whether Great Britain will extradite Mr. Browder. The Brits better play ball, though, or else Russia will punish Perfidious Albion by sending more of Russia’s unwanted children to the trash heap.
That’s just how the Great Rus rolls.