Anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny received his five-year prison sentence last week, to the surprise of no one. After all, the Russian criminal system has a 99 percent conviction rate once a case goes to trial, and it was highly unlikely that a Russian judge would buck the system at this late date.
So the Russian government has seemingly silenced one of its biggest critics, the man who famously came up with the slogan “the party of crooks and thieves” to describe the country’s governing party, United Russia. Navalny possesses political aspirations as well, and the government evidently thought it best to defeat him in the courts before he gained further political traction at the ballot box.
Yet the phenomenon of a political trial is not new in Russia. It has been around for centuries, as both tsars and commissars relied on courts to give their political orders a fig leaf of justice. The tsarist courts proved more independent, and one can find several prosecutions that went awry and even ended up in acquittals. The Soviet courts made no such mistakes, and the famous show trials of the 1930s lacked even the superficial elements of adversarialness and fairness.