Russia, like any country, is a place where criminal trials often captivate and scandalize the public. While this summer's ‘hooliganism’ charges against Pussy Riot have enjoyed the spotlight at home and abroad — attracting protests from celebrities as famous and dissimilar as Madonna and Dany DeVito — there is another trial that perhaps reveals even more about tensions in modern Russian society.
That is the case against Ilya Farber, a schoolteacher and eccentric recently sentenced [ru] to eight years in prison and fined 3.2 million rubles (100,000 USD) for exhorting bribes from a building contractor.
A Muscovite who relocated to a remote village to teach art to children, Farber is the intelligentsia's quintessential tragic hero — a man supposedly punished for naively believing that Russia's benighted countryfolk would welcome his enthusiasm for originality and nonconformity. Farber's story belongs thoroughly to the “creative class,” as many are fond of calling Moscow's protesters.
While he may not have stormed a cathedral or led demonstrators into police barricades in opposition to Vladimir Putin, Farber did attempt to export the norms and temperament of Russia's dissident metropole (the current ‘base’ of anti-Kremlin energies). His failure is for many symbolic of Moscow's wider struggles to transform the rest of the country politically and culturally.
In other words, it's no wonder that the RuNet is now abuzz with lamentations and anger about the schoolteacher's fate. Many Russian netizens no doubt see a bit of themselves in Farber.
Продолжение, казалось бы, напрашивается само собой: аборигены, как в фильме ужасов 1973 года «Плетеный человек», риносят понаехавшего интеллигента в жертву. В общем, так и случилось. Фарбер действительно стал жертвой. Разве что вместо ритуала сожжения — восемь лет строгача за якобы взятку.
Olga Romanova and her group “Rus Sidiashchaia” [ru] rallied to Farber's defense early on. Using her Facebook account, Romanova published live updates from the Tver courtroom during the trial, documenting procedural violations by the judge, such as bizarrely low standards for the admission of evidence against the defendant.
(In what became a meme known as “the thirty crunches” [ru], Romanova wrote that the court established Farber's receipt of a 150,000-ruble bribe by confirming ‘the sound’ of thirty crunches in an audio recording, somehow indicating the ‘rustling of thirty 5,000-ruble-note bills.')
Romanova, of course, is famous for her role in Russia's anti-government protests last winter, as well as her campaign to free her husband, Aleksei Kozlov, from fraud and money laundering convictions that will keep him in prison for the next four years. (On June 7, one of Ilya Farber's sons, Petr, accompanied [ru] Romanova to Kozlov's latest failed appeal [ru] in Moscow.)
More than meets the eye
Farber's story, however, is not as simple as many would like to believe. While it may not have direct bearing on the bribery charges, it is important to note that Farber had essentially become a pariah in town, prior to his arrest in Tver.
According to a detailed investigation [ru] by Polina Eremenko of PublicPost.ru, the village of Moshenka — home to just 200 souls — lodged complaints with the police against Farber constantly throughout 2011, particularly after he was appointed to run the town's recreation center. Locals protested when he fired the center's art director, and they objected to Farber's plans for the construction of an elaborate rec center building.
Farber's methods in the classroom also earned him enemies in Moshenka. The first official complaint came from local councilwoman Elena Fokina (who ironically would take Farber's place as rec center director, after his arrest.) One day, Fokina went to the school where Farber worked, where she tried to photograph him during his lessons. Apparently, Farber forcibly relieved Fokina of her camera, causing her minor injuries. (The two actually reconciled, later on.)
Farber also became infamous for a class routine he ominously called “the Evening of Fear,” wherein he placed students in an unlit room and challenged them to overcome their fear of the dark. This, unsurprisingly, prompted many parents to voice their own fear that Farber might be molesting students.
There was also the peculiar nature of Farber's ‘creativity.’ When he arrived in Moshenka, he apparently told the school that he is “an opera singer, an artist, fluent in Chinese, and adept at many musical instruments.”
Irina Fedotova, a local mother of four, told Eremenko that parents instantly suspected something was amiss when Farber added that he would work for free. “Everybody needs money,” Fedotova worried. Before spring, he upset locals again, when he tried to change the town's traditional Maslenitsa celebrations.
Farber's behavior in court was also at times strange. For some reason, he refused [ru] to hire a private attorney and instead accepted a state-appointed public defender (a woman Novaya Gazeta described [ru] as “an old doddler”). When the time came to deliver his closing statement in court, Farber wanted “to sing” his speech, rather than read it. (In a curious attempt to explain this, Romanova nonchalantly pointed out [ru] that he is, after all, a trained opera singer.)
Different sides of the story
And what of the actual charges? Farber was convicted of extorting roughly 430,000 rubles (13,500 USD) from a Tver-based contractor named Yuri Gorokhov. State prosecutors also determined that Farber's conduct was responsible for the loss of another 941,000 rubles (30,000 USD) from the town's coffers.
According to Farber and his defenders, Gorokhov is a corrupt builder who embezzled nearly 2.5 million rubles (78,000 USD) from Moshenka's budget (awarded in a state tender to remodel the rec center in 2010, before Farber became its director). Farber claims that he confronted Gorokhov about his failure to fulfill the contract, and Farber agreed not to contact the police, if the contractor would finish the job.
Farber also says that he was forced to hire additional workers, using money from his own pocket [ru]. When he was apprehended by police in Tver last September in possession of over 130,000 rubles (4,000 USD), Farber says he was only collecting money owed to him by Gorokhov for such extra expenses.
Gorokhov, who suspiciously did not attend a single day of Farber's trial, offers a very different version of events. After remaining silent for nearly a year, he recently granted an interview [ru] to Ksenia Leonova of Openspace.ru, where he described Farber as a greedy and fickle man somewhat driven mad by the powers of his small office. Gorokhov says that, once Farber started at the rec center, he called him in and rather artlessly demanded a 300,000-ruble bribe.
Though ‘everything but the painting’ had been finished in the remodeling work, Farber allegedly ordered Gorokhov to begin construction on an entirely new blueprint (one Farber's son admits to drawing up with his father). Gorokhov says that he reluctantly agreed to pay the bribe in two installments, but Farber repeatedly changed the remodeling plans. (He apparently wanted the outside of the now-three-story building to be painted black, despite Gorokhov's warnings that it would peel in harsh weather, not to mention offend most people's tastes.)
When Farber demanded a second bribe, Gorokhov contacted a local branch of the FSB (Russia's FBI), and Farber was nabbed in a sting operation.
While questions remain about whose version the facts better support, there are several concerns that do not seem to interest many Farber supporters. How, for instance, did the schoolteacher have enough disposable income to hire additional construction workers on his own funds? (After all, the man has three children, and supposedly moved to Moshenka primarily to take advantage of a government program that grants free land to teachers.)
Why didn't either Farber or Gorokhov go to the police when the first bribe allegedly took place? Why did Farber sign a document officially declaring the reconstruction complete last September, just before he accepted 130,000 rubles from Gorokhov, when the plans for a three-story giant remained unfulfilled?
The issues and history covered here, admittedly, address the details of Farber's life in Moshenka before he went before a judge. His trial, everyone seems to agree, was full of illegalities and brazen indifference to due process. Even Gorokhov confesses that the court's sentence — eight years and 3.2 million rubles — is excessive.
The verdict, however, was handed down by Farber's peers. (Unlike most criminal cases in Russia, this was a trial by jury.) The role of ‘regular people’ in Farber's condemnation has many Russian netizens — particularly that group's core, which is based firmly in Moscow — wondering [ru] who is the greater enemy: the ‘bloody regime’ that rules over them or their own people?