Judges, Jews, Soccer and Revolution

Judges: today I addressed all the judges of the Arbitral Court of Belgorod. Belgorod is not only the city we are in, it is also the name of an entire region in Southwestern Russia, bounded on the South by the Ukraine, on the West by Belarus, and on the North and West by other regions of Russia. Each region is roughly akin to a State in the USA.

The Arbitral Court has a chief judge and sixteen inferior judges. They adjudicate all business disputes (other matters go to the “common courts”). Their system of resolving business disputes involves one to three judges (depending on case complexity) hearing evidence and rendering a written opinion on both law and fact; no jury. I spoke about our jury system and our progress in alternate dispute resolution (mediation, arbitration) before an audience of about 40 people, the judges and their staffs. My remarks were predictable, the questions were not.

First, they were without a clue on how a trial proceeded. I outlined a typical trial. They wanted to know how long we afforded judges in trial courts to render decisions; I reminded them that the jury did most of that, and that most written decisions in our courts were at the appellate level. They inquired as to how we enforced decisions of the court; apparently their courts decide, and then little happens by way of enforcement. After that, the questions got a bit weird:

*Who pays for postage? Apparently the courts here have run into issues in paying for the mailing out of decisions, particularly if to foreign jurisdictions (hard to answer; in 45 years, I never ran into postage as a significant issue in the administration of justice in the US).

* Civil courts enforce the fundamental rights of man; did I view this as an appropriate matter for courts, or should courts restrict themselves to matters of contract or treaty?

*How long do we give trial judges to write decisions? (Seemingly they just missed the point that the juries decide and that trial judges don’t write many decisions; I attempted to describe the process for a judge preparing a charge to the jury, an effort that fell on what I perceived to be uncomprehending ears.)

It is pretty clear that the judges lack an understanding of our system of justice. One could be judgmental about this, except that their system came as a total surprise to me. Points off for both sides here.

At the end I got a standing ovation (I suspect it is Siberia if you failed to applaud), and I was presented by the chief judge with a color photo of me and my translator Katya on the podium, underneath the flag of Belgorod, all in a frame. Nice touch, it goes up on my office wall; 25 points of bragging rights, after all I WAS sweating profusely under my three piece suit when I was finished with the presentation.

Jews. Interesting discussion with a faculty member who is extremely bright, well-read, and traveled within the former USSR and present day Russia (among other things, she was an army brat under both the USSR and the present regime). On the way to the restaurant, she pointed out a school and noted it was on the site of a former Jewish burial ground. I asked about Jews in Belgorod (there are NO houses of worship except Orthodox Eastern, as far as we could see). Seems there are some Jews, numbers unknown at least to her. (“One of my friends is Udish.” Have I ever heard that one before ,I wonder?) I have no sense of any bias by the way, just neutral reporting of neutral facts. I noted that the Nazis were assiduous in this part of the world in deporting and killing Jews (and lots of other people) during their occupation. (See The Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder, a dynamite download on Kindle.) Where did the local Jews come from? We were told they returned after the Great Patriotic War; some had fled to Eastern Russia to escape the Nazis, some had emigrated to Israel and found it distasteful and had returned. There was no sense of awareness of there being a “Jewish issue;” seems the Germans and Soviets had killed so many people around here for so many reasons that Jews were just part of the incredible mix of barbarity. It was noted, in response to our thought that Stalin had starved to death millions of Ukrainians in the collectivization of 1930-32 (we are 20 miles from the Ukrainian border), that Stalin starved millions to death in lots of other places also. I conclude that when you kill 14,000,000 civilians in a small area during a decade, the identities of the killers and the victims lose historical relevance in the face of human values, and then human values lose relevance in the face of incomprehensible numbers (was it not Stalin who said that the death of one person is a tragedy, and the death of a million is just a statistic?). In any event, it is a good thing we did not look for a Jewish service here in Belgorod during our visit; wherever the nearest Temple might be, it sure as hell ain’t in walking distance.

Soccer: Matthew has been starved for contact with kids. He has said he prefers Austria because he had people to play with, even though (frankly) Russia is incredibly more fascinating and exotic. Over the last week, our next to final week, we have finally located a few children (Russian) who live near our dorm and who play daily in a nearby small playground. Children here study English as a routine matter, and it doesn’t take much by way of common language to get kids into a social situation. Now Matthew meets with these boys daily around 6pm to climb monkey bars, horse around or play soccer with a tennis ball. Notwithstanding that these kids are European and Matthew’s soccer is restricted to a couple of session of Newton junior league, I am (to my own surprise) happy to report that he is as good as, indeed better than, his Russian brethren, having been at all times on the winning side (today’s score: USA 10, Russia 8). Verdict from Damon the Russian: “football play well.” On three please pick up the chant: “USA, USA, USA….”

Revolution: Wholly anecdotal but fascinating perception on Russian politics and the future of the Russian State: Putin remains in charge; he committed incredible crimes and everyone knows it; as a personal observer of the most recent elections, it is clear there were violations of law; people know this and freely talk about it, there is no risk to say it, but everyone accepts the fact that they are powerless, there is a controlling oligarchy, Russia is an authoritarian state and not a democracy. This will continue for a while, the Russians are patient people, but someday we will see a return to 1917! Question: is this not a radical and irrational prediction? Answer: no, we expect it, there is no other way. This from a faculty member of some judgment and credibility. How to evaluate such a “revolutionary” perception, particularly in light of what is a clear passive acceptance of the political status quo today (Belgorod, capital of the region that it is, to the outside observer shows ZERO political unrest or indeed interest, it is all about the business of life as usual here)? We are unable to evaluate this view, and lack access to people and adequate time to weigh its prescience. Let’s just call it a random factoid, but when comes the revolution, comrade, remember that you heard it here first.

This is possibly my last blog from Russia. Laura and I teach the next two days, we get out of Dodge late Friday night, we have to pack and sign diplomas and say our goodbyes, we are being taken tomorrow to a dolphin show (as the comedic columnist Dave Barry was wont to say, “I am not making this up”), I am to be interviewed by the local newspaper (must be a total dearth of news, they obviously have not heard of the upcoming revolution), and I suspect that my final wrap will come in the form of a blog posted on my return to the US. This trip has been, well, a real trip. Hope you all enjoyed the reportage.

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