8.2 The trial of Ilya Burmistrovich

No 8, 30 June 1969

On 21 May 1969, the Moscow City Court examined the case of Ilya Burmistrovich, accused under Article 190-1 of the Russian Criminal Code. Burmistrovich was charged with circulating works by Yuly Daniel — Moscow Speaking, Hands, Atonement and The Man from MINAP— and the following works of Andrei Sinyavsky: Lyubimov and What is Socialist Realism? The court, which consisted of Chairman L. I. Lavrova and Assessors Taldykin and Zazulin, found Burmistrovich guilty, and sentenced him to three years in an ordinary-regime camp. The Prosecutor was Babenko and the defence lawyer Yu. V. Pozdeyev.

Ilya Burmistrovich is a mathematician with a higher degree, author of nine scientific treatises and father of a two-year-old girl. He was arrested on 16 May 1968, and spent more than a year in Lefortovo prison before being brought to trial. The investigation was conducted by KGB organs.

When asked if he understood the charge, Ilya Burmistrovich replied in the negative, and said he would not answer the question of whether he would plead guilty until someone explained the essence of the charge to him. Burmistrovich referred to his right to know what he was accused of, and said that this was not clear from the bill of indictment.

Judge Lavrova refused to explain the charge further, justifying her refusal on the grounds that such explanations were usually reserved for poorly educated people, and not people with higher degrees.

Burmistrovich gave the following reasons for not understanding the charge:

“First, does the charge mean that I wished to deceive my friends about the Soviet social and political system?

“Secondly, there exist, as you know, certain assertions which are neither true nor false. Am I right in saying that the propagation of such assertions is not indictable under Article 190-1?

“Thirdly, I am not clear which assertions defame and which do not defame the Soviet social and political system. I ask you to give me some indication of your criterion in deciding this. This request of mine caused some embarrassment during the pre-trial investigation.

“Fourthly, the charge mentions some ‘fabrications’ contained in the works of Sinyavsky and Daniel, I would like you to explain to rne what you mean by saying that this or that assertion is contained in a given work. There were plenty of assertions mentioned in the verdict on Sinyavsky and Daniel which are not contained in their writings …

“Fifthly, I ask you to indicate, for each of the works I am charged with passing around, for each one separately, what the fabrications are which they contain. Furthermore, Sinyavsky and Daniel were accused under Article 70 of the Criminal Code. In the sentence passed on them it was said that their works were written from an anti-Soviet position, but there is not a word about any ‘fabrications’.”

Ilya Burmistrovich received no explanation from the Judge, but his logical approach to the formulation of the charges is worth paying serious attention to. He was trying to direct attention not to the unimportant facts which served as grounds for the pre-trial and the court investigations — who gave what to whom to read or type —but to the essential point: did the content of the works he was distributing correspond to the formula set out in Article 190-1? The court, of course, refused to take this line, and proceeded to have the facts on the handing around and typing of the literature corroborated, as if the ‘deliberate falsehoods’ and ‘defamation of the Soviet system’ contained in them required no proof. The Prosecutor plainly said that the content of Sinyavsky’s and Daniel’s works was not a subject for examination, since those works had already been condemned in the name of the Republic. But even here he gave no answer to the point Burmistrovich stressed, namely the difference between conviction under Article 70 and conviction under Article 190-1.

As with the trial of Kochubievsky [see 8.1], the extremely aggressive behaviour of the Judge must be mentioned. The People’s Assessors were silent for the whole of the trial, and the Prosecutor addressed the accused in reasonably mild language, restricting himself to concrete questions. But Judge Lavrova, according to the comments of those present, ‘beat the soul’ out of the accused, cut him short, made ironic remarks at his expense, and so on. During the adjournment she reproved him for misusing his rest period by looking at his relatives.

It was comparatively easy to get into the courtroom, although many of the seats had been occupied beforehand by KGB men. But later on the approaches to the court were closed; people who went out when the court adjourned for a break were not allowed to go back in, and the Judge cleared the courtroom of several persons with whom the KGB guards were already acquainted. For instance, she suggested that Natalya Gorbanevskaya, next to whom someone was chattering, should leave the room, and she suddenly addressed herself to Pyotr Yakir with: ‘What are you smiling at? If you think it’s funny, then get out.’ She could not actually bring herself to have him turned out, but he didn’t manage to get back into the courtroom after the break. A slightly condensed verbatim record of the trial of Ilya Burmistrovich has come out in samizdat, and also a separate typescript of Burmistrovich’s final plea.