An article yesterday misstated the amount of an Arlington jury's award in a libel case against the Moscow newspaper Izvestia. The judgment was $33.5 million. (Published 12/17/1999)
An Arlington County jury has awarded a $35.5 million judgment to a former Russian citizen who sued the Moscow newspaper Izvestia for libel two years ago when he was living in the Washington area.
Alexander Konanykhine, 33, who was granted political asylum in the United States this year and now lives in New York, told the jury Monday that the paper had falsely described him in 1996 and 1997 as a swindler, a bigamist and a thief and as someone who had bribed a public official.
Because of the defamatory articles, Konanykhine, who is now in the Web graphics business, was not able to get financing or sell stock publicly in this country, his attorney said.
The jury delivered its verdict, believed to be the largest in Arlington history, after deliberating for just nine minutes, said Konanykhine's Washington attorney, J.P. Szymkowicz, who had asked for exactly that amount in compensatory and punitive damages.
He said his client could have sued the paper anywhere it distributes the publication and chose Arlington because Konanykhine was living in the District at the time. A lawsuit against a second Russian publication is pending, the lawyer said.
Izvestia did not respond to the suit and was not represented in Arlington Circuit Court this week. Szymkowicz said that he doubts his client will be able to collect the judgment but that the case was not about money.
"It's a symbolic victory," Szymkowicz said. "He's a good person. As a young successful businessman, he was a target for corrupt people to bring him down."
As he has done numerous times to major national news organizations, Konanykhine gave the following account of his life to jurors.
He was expelled from a prestigious college in Russia by the then-communist regime for having a construction business on the side and being a capitalist, his attorney said. Over the next five years, he went on to establish the largest bank in Russia and other businesses and had a net worth of $300 million, most of which was fixed assets, he said.
He told jurors that the Russian mafia wanted to take over his businesses and that he and his wife eventually fled for their lives to the United States, where he moved into the Watergate in the District and started a new life. He was later arrested by U.S. officials for immigration fraud and jailed for a year but was granted political asylum in February, Szymkowicz said.
Clerk of Court David Bell said the verdict appears to be without precedent. "I've been here for 29 years, and I do not recall anything even close to that," he said.