A fifth grader in an animation class at School No. 1308 uses a computer bought with parents' donations. (Will Englund/Washington Post)

In a crooked society, Andrei Kudoyarov may have been too straight for his own good.

He was the principal of an elite public school, and when he was arrested in a sting and charged with taking a bribe, his defenders — and he had many of them — couldn’t believe it. They suspect that his real problem might have been that he offended someone above him by refusing to bend the rules.

But what they thought didn’t matter. He sat in jail here for five months, and three times a judge refused to release him to await trial. His case was presented to the public as evidence of official vigor against corruption.

A heart attack killed him in jail Oct. 8, at age 47.

“He brought fire down upon himself,” said his mother, Lydia Kudoyarova, herself a school principal for 40 years.

A fund with donations from parents led to charges of bribery and the eventual death of the principal. (Will Englund/Washington Post)

What he did is what every principal does: He asked for money to be used for school improvements. But with corruption so ubiquitous here, investigators are eager to show that they’re doing something about it, and they know that a charge of corruption is always plausible and often true. Yet, instead of pursuing the powerful, they go after the unprotected.

Because his school is so successful, Kudoyarov had a high enough profile to be an attractive target for prosecution, but not so high as to be dangerous for those doing the prosecuting. And because he was so good at raising money, he might have attracted the envy of others.

His was a stressful job; every year, several thousand parents call about getting places for their children at School No. 1308, which is overcrowded with 666 students. Some of those calls come from “above,” as his mother put it. But Kudoyarov was adamant about not admitting students if there were no places, and the waiting lists for the upper grades average about 150 names, said Yelena Balyakina, the acting principal.

Last spring, a man posing as a prospective parent made a secret video recording that shows Kudoyarov apparently agreeing to accept $8,000 in return for admitting his son as a first-grader. The principal was arrested May 19.

“I believe it was a provocation. It was some kind of revenge,” said Valery Borshchev, chairman of a public commission that monitors conditions in Moscow jails.

A priest and a local politician went to court to vouch for Kudoyarov. Medical records showing that he had dangerously high blood pressure were given to the court. His attorney, Alexander Manov, said that, if convicted, he would probably get away with a fine. But no judge was willing to release him.

“The idea was to pressure him, to break him down,” Manov said. Conditions in Russian pretrial jails are grim, with bad air and worse food. Medical care is practically nonexistent. Last year, 59 people died in Moscow jails alone.

Kudoyarov refused to admit guilt, which would have gotten him out of jail. But without a confession, the case against him had too many holes. “The investigators,” Manov said, “did their best to see that he would not live until his trial.”

‘He was a born teacher’

School No. 1308 specializes in English and German instruction, and it is in Moscow’s wealthiest residential district, in the southwestern part of the city. Kudoyarov had been principal since it opened 10 years ago. He was always there; sometimes he slept in his office. He played the guitar, acted in school plays and coached the table tennis team.

He had learned English as a boy in Kenya, where his father was a Soviet military attache. As a young man he taught at the Russian Embassy school in Paris. But he went back to Moscow because he wanted to create a “good, modern Russian school,” his mother said.

“He was a man of word and action,” she said. “There was no better.”

Nearly 6 feet tall, with a barrel chest, he wanted a school where his students would love learning and respect order. A third of the teachers are men, which is unheard of here.

This year, the school sent all of its graduates on to universities. It scored near the top on a standardized national exam.

“He was a born teacher, a wonderful organizer,” said Valentina Savelyeva, who was his deputy. And he was wildly popular with parents. “He made a school where every parent wants his child to study,” said Gennady Venglinsky, head of a local district council and the grandfather of two students.

The parents, most of them well-to-do, express their appreciation with money. They established a fund — legally registered — to which it is expected they will contribute. It is voluntary; a third of the parents pay little or nothing, but the others donate up to $200 a month, plus a bigger fee at admission.

With that money, the school has bought two buses, microscopes for the biology lab, computers for every classroom, textbooks, gym mats, weightlifting equipment. It pays for a gardener who tends the flower beds outside and the tropical plants in the second-floor greenhouse. It covers the cost of the league champion table tennis team and the volleyball team. It bought the paint that freshened up the building last year.

The $8,000 discussed on the video recording was intended for this fund, Kudoyarov’s supporters say. He shouldn’t have allowed the man to hand over cash, Borshchev said; that was his big mistake. Investigators let it be known that Kudoyarov lived with his wife in one of Moscow’s ritziest suburbs, which is true, but they share a one-bedroom apartment in a high-rise.

All across Russia, schools raise money from parents. The Education Ministry provides almost no money for the replenishment of supplies. Building repairs, if done through the system, require the solicitation of tenders in a process that can take months — which, as Venglinsky pointed out, isn’t helpful if a pipe has burst and is flooding the building. With money in the safe, the plumber can get paid.

This inevitably opens the door to shady dealings. Some cross the line; the rest can be slanted by ambitious prosecutors to look like abuse of power, extortion or bribery. (The principal of a neighboring school has been charged with stealing the unlikely sum of $7 million. He supposedly disappeared and is on the most-wanted list, but he is said to be living at home and often seen around the neighborhood, which suggests that he has some sort of protection.)

Fund continues to grow

Since Kudoyarov was arrested, parents have continued to donate money to his school’s fund. No one has suggested that they hold back.

And Friday, two weeks after he died, prosecutors announced that they were returning the case to the criminal investigators’ office; the implication was that there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed, even against a dead man.

Kudoyarov had high blood pressure and had suffered from chest pains for years but never saw a doctor about them. He’d just take a pill and keep on going, said Savelyeva, his deputy.

On the morning of Oct. 8, he fell ill in his jail cell; an orderly tried to treat him but eventually gave up and called an ambulance. Kudoyarov was dead before doctors could arrange to take him to a hospital.

While in jail, he organized morning exercises every day for his fellow inmates, and in the afternoons he told stories or gave history lectures. They wrote a letter of gratitude to his mother after he died.

“To the very last day of his life,” Venglinsky said, “he remained a true teacher.”