Violetta Volkova woke up that fateful December morning a hard-hitting mergers and acquisitions lawyer. Before the day was over, she was springing neophyte demonstrators from jail. In a matter of weeks she would be defending some of Vladimir Putin’s worst enemies, a punk-rock group among them. A year later, she was a widely known human rights lawyer.
Many Russians changed on Dec. 5, 2011, when Muscovites, infuriated by what they considered fraudulent parliamentary elections the day before, protested in unexpectedly large numbers. The disgruntled young and the passive middle class went into the streets, for the first time willing to join a protest. Leaders began to emerge from once-barely-known opposition movements. The punk rockers began planning political protests that would end in a performance in Moscow’s main cathedral. Soon lots of people needed lawyers.
A few tweets that night and Volkova found herself transformed as well, taking on human rights and political cases. It’s a field with many risks and few triumphs — the courts are widely viewed as listening to political orders rather than legal arguments.
Earlier that day, she had been in the old Moscow neighborhood of Chistye Prudy, where permission had been granted to hold what was assumed would be a typically small opposition rally. Volkova, with fellow lawyer Nikolai Polozov, was astonished to see lines of police vans filling the streets. “The number of police was huge,” she said. She was sure the authorities were preparing to round up demonstrators.
She began noticing all the tweets — Twitter was electrified by people urging their friends to join the protest. “Call me if you need help,” she wrote. “Don’t worry,” they replied. “We won’t.”
She and Polozov sat in a second-floor cafe watching the crowd gather. Below, they could see a well-known colleague, Mark Feygin. The three would meet three months later and form the defense team for the punk-rock group Pussy Riot.
Soon police started filling their vans with protesters, and calls for help were tweeted. Volkova and Polozov walked to a nearby police station and by 2 a.m. got 15 detainees released. Later, it was estimated that several hundred had been taken to various stations.
After that, her list of clients grew — along with the demonstrations. So did the frustrations.
Three Pussy Riot members who had entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February to protest Russia’s growing authoritarianism and the church’s support of Putin were found guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, a criminal offense with a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.
During the trial, the judge had no patience for arguments about political protest or that the act fell under civil laws that would bring a fine rather than prison time. The prosecution was permitted to call all the witnesses it desired. The defense got to call three from a list of a dozen. Its motions were denied, one after another.
“It’s hard to control yourself when they tell you black is white,” said Volkova, who at one point lashed out at the judge. “You understand there is no justice. At that point, you become a human rights activist.”
The three women were sentenced to two years in a prison colony, although one was released in October because she had been stopped by guards before joining the performance. She criticized the defense team and got a new lawyer but last month dropped her complaints.
In November, Feygin, Polozov and Volkova parted ways with the remaining two. They had been denied permission to see them in their prison camps. They said the two young women would be better helped by attorneys less disliked by the government.
Now Volkova’s highest-profile client is Sergei Udaltsov, a socialist leader. He has had several cases brought against him, including charges that he plotted to incite mass riots at a May 6 protest in Bolotnaya Square, on the eve of Putin’s presidential inauguration.
Police and protesters clashed then, and about 20 are being investigated. One man has been sentenced to 4½ years in prison for assaulting a police officer, even though he cooperated with police and apologized. Others fear even harsher treatment.
As a commercial lawyer, Volkova, 40, specialized in fending off corporate raids — takeovers often carried out with the help of corrupt police and courts. She had started her career as a prosecutor but couldn’t stand a system that operated like a machine, she said, discouraging independent thinking. Last fall, when her team visited the United States, Polozov described the role of a lawyer here as carrying money from the client to the investigator or court officials. “Some are happy with that situation,” he said. “We are not.”
Volkova is divorced — no man could put up with her long, erratic workdays, she said. She has an 18-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son and lives with her mother, who keeps the household running and makes Volkova’s Twitter-driven life possible.
One spring morning, Volkova saw a tweet about Suren Gazaryan, an environmental activist in the southern region of Krasnodar, who was in danger of going to prison for protesting construction of a residential compound for a local official in a protected forest.
Within a few hours, Volkova was on the case and in the air. Gazaryan had been charged with causing thousands of dollars in damage by painting a small slogan on a fence. She challenged the lack of evidence, the absence of an expert to evaluate the cost of the fence, and a long list of other weaknesses in the case. Eventually, Gazaryan got probation instead of three years in prison. But the authorities hadn’t given up. They brought new charges against him, and he fled the country.
Lawyers take political cases at their peril. Volkova considers herself lucky that she has gotten off so far with her bank accounts frozen, the occasional threat of disbarment and nasty comments via social media about her vehemence and weight. Feygin has been summoned as a witness in the Bolotnaya case. “Witnesses soon turn into defendants,” Volkova said.
No one in the human rights community has forgotten how Stanislav Markelov, a 34-year-old lawyer who defended Chechens abused by the Russian military, was gunned down near a busy Moscow metro stop in January 2009, dying along with a young reporter who was walking with him after a news conference.
“I’m not afraid,” Volkova said. “This is our life.”