BORN: A Graphic Reportage by Victoria Lomasko
How the most brutal nationalist gang in Russia was tried
Apri1 21, 2015
On Tuesday, April 21, the Moscow Regional Court will render its verdict in the trial of the Combat Organization of Russian Nationalists (BORN), one of the most violent nationalist gangs in Russia. They have a series of murders of immigrants and antifascists to their credit, as well as numerous attempted murders. In addition, BORN members murdered a federal judge, Eduard Chuvashov. A jury tried the members of the gang. In their verdict, the jury acquitted one of the defendants, Yuri Tikhomirov (who continues to serve a sentence, handed down earlier, for involvement in the murder of antifascist Ilya Dzhaparidze). The three other defendants—Mikhail Volkov, Vyacheslav Isayev, and Maxim Baklagin—were declared wholly or partially guilty, but deserving of leniency for most of the counts of the indictment. However, prosecutors have requested life sentences for Baklagin and Isayev, and twenty-five years in a maximum-security facility for Volkov. The final decision is now up to the judge.
Throughout the trial, artist Victoria Lomasko worked in the courtroom. Meduza presents her graphic reportage on the BORN trial. Meduza special correspondent Andrei Kozenko, who also followed the trial, has annotated the drawings.
Photography was strictly forbidden at the trial. It was Tikhomirov who petitioned the court to ban photography; he was the only of the four who completely denied involvement in the gang. The other defendants supported his claim. They said that Tikhomirov was “slow on the uptake,” and was of no use at all in serious matters, such as planning murders.
Moscow Regional Court Judge Alexander Kozlov presided over the trial. Overall, he was exceptionally tactful and pointedly polite.
“I understand nationalism and all that, but why did you have to kill?” he asked at one point.
Only one thing was forbidden in Kozlov’s courtroom: mentioning that the criminal case had obvious political overtones, that the ultra-rightists had been communicating with people from the presidential administration through a series of intermediaries, and that BORN itself was a project that could not have been conceived without their involvement. Kozlov ruthlessly barred all attempts to discuss this.
Baklagin is a lawyer by training. He honestly testified that one of the murders was committed on a particular day, because on other days he had to be in court early in the morning. Baklagin was charged with six counts of murder, accessory to murder, and attempted murder. He said that he committed the crimes to restore the justice that was absent in the Russian state.
Mikhail Volkov is a veteran football hooligan and member of the skinhead gang OB-88. He did hard time for a nationalist pogrom at the Tsaritsyno Market in 2002. Several times he was forced to explain he got neo-Nazi tattoos when he was “young and stupid,” but had later changed his views. Volkov was charged with one murder committed on his own and another murder committed with an accomplice. He himself said that his motives were about the same as those of Robin Hood.
Ilya Goryachev’s testimony was billed as one of the key episodes in the whole trial, but it did not turn out that way. Educated as a historian, nationalist and spin-doctor Goryachev is regarded by investigators as the organizer of BORN. His case is being tried separately; it has only just been sent to trial. He served as a witness at the main BORN trial. He was expected to name the names of people close to the Kremlin who had in some way been involved in the Combat Organization of Russian Nationalists. But Goryachev denied everything. He allegedly did not even know any of the defendants.
The testimony of the defendants was riddled with inconsistencies. Judge Kozlov occasionally accused them of trying to shield themselves and evade responsibility. One of their main arguments was that BORN did not exist. Volkov, in particular, insisted he had heard the acronym only after he had committed the crimes.
Yuri Tikhomirov sat quietly and spoke the least of all. He had never heard of any such gang, had been involved in only one point of the indictment, and had received a ten-year sentence for that crime before the others had been charged. The jury believed him.
A significant part of the evidence against the defendants consisted of photos and video. In particular, thanks to surveillance cameras, prosecutors were able to prove that Volkov had committed one of the murders.
Prosecutors repeatedly attacked the ideological aspect of the BORN case. The nationalists did not want Russia to become like France, which was “swamped with immigrants.” However, they themselves had never been to France. And yet they sought information about future victims on ultra-rightist websites and in the media.
The hearing during which the physical evidence—the weapons seized from the gang—was presented was like a trip to a theme park. The BORN members used sawed-off hunting rifles and pistols, manufactured in the early twentieth century. They came by these weapons, apparently, through people who illegally excavate battlegrounds.
The mother of antifascist Ilya Dzhaparidze left Moscow for Georgia after her son was murdered. She could not go back to the flat where she lived with her son. Few cursed the defendants as she did. The defendants only looked away.
Another mitigating argument mustered by the defense was that contemporary antifascists are nothing like the ones we saw in Soviet films about World War Two. They are an aggressive subculture with whom the nationalists would fight, including on the streets. It sounded plausible, but still did not answer the question of why it had been necessary to commit murder.
The defendants’ relatives rarely came to the hearings and never together. They sat with the reporters, glancing occasionally at the ultra-rightists as they gave testimony. They flatly refused to talk to the press.
Baklagin asked to be sent to fight in the Donbas: his blood would atone for what he had done. BORN is closely linked to Ukraine. Volkov had escaped there before being extradited back to Russia. One of the most violent members of BORN, former FSB officer Alexei Korshunov, had escaped to Zaporozhye and died when a grenade he was carrying exploded. Finally, another suspect is still in hiding in Ukraine. According to unconfirmed reports, he is even fighting against the separatists.
Nikita Tikhonov and his common-law wife Yevgenia Khasis gave the most detailed testimony against the BORN members, which visibly irritated the latter. Tikhonov is serving a life sentence for the murders of lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova. Khasis is serving eighteen years as an accessory to the murders. On the sidelines, the lawyers did not rule out that Tikhonov was taking responsibility for more than what he had done so that he could stay in a Moscow remand prison—near the crime investigation scene—rather than in the transpolar prison for lifers with its incredibly poor living conditions. Khasis just wants to get out early.
It took a very long time to empanel the jury in the BORN trial. Ordinary residents of Moscow Region were not chomping at the bit to serve on the jury. The defendants themselves rejected several candidates for “looking like antifascists.” Nevertheless, a jury was seated and they produced a verdict in the trial. The defendants were found worthy of leniency. But not Baklagin and Isayev, who had shadowed Judge Chuvashov. (The late Korshunov was deeemd to be his killer.) The chance of a life sentence for them persists.
Those who followed the trials called the jury’s verdict a little too soft on some counts. But be that as it may, only Tikhomirov was acquitted.
Court juries have this peculiarity: all parties to the trial focus the attention of jurors less on the legal aspects and try more to play on their emotions. No lawyers are empanelled, after all. Both the prosecutors and the defense asked the jury to be fair. It rendered its verdict. The judge will turn the verdict into specific sentences for the BORN trial defendants.
Editor’s Note. I thank Victoria Lomasko and Meduza for their permission to translate this article and reproduce Ms. Lomasko’s reportage here. All illustrations courtesy of and copyright Victoria Lomasko and Meduza. Translated by the Russian Reader