Putin, orphans and the ‘Cadaver Synod’
More curiosity from Russia. Just days after President Vladimir Putin pushed a bill which would result in an end to US citizens adopting neglected Russian orphans, the nation opened a fraud trial against a man who’s been dead for more than three years.
And, as can seemingly only happen in Russia, the two are connected.
This made-for-Dostoyevsky case goes back to at least 2008, when Russian Sergei Magnitsky was arrested.
Before his arrest, Magnitsky, according to his lawyer, had uncovered a tax scam worth $235 million being perpetrated by interior ministry officials against the company he worked for, investment fund Hermitage Capital.
However, Magnitsky was then charged with the very crimes he claimed to have uncovered and was placed in pre-trial detention, according to Agence France-Presse.
He spent nearly a year in squalid prison conditions, dying at the age of 37 of untreated illnesses. A report by the Kremlin human rights council last year said he was tortured and handcuffed in his final hours, the wire service reported.
Even though Magnitsky is dead, he and his former employer – the head of Hermitage Capital, William Browder – are accused of tax evasion.
Thursday, the Magnitsky family’s defense lawyers refused to participate in what they termed an “unconstitutional” process against a dead man, and the judge was forced to adjourn the hearing until Jan. 28.
Browder, currently based in London, is being tried in absentia.
So how did Russian orphans became pawns in this bizarre tale?
In the years since Magnitsky’s death, all of his alleged tormentors are still free and nearly all of them have either kept their government jobs or been promoted, according to Time magazine.
“As a last resort, Magnitsky’s friends and colleagues took their pleas for justice to Western capitals, and Washington has now banned the implicated officials from traveling to the US, owning property in the US, or holding US bank accounts,” the publication reported.
The US Magnitsky Act was passed this month by a huge bipartisan majority in both the House and the Senate.
“Putin called the act ‘unfriendly’ and pledged that it would get an ‘adequate’ response from Russian lawmakers,” Time reported.
So, as a result, the Russian parliament has passed a law banning adoptions of Russian children by Americans. The measure now awaits Putin’s signature.
Ah, what better way to stick it to the Americans than by leaving unwanted Russian children to waste away in miserable orphanages, right?
Surprisingly, putting an individual on trial posthumously – while ridiculous – is not unheard of in history.
Examples include Pope Formosus, who led the Roman Catholic Church from 891 to 896. His reign, like the time he lived in, was troubled. When he died in April 896, he was succeeded by Boniface VI.
The latter ruled for barely two weeks before either dying or resigning (the medieval papacy was considerably more turbulent than that of today: in addition, its record-keeping left much to be desired), and was followed by Pope Stephen VI.
It should be noted that the period from the middle of the ninth century to the middle of the tenth century is often referred to the Iron Age of Popes, according to Richard P. McBrien’s 1997 book Lives of the Popes. The term is not one of endearment.
Stephen was apparently no fan of Formosus because he had the latter dug up and put on trial in 897, at least eight months after Formosus’ death, in what became known as the delightfully titled Cadaver Synod.
Eamon Duffy, writes in Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (1997) that the Holy See attracted individuals with a lust for power.
“The chair of St. Peter became the prize of tyrants and brigands and a throne fouled by fierce tides of crime and licentiousness … (and) the papacy became the possession of great Roman families, a ticket to local dominance for which men were prepared to rape, murder, and steal.”
Yet, in what has to be one of the lowlights even for this period, the corpse of Formosus was disinterred, clad in papal vestments, and seated on a throne to face charges of “transmigrating sees in violation of canon law,” perjury and of serving as a bishop while actually a layman.
A deacon was appointed to answer for the deceased pontiff.
Surprise of surprises, Formosus, or what remained of him, was found guilty.
His corpse was stripped of its papal vestments, the three fingers of his right hand used for consecrations were cut off and thrown in the Tiber River, and all his acts and ordinations were declared null and void.
His body was first re-interred in a graveyard for foreigners, only to be dug up once again, tied to weights, and cast into the Tiber.
Apparently, all of the above was too much for even the jaded populace of Rome.
A public uprising led to Stephen being deposed and imprisoned, and in the summer of 897 he was strangled while behind bars.
A decade later, Formosus was “rehabilitated” during another Church synod, and he was reburied in Saint Peter’s Basilica, garbed in pontifical vestments.
In light of the above experience, let us hope the Russians know where to draw the line when it comes to posthumous trials.
(Above: Jean-Paul Laurens’ 1870 work showing the Cadaver Synod.)