The Cable

This Russian Lawyer’s Goal? “Get Rid of Putin’s Regime.”

Mark Feygin is working at the intersection of international relations and high profile legal cases to try to put pressure on Putin.


In the 1990s, Mark Feygin was a member of Russia’s Duma. Today, he’s doing his part to unsettle the Russian government, one high-profile legal case at a time.

Feygin, a lawyer, represented the women of Pussy Riot, who were arrested in 2012 for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” (They received prison time for performing a “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior). He also represented Nadia Savchenko, the Ukrainian pilot and politician who was put on trial for murdering journalists who were killed on the same day she was captured by Russian-backed separatists, and whose release was negotiated as part of a high-profile prisoner exchange.

Feygin works at the intersection of international relations and criminal law to try to both shine a light on and pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. In Putin’s Russia, where 99 percent of those put on trial are found guilty, such work could provide a crucial check against the regime’s extrajudicial tendencies.

Feygin has a knack for pressuring Russia through Ukraine, and he’s not the first to attempt to do so. Denis Voronenkov, the former Russian parliamentarian who was murdered last week, was living in exile as a Ukrainian citizen in Kiev (although, as Olga Oliker of the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted, Voronenkov was in the Russian parliament much more recently than Feygin). He was set to testify against Ukraine’s former, Kremlin-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych. Feygin, like Voronenkov, likely sees Ukraine and Ukrainians as an avenue through which to put pressure Moscow. That, said Columbia University’s Timothy Frye, is not a trend, but “an indication of the tortured relations between the two countries.”

But it could also be a way through which frustrated former parliamentarians try to change their country.

“If you think about it in this broad sense,” Oliker said, “for a lot of Russians who would like change and reform in Russia, Ukraine is a model of what could be done. That’s an imperfect model, but a model.” She says, however, that she thinks of Feygin first as “the guy who’s willing to take on these cases.” 

Feygin now has a new client. Roman Sushchenko, a Ukrainian journalist who, while visiting a close relative in Moscow in Sept. 2016, was arrested for espionage. Russian authorities said he was working on behalf of Ukrainian special forces to collect information on their Russian counterparts. He’s been in prison since. “Roman Sushchenko is not a spy. He’s a journalist,” Feygin said. (Sushchenko was in the military in the past, but the past is not present).

Feygin is hoping to negotiate his client’s release through another exchange — one that won’t happen without western, and particularly American, pressure on the Kremlin. Moscow, he says, “only understands ultimatums.” He believes there are still those in government in the United States who take a more “traditional position” on Russia, and “don’t have illusions about people.”

No longer a member of parliament, Feygin still plays the part of an opposition member by taking on high-profile political cases that have consequences for Russia’s relations abroad. But he also participated in protests in 2011 and believes the anti-corruption protests that swept the country last Sunday give reason for cautious optimism.

For his part, Feygin knows Ukrainian politicians, both those in government and those in the opposition, but has no intention of getting involved in Ukraine’s domestic politics. He does not, for example, criticize the new law in Ukraine that’s seen by many as a crackdown on Ukrainian civil society’s anti-corruption movement. That’s not his place, he says.

But stopping repression against Ukrainians by Russia, and “to make changes in Russia to get rid of Putin’s regime forever”– that, he says, is his place.

Update, March 30 2017, 2:45 pm ET: This piece was updated to include comment from Olga Oliker.

Photo credit: VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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