Russian Criminals and Magnitsky

Hawkers of fake DVDs have a new Russian “party” representing them. Ted Aljibe / AFP-GettyImages

In some countries it's cool to be an outlaw. In Montenegro, for instance, members of a local diamond-heist gang known as the Pink Panthers are local heroes for ripping off posh Western jewelers. Likewise, many Iranians cheer their bumptious president because, as one Iranian friend put it, "I don't agree with him, but I like how he stands up to America." North Korea has elevated this kind of rebellion into a state philosophy. "If you can't join 'em, beat 'em" seems to be the guiding principle there.

It's sad to see Russia following suit. Moscow may not be building secret nuclear bunkers. But it does have a disturbing pattern of sheltering law-breakers from international justice. Take copyright infringement, for instance. Russia has been host to two of the last decade's most notorious pirate sites, and The latter at its height had more subscribers than iTunes. Both have now been closed down at the insistence of the World Trade Organization, which Russia hankers to join. But Russia's proud copyright infringers are so devoted to the principle of not paying for music and movies that some have even formed a political movement called the Pirates' Party. The new "party"—which has little hope of ever being allowed to stand for office—advocates formalizing Russia's status as an offshore haven for copyright violators.

More serious examples of Russian outlaw worship have included accused killers, spies, and crooks who have not only found safe haven in their homeland but often been treated as heroes. For instance, Andrei Lugovoi, the ex-KGB officer who has been accused by British prosecutors of murdering Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian defector, in London in 2006, became a national hero and was elected to the State Duma, thereby giving him immunity from prosecution. Anna Chapman, the beautiful Russian agent recently arrested by the FBI and returned to her homeland in a spy swap, was feted by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and also offered a political career in the same party that adopted Lugovoi.

The latest in this litany of no-goodniks who enjoy official protection are 60 officials and policemen associated with the false imprisonment and death in prison of Hermitage Fund tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in 2009. Magnitsky had discovered that companies belonging to Hermitage had been stolen by crooked cops and used to defraud the Russian government of $230 million. Instead of investigating his accusations, police threw Magnitsky into jail, where he died after being denied medical care. A bill now pending in the U.S. Congress would impose U.S. visa bans on some 60 Russian officials and policemen involved in the case. The new law, says its cosponsor Sen. John McCain, is intended to "identify those responsible for the death of this Russian patriot, to make their names famous for the whole world to know, and then to hold them accountable for their crimes." The Russian response was essentially that these guys may be sons of bitches—but they're our sons of bitches. The Russian Foreign Ministry condemned the law as being "beyond the standards of decency," while the Interior Ministry promoted one of the investigators most active in imprisoning Magnitsky.

What's behind Russia's rallying around its outlaws in the face of foreign attack or criticism? Mikhail Gorbachev put his finger on one key reason in an interview with NEWSWEEK last year: "America treated us as though we were a defeated country," he told me. "Now we try to prove that no, we are not defeated, we have our own policies, we will not obey…even though that sometimes prevents us from seeing how much we have in common." Russia stands by its badasses, to follow Gorbachev's logic, because it's more important to prove that Russia is independent than to prove that it is a member in good standing of the international community.

There's another, more depressing cause for Russia's behavior: bureaucrats covering their own backsides from international scrutiny. Russia as a country has nothing to gain from protecting its outlaws, its killers, and its corrupt officials. But as the Magnitsky case and others like it show, Russia's bureaucrats have a lot to lose if their own practices come under the scrutiny of international law enforcement. Then they would have to face justice—not the corrupt, back-scratching, politically motivated parody that exists in Russia, but the real thing.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act had passed in the Congress. In fact it is pending.