Out of Russia: Dissidents with a difference manage to stay in business

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MOSCOW - It is one of the few places in the Russian capital where Andrei Sakharov, Anatoly Sharansky, Yuri Orlov and other denizens of the vanished world of Soviet dissent and decency might still feel at home.

The flat on the ninth floor is cave-like, cramped and cosy. Every inch is dedicated to The Cause: bookshelves groan with heaps of dog-eared samizdat; an overworked photocopier blocks a narrow corridor; scared faces stare out from photographs taped to the living-room wall. Only a newly installed steel door offers a reminder that thieves have replaced KGB informers as the enemy.

Inside, the cuddly, conspiratorial habits of the Evil Empire linger. 'We still follow the dissident tradition,' explains Viktor Sokirko, a former engineer and veteran human rights campaigner, 'I'm the chairman; my wife is the secretary.' Another tradition is endless cups of tea, served with delicious home-made jam and accompanied by endless talk of petitions and protests.

Mr Sokirko is founder and chairman of the Society for the Defence of Convicted Businessmen and Economic Freedoms. He is one of Russia's last great optimists.

Mention the word businessman to most Russians and they think of bleached-blonde molls and muscle-bound oafs in shell suits and imported cars. It does not take long in Moscow to discover that much has been lost in the translation from business to biznes. The shoot-out often seems the preferred form of negotiation, the contract killing about the only deal fully honoured. Mr Sokirko is not blind to the murkier sides of biznes. He even worries about the probity of one of his society's sponsors, a businessman jailed on charges of swindling a bank.

But this does not distract him from a cause first embraced in the early 1970s, when he began campaigning on behalf of jailed 'speculators'. 'I had the monopoly until perestroika came along,' he says proudly. 'I wrote letters to Brezhnev, letters to Andropov, letters to everyone. They all ended up with the same organisation, the KGB.' He was sacked from his job and jailed for seven months. Now everyone has jumped on the bandwagon. Free enterprise is the new orthodoxy. The Society for Defence of Convicted Businessman has come out of the closet, registered itself with the authorities and begun publishing a glossy magazine.

Everything has moved far too fast for the criminal code and the people who enforce it. Judges, lawyers and policemen, schooled in the conviction that anyone who makes a profit must be a crook, cannot keep up. And until they do, says Mr Sokirko, his society will have lots to do. Its main task is helping businessmen jailed under Soviet-era laws classifying ordinary business as crime. 'Speculation', once punishable by death, has been decriminalised and hard currency trading is now a national obsession. Mr Sokirko believes many of the 30,000 people in jail for economic crimes in 1990 have been released but that thousands remain behind bars.

Among them are the people staring down from the photographs on his living-room wall: an engineer from Baku jailed for 15 years for manufacturing bath rugs outside the central plan, a factory director from Voronozh imprisoned for trading car parts for television sets.

Prohibitive taxes, absurd regulations and greedy officials have turned even honest businessmen into crooks. 'Businessmen are slaves to the system. They can be arrested at any moment. This is the basis for all corruption: pay up or go to jail.'

Mr Sokirko has handled the transition from Communism to capitalist chaos better than most. Unlike many dissidents he can cope with shades of grey. His list of 'victims of economic repression' has been expanded to include not only clearly wronged innocents but more ambiguous cases too. 'We help not only the innocent but the guilty who have been punished too severely.' One of these is a mother-of-three who skimmed off money while working as an accountant for a state firm in Chelyabinsk. She admitted three years ago to falsifying receipts and has paid back all the money. She got nine years.

Human rights used to be a lot easier, involving clear-cut right and wrong. But Mr Sokirko seems unperturbed by the quibbles of the dogmatically virtuous. He spent the summer with his family cycling across Europe, ending up in England. You may have spotted them. Attached to their bicycles were bits of red cloth daubed with slogans in white paint: 'Bourgeois of the World Unite.'