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'The Russian J Edgar Hoover’s' lecture was like a pile of exploding mashed potatoes

Our man in Paris: Alexander Bastrykin was making a rare public appearance at the Sorbonne University

“Russia’s J Edgar Hoover”, Alexander Bastrykin, made a rare public appearance at the Sorbonne University in Paris this week. For 90 minutes, he spoke, without saying very much, about the reform of the Russian justice system.

French academics and legal experts also spoke. They explained why it was impossible to reform the French justice system.

When it was the turn of Mr Bastrykin, Russia’s most senior policeman, he rambled vaguely and made limp jokes. He piled a lot of French legal text books on the desk in front of him. 

He showed off a French wine-tasting medal he had been given on a previous French visit. He made more weak jokes. Mr Bastrykin is a friend of the Russian President Vladimir Putin from their university days. Since 2007, he has been president of an Investigating Committee, which now pulls all the strings of criminal, and political, investigations in Russia.

Mr Bastrykin was supposed to explain why the reform of the Russian justice system  will make investigations more independent of the government. He did not. The French academics became restless, even annoyed. One passed a message to the chairman of the meeting, Senator Patrice Gélard. Senator Gélard suggested that Mr Bastrykin might like to come to the point.

He did, for a while, without ever really explaining why a “committee” which reports to President Putin will make investigations more independent. Mr Bastrykin could not resist another joke about wine. It involved Stalin and the fact that the word “fault” and the word “wine” are similar in Russian.

Eventually, Senator Gélard threw the discussion open to the floor. Cue, bedlam. Imagine reading a telephone directory which turns abruptly into a thriller. Imagine a pile of mashed potatoes which explodes in your face. 

The audience, about 50 strong, had been studiously taking notes, as academics do. More than half of them turned out to be angry Russians in disguise. They began to berate Mr Bastrykin as a stooge of an oppressive regime.

One young woman complained about the arrest of Greenpeace activists in the Russian Arctic. A young man asked – in high pitched scream – about an allegation made last year by the newspaper Novaya Gazeta that Mr Bastrykin had led one of its senior editors, Sergei Sokolov, into a forest and threatened to have him murdered.

A mournful man said that he was a businessman from St Petersburg who had been cheated by the authorities who were now trying to extradite him from France as a crook. A young man asked Mr Bastrykin to explain why many pages from one of his academic works seemed to have been translated word for word from a German tome.

Mr Bastrykin, 61, was mostly calm, took notes and answered some of the points. When accused of plagiarism, he showed the iron teeth behind his smile. He accused the young man of making a “very serious allegation” without proof.

The academics and French senator running the conference complained that all of this was a distraction from the serious subject at hand. They made several attempts to return to comparative study of French and Russian justice reforms.

The screaming continued for almost an hour. To Mr Bastrykin’s credit, he did not walk out. Apparently, such events are normal on the rare occasions when Putin associates appear in public abroad.“