In a court case without precedent in the Soviet Union, an ultra-nationalist Russian was sentenced Friday to two years at hard labor for stirring up ethnic hatred at a time of increasing anti-Semitism here.
Konstantin Smirnov-Ostashvili, 54, a leader of the right-wing Pamyat Society, was convicted of leading an attack on Jewish writers. He was prosecuted under a Soviet law intended to ensure harmony among the country’s 100 or more ethnic groups.
“In making the decision on punishment, the court has taken into account that the crime committed is notable as a great danger to society,” Judge Andrei I. Muratov said in sentencing Smirnov-Ostashvili.
Although the law was enacted years ago, this was the first case brought to trial under it, Soviet officials said.
The trial, sensational and often raucous, lasted for more than two months. It became the focus of a struggle between Russian supremacists and political liberals, as well as a demonstration of government concern over the rise in anti-Semitism.
As the judge read out the verdict, Smirnov-Ostashvili’s supporters stood on benches in the courtroom and unfurled banners, one of which bore the message, “Court--Are You Serving the Law or Zionism?”
“Shame! Shame! Shame!” spectators chanted as the judge pronounced the verdict.
Smirnov-Ostashvili, expecting to be found guilty, said before the verdict was read, “I consider it a joy to suffer for Russia.”
Soldiers of the Interior Ministry guarding Smirnov-Ostashvili stood stony-faced, not intervening.
Smirnov-Ostashvili, a stocky, balding factory worker, was on trial for organizing a group of Russian nationalists who broke up a liberal political forum at the Central House of Writers in January. The intruders roughed up the participants, shouting, “Go to Tel Aviv!” and “Yids!”
No one was seriously injured, and Smirnov-Ostashvili, who used a megaphone to shout down the speakers at the forum, was the only person charged after a lengthy investigation by police.
The trial, which began July 24, was nearly as chaotic as the political forum had been. Smirnov-Ostashvili and his supporters interrupted the judge, screamed at witnesses, berated lawyers and used the courthouse for impromptu political rallies.
Even as Muratov read the court’s findings Friday, Smirnov-Ostashvili tried repeatedly to interrupt him.
“Zionism will not succeed! Long live Russia!” he shouted after one of his supporters tossed him a bouquet of red flowers. He waved them over his head and said: “I am ready to do everything for Russia. I am ready to die.”
Turning to the dozens of reporters in the courtroom, he said, “Western correspondents, see what kind of democracy we have!”
The crowd applauded, but the judge continued without hesitating.
“It’s a theater,” Yuri D. Chernichenko, a well-known journalist and member of the national Parliament who was serving as a public prosecutor in the case, said in disgust.
From the beginning, the case had proceeded fitfully as Smirnov-Ostashvili tried to fire his lawyer, failed to appear for hearings and encouraged the clamor of supporters, whose heckling sometimes drowned out the testimony of witnesses. The case was suspended at one point when the defendant disappeared, but he was found by the police and detained for the duration of the trial.
As a battleground for the ultra-nationalists and liberal intellectuals, the trial drew crowds from the outset. The well-known liberals working for the prosecution saw the case as a measure of the government’s willingness to crack down on anti-Semitism.
“The trial confirms that the country is being infected with fascism,” said Andrei M. Makarov, a well-known defense lawyer who aided in the prosecution.
“It also showed that the situation in the country, to a large extent, is identical to the one that existed in Germany in 1933, when the fascists came to power. When there is instability of democracy and very difficult economic conditions for ordinary people, fascist ideas, which can be disseminated among the people at any time, find fertile soil.”
Russian ultra-nationalists--many are members of Pamyat, which means “memory"--said the guilty verdict violates the right to freedom of expression, which Soviet people are now struggling to obtain after decades of being imprisoned or even shot for speaking out.
“Our young democracy has bared its teeth for the first time,” Andrei Malosolov, 18, who was wearing a Pamyat pin, said with sarcasm.
The nationalists who support Smirnov-Ostashvili said the trial will not end their drive to defend the rights of Russians, the dominant ethnic group in the Soviet Union..
“It is very important, especially now, to struggle for Russians, because it was Russians who created the great Russian empire--not Lithuanians or Poles, and by all means, not Jews,” a journalist for an ultra-nationalist newspaper said. He said his name was Andrei and that he was 33, but he refused to give his last name.
Liberals who followed the case closely saw the conviction as a triumph but admitted that the trial has not lessened anti-Semitic sentiment.
Before Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev came to power, Jews were discriminated against when they applied to leading universities or for prestigious jobs and faced personal prejudice as well.
But increasingly, they feel they are targets of anti-Semitic violence and open political movements against them. In recent years, Jews have voiced growing concern about insults and threats on the streets. Now, there is fear that ultra-nationalist Russians, who blame Jews for everything from food shortages to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, will become violent.
“As a result of this scandal, the problem of anti-Semitism became open at last,” said Sella I. Aleinikova, a tiny woman in her 70s whose videotape of the incident at the House of the Writers was introduced as evidence in the trial. “It can now be discussed in the press and on television, thanks to the fact that this trial took place and the accused was punished.”
Prosecutor Chernichenko said the punishment was necessary, even if it makes Smirnov-Ostashvili a martyr.
“Perhaps we should, at the behest of our Savior, forgive everything and everybody, but society cannot do so,” Chernichenko said. “Today it’s the House of Writers. . . . Next, it’s all of Moscow.”
But some liberals said they could not support they decision of the court because the see it as an infringement of freedom of expression.