Bizarre persecution of Russian mathematician

I don’t fully understand this story, but it is time sensitive. Misha Verbitsky is a complex geometer who is also an active Russian political blogger.
Recently, he was arrested by the Russian government while attempting to board a flight out of the country. It turns out he was convicted in absentia of violating the trademark of a man named Igor Pugach, by using an image of Pugach to illustrate a blogpost criticizing Pugach. Verbitsky was fined 300,000 rubles (approximately 9,700 dollars) and will not be able to leave Russia until he pays the sum. Verbitsky’s blog is here; due to my inability to read Russian I have not located the post in question. A newspaper article on the issue is here.

Obviously, this violates all sorts of legal norms. Under US trademark law, you simply can’t be convicted of a trademark violation if you are not selling something. You could be convicted of a copyright violation, but this case would likely be fair use. Moreover, you certainly can’t have a large judgment made against you in absentia, except after extraordinary efforts have been made to notify you of the proceedings. I don’t know Russian law, but I am quite willing to say this is immoral, and expect that it is also illegal. (There is also a profoundly dumb statement by Pugach’s spokesperson that simply wearing a beard similar to Pugach’s is a trademark/copyright violation but, since that doesn’t appear to be the basis of the court ruling, I am going to lump that under “people say remarkably dumb things sometimes”.)

There is a petition to free Verbitsky here directed to Putin. I tend to be skeptical of the value of internet petitions, but it’s a start. I have also submitted this story to Boing Boing and the Volokh Conspiracy, in the name of boosting the signal.

I’d be interested in suggestions as to what we should be doing to get this story off the internet and to the attention of people who care. My next thought is to contact the US State Dept, or ask my Senators to do so. Does anyone know whether Verbitsky is a US Citizen? I assume our government will care more if this is the case. (Wikipedia reports that he lived in the US in the 90’s, and lives in Russia while travelling frequently now, but doesn’t give citizenship.)

7 thoughts on “Bizarre persecution of Russian mathematician

  1. As far as I know, all charges have been actually dropped by now (there had been a court hearing), but the point is that the court decision has to be cleared by FSB (Federal Security Bureau), and it takes 2 weeks for this to happen, so Misha misses his conference. At least that’s what was written on Misha’s blog.

    BTW, I would say he is more of a complex algebraic geometer rather than analyst.

    Regarding Pugach: his main point is that if you wear a beard (goatee, not full!) you do have to pay him. He had managed to register his trademark not only in Russia, but also in tons of other countries. For a modest price, he will even let you buy off someone’s debt, e.g. Brad Pitt’s or John Travolta’s (he has a full list with price tags). He is also a self-appointed head of the russian knight’s order, patriarch etc. etc.

  2. The relevant entries are tagged “boroda” (“beard” in Russian). According to the May 10 entry:

    there was another hearing on that day where the in absentia verdict was appealed and overturned. He does not provide much detail, only that it will take 10 days for the travel ban to get lifted and he will miss a conference because of that. He’s skeptical of letters to Putin (“do they also write petitions to Satan”?).

    Not sure if that’s the end of the story there. Would hope so.

  3. This blog post is absurd… it’s about a Russian being arrested under Russian law but only considers the legality of the situation under US law.

    This may shock you, but US law doesn’t apply in Russia.

  4. Let’s assume for the sake of level-headedness that the government does clear Verbitsky for travel. Nonetheless, the case will cast a shadow for a long time. First (according to the news report) he gets arrested at the airport and he mysteriously owes 10 grand. Then, poof, the charges disappear. One can infer that arbitrary charges could be reinstated at some time in the future.

  5. Greg, the charges disappeared after an appeal case where Misha had a lawyer representing him. The situation is indeed absurd.

    One should also know that these conmen have been trying to charge people for quite while and, unfortunately, Misha was the first victim accepted by the court.

  6. In fact he was not arrested, IMHO. He was prevented from crossing the border in the airport when he was going to a conference abroad.

    Although it does not mean that the legal system in Russia is not screwed up, for in fact it is…

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