When Russian customs agents uncovered vape cartridges in WNBA star Brittney Griner’s luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on February 15, Griner unwittingly (by her account) stumbled head-first into the maw of the Russian legal system. What Griner likely didn’t realize, despite having played in Ekaterinburg during the WNBA off-season since 2014, is that the Russian legal system is nothing like the one in the United States. For all its flaws, especially in how it treats Black and brown people, the American legal system looks like a wellspring of pure and unadulterated justice compared to its Russian counterpart. And unlike the U.S., where some kinds of drugs are legal or decriminalized in certain states, Russia is a zero-tolerance country—something that always loomed large in my mind during the years I lived there, especially because there was an American languishing in a Russian jail for having weed and there was almost nothing the U.S. embassy could do for him.
In Russia, once an arrest is made, the suspect is pulled into a machine that results in one outcome and one outcome only: a guilty verdict. In fact, less than one percent of verdicts handed down in Russia are acquittals or not-guilty verdicts. One percent! Let me phrase it another way: the statistic I’ve always seen thrown around is that 99.1 percent of cases end in a guilty verdict.