The Trials of Brittney Griner

Brittney Griner
W.N.B.A. superstar Brittney Griner arrives the Khimki Court, outside Moscow. Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
July 12, 2022

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. 

I have a distant relative who is a judge in Russia, and he once explained it to me this way: Everyone, from the cop who makes the arrest, to the investigators who investigate the case, to the prosecutor who prosecutes it, to the judge who issues a decision, has a boss. In what is a relic of the Soviet quota system, each one of those people who compromise a part of the Russian legal system has to think about their numbers if they want to get promoted or even keep their job. That means the more arrests and investigations and trials that result in a guilty verdict—which, to the system, indicates that a case has been successfully solved and closed—the more each of those individuals who touch a case can tout their effectiveness to their boss. Moreover, they are all working together toward that goal, something made visually obvious, for example, by the fact that, during trials, prosecutors wear uniforms that are barely distinguishable from those of, say, the police. If, after all that work, a judge hands down a not guilty verdict, it undermines everyone else down the chain and potentially exposes them as bad employees, which then opens them up to punishment themselves. (The detective on the case is going to think, what am I, an asshole?, I remember this relative telling me.) 

In fact, this relative had done the unthinkable the year before—he had handed down two not guilty verdicts—and immediately got a talking to. I’m close to retirement, he told me then, I don’t care. But imagine a young judge coming in. They can’t withstand that kind of pressure. (A Russian diplomat who resigned in protest over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine told me of a similar dynamic inside the Russian Foreign Ministry.)

This entrenched system echoed what sociologists who study the Russian judicial system, as well as activists and journalists, told me while I was researching my book. I learned, for instance, that the leading cause for female incarceration in Russia was—surprise!—drug charges. Despite everything that sets Griner apart—the fact that she is American, Black, openly gay, 6’9”, an Olympic medalist and professional basketball star—in this regard she became like the average Russian woman who gets sucked into the maw. And Griner is sure to meet a lot of them as the system continues chewing her up. 

“It’s Not About Her Citizenship”

It’s not just women. “Do you know how many cases I have like this?” Sergei Badamshin told me, cursing, when I called him to talk about Griner. Badamshin, whom I’ve known for years, is a lawyer who has become famous for defending members of the Russian opposition. But that doesn’t exactly pay the bills. Much of his practice is representing people in much more mundane cases, like those of the kind Griner got caught up in. “Do you know how many idiots [like this I deal with], including very rich people who could pay someone else to smuggle their drugs in for them—but no, these idiots leave CBD in their suitcase because they forgot or they don’t think anyone will touch them, and they get hassled and searched at customs, and get arrested? It’s common practice here, they fuck people in customs, even in the transit zone. There’s no politics here.”  

Badamshin pointed out that Griner’s case is being tried in Khimki, which is in the same district as Sheremetyevo airport. As a result, it takes a steady stream of “contraband” cases resulting from arrests just like Griner’s: someone leaving a bit of something illegal in their suitcase, either on purpose or by accident. The court in Khimki also heard the case of Naama Issachar, an Israeli-American backpacker who had a layover at Sheremetyevo between India and Israel and was found to have hashish in her bag. (She was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison before Bibi Netanyahu prevailed on “my friend” Vladimir Putin to pardon Issachar in exchange for some property in Jerusalem going to the Russian Orthodox Church.) It was the same court that, just last month, sentenced American Mark Fogel, a teacher and former U.S. embassy employee, to 14 years for weed that customs agents found in his luggage at Sheremetyevo. Russia, it turned out, did not recognize his medical marijuana license.

Badamshin, like some other Russians I’ve spoken to, feels bad for Griner, but also thinks she behaved foolishly. She’s been living and working in Russia for eight years and should have known better, especially given her status and, well, visibility. In his view, she should have been even more careful. (“You can’t even do that in America,” Badamshin pointed out. “These drugs might be legal in some states, but it’s still illegal to fly across state borders with them. It’s still contraband!”) Still, her arrest at the airport, Badamshin repeated, is not about politics. “It’s not about her skin color, it’s not about her citizenship,” he insisted. “But will the Kremlin take full advantage of it? Absolutely.”

The arrest may have started off as routine and apolitical, but it quickly grew into something far bigger and more politicized. According to one Washington source familiar with the case, the Biden administration still doesn’t know whether the case was political from the start—that is, whether Griner was specifically targeted for arrest—or whether it was a standard drug arrest that Putin was made aware of only after Griner was in custody.  

Regardless, the Kremlin now finds itself in possession of a high-value prisoner, one whose value goes higher and higher the more Griner’s supporters, led by her wife Cherelle, publicly push on Joe Biden to bring Griner home. A prisoner exchange has been raised as a possible way to get Griner out of jail. “I absolutely think that we should do an exchange,” Maria Butina told me. Butina, who worked closely with the N.R.A. before she pleaded guilty to being an unregistered foreign agent and was deported back to Russia in 2019, is now a member of the Russian parliament and has thrown herself into advocating for the rights of Russians held abroad. “If it’s an opportunity for Russians who are imprisoned behind American walls to come home, then we must do it without a doubt. It is in the interests of our fellow citizens.” 

Butina declined to name who she thinks would be a good Russian candidate for a Griner prisoner exchange, but she said that it should also include Russians imprisoned in other NATO countries. “Unfortunately, given the growth of Russophobia in the West, the list is massive,” Butina said when I pressed her. “I will say, though, that none of them have done absolutely anything to deserve this, especially when compared to Ms. Griner.” 

The Russian government loves these kinds of quid pro quo arrangements and, because the Kremlin knows how much the American government values its citizens, especially those like Griner who are high-profile and whom it believes have been “wrongfully detained” by hostile governments, the exchanges tend to be a bit lopsided in Russia’s favor. The 2010 spy swap, for example, was a ten-for-four deal. This time, there is talk that Griner could be swapped for Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer who was sentenced to 25 years in 2012. Washington has resisted trading him because of how dangerous he had been as a free man and the immense effort it took to catch him, but this time might be different. The optics of Joe Biden allowing a Black and openly gay woman to languish in a Russian prison are not good. And when Griner’s family and friends ask if LeBron James would be getting more attention and more effort to spring him out of jail, the obvious answer isn’t a good one for Biden either. 

The Biden administration has made an offer to the Kremlin but so far, according to the Washington source, the White House doesn’t know if the Kremlin even wants to make a deal. It doesn’t help that, a week after Griner’s detention, Russia invaded Ukraine and the U.S. led several dozen countries in slamming Russia with unprecedented sanctions. The relationship between Russia and the U.S. is now non-existent and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of appetite in Moscow for anything that looks like constructive dialogue with Washington. The Kremlin-owned press has barely covered Griner’s case and Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, warned that the “hype” around Griner was only harming her chances of release. 

Moreover, the Kremlin doesn’t have to limit itself to a prisoner exchange. It can, for example, demand that Washington lift certain Ukraine-related sanctions in exchange for Griner’s freedom. This would put Biden in a particularly gnarly position and draw the negotiations—and Griner’s imprisonment—out. 

That doesn’t mean that there’s no hope for Griner, however. Her guilty plea last week, which shocked observers both in the U.S. and Russia, may clear the way for some kind of resolution, which seems unlikely until the trial is over. (Maria Blagovina, one of Griner’s Russian lawyers, declined to answer my questions.) Her next hearing is on Thursday and the system would have found her guilty regardless of her plea. But, according to Russian law, a prisoner has to acknowledge their guilt before appealing for a presidential pardon. While Griner said that she pleaded guilty because she wants to be “a role model” and take responsibility for her actions, the move also makes it much easier for her to formally ask Putin to release her. (Despite Bibi’s personal lobbying, Issachar still had to complete this step of the process. If nothing else, Russian authorities are sticklers for bureaucratic procedure, especially if it humiliates an opponent.) 

A guilty plea would likely be necessary even as part of a prisoner exchange. Acknowledging guilt before pleading with the czar for forgiveness is something that appeals deeply to Putin, who clearly wants to think of himself as a reasonable man—and a fair and benevolent monarch. How long it will be before he decides to take pity on Brittney Griner, however, is anybody’s guess. When I asked Badamshin what he would expect in Griner’s case, he said that a sentence of six to seven years “wouldn’t be a bad result.” Moreover, she would serve that sentence in a penal colony—prison in Russia is generally just for pre-trial detention—and these colonies, which are often built where their old Gulag antecedents were, are violent places, particularly the women’s colonies. 

For Putin, the calculus looks pretty obvious: The longer he holds on to Griner, the longer she languishes in a violent prison camp, the more Washington will have to cave to his demands—and the more power he has over his archenemy, the United States. It is deeply tragic for Griner that she stumbled, however unintentionally, into being his pawn.