Jan Janoff Pouren’s Russian prosecutor challenged Theodore Roosevelt

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The United States and Russia are mired in mutual antipathy, and a controversial conviction against a sympathetic defendant forces a confrontation. Russia’s autocratic regime insists the accused is guilty, while the US government demands justice. A treacherous diplomatic dance ensues, complicated by pressure on a president seeking public victory in a difficult campaign season.

The year is 1908. The president is Theodore Roosevelt.

As President Biden engages in a high-stakes international game to secure the release of Brittney Griner, he would do well to scour the State Department archives for the long-forgotten saga of Jan Janoff Pouren.

Pouren was a peasant from Russian-controlled Latvia who took up arms in 1906 against the Tsar’s troops in the midst of an insurrection the Russian Empire. He fled to New York and lived peacefully for two years until the Russians found out where he was. They sought Pouren’s extradition, alleging he was a petty criminal who had committed murder, arson and theft.

Pursuant to an extradition treaty, Secretary of State Elihu Root initiated legal proceedings. Pouren conceded at least some of the charges, but his lawyers argued his actions were in service of the revolutionary uprising and fell outside the treaty — their client was a political refugee entitled to sanctuary in the United States. Nonetheless, the US Extradition Commissioner ruled against Pouren. Barring the intervention of the Roosevelt administration, his surrender to Russian authorities was imminent.

Front-page headlines across the country carried news of the beleaguered peasant who would soon be left in the merciless clutches of the bear. From Montana to Maryland, the press denounced Russia’s attempt to weaponize its extradition treaty in a campaign to suppress revolutionaries.

A reporter mused that the stakes extend far beyond this ‘little fair-haired, sweet-looking peasant’ to America’s very status as a haven from tyranny abroad . “When fugitive activists. . . reach our shores and seek refuge in our cities, should we serve as detective and police for the Tsar and hunt down these unfortunates? he wrote. If the Roosevelt administration agreed to hand over Pouren, countless others who had escaped czarist persecution for the United States could now become vulnerable to extradition.

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A mass movement in support of Pouren drew everyone from renowned luminaries to working-class immigrants. As Pouren anxiously awaited his fate in a midtown Manhattan prison known as “The Tombs”, a bustling crowd gathered in nearby Cooper Union to rally for his cause.

“The great hall was crowded in every nook and cranny,” The New York Times noted. A speaker galvanized the crowd by warning that Lady Liberty would be torn down and a Cossack statue erected in her place. A local congressman, who moonlighted as Pouren’s lead attorney, explained the profound implications of his client’s plight. “The question is of paramount importance,” he told the audience. “This is a test case. If Pouren is extradited, there are thousands of men in this country who put themselves in Pouren’s shoes. When the resolutions calling on Roosevelt to block Pouren’s extradition were read aloud voice to gain the approval of the crowd, a collective “yes” reverberated throughout the room.

Pouren benefited from favorable timing. Americans were heading to the polls in November, and the incumbent president was determined to see his Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, take his place on Pennsylvania Avenue. Roosevelt was not blind to the danger that both Taft Republicans and Republicans would face if he delivered Pouren to the Tsar. A Republican newspaper warned that Pouren’s extradition “would raise such a storm among Jews and Russians in New York and Chicago that the Republican Party in November would be crushed beyond recognition.”

As part of the bureaucratic procedure, the the matter was before Secretary Root, and Roosevelt urged him intensely to reverse the commissioner’s decision. “My judgment is very strong that we must refuse to deliver this man and that we must do [an] announcement now,” the president told Root.

Roosevelt lamented, “We should never have had an extradition treaty with Russia. His conduct towards so-called political criminals is so inconceivably brutal and stupid. He derided Russia as being congenitally “indifferent to the truth”, adding: “We don’t have to treat it like we do the average civilized nation”.

It was late September and the elections were in six weeks. Roosevelt wrote to Root: “I think it would be a good thing in every way if we could announce immediately that we have no intention of permitting the extradition of the man.” It couldn’t have been lost on Root that “every view” meant Taft’s bid for the White House.

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In closing his letter, Roosevelt reminded Root of his own supreme authority within the executive branch: “I am informed that according to the uniform practice of the Department [of State], the whole matter, both in law and in fact, as to cases of extradition of this kind, is vested in the President. In other words, Roosevelt would resolve the issue to his own satisfaction if Root refused.

Roosevelt wrote to Root again in early October, this time to share new evidence: affidavits from other revolutionaries testifying that Pouren’s actions were political, that is, beyond the scope of punishable offences. ‘extradition. “Unless controversial, these affidavits appear to make it clear that Pouren was a revolutionary,” the president wrote. Three days later, Roosevelt sent Root a trunk containing a “monstrous petition” of 80,000 names calling for Pouren’s release.

The Secretary of State was prone to circumspection in diplomatic affairs, especially when dealing with the unpredictable Russians. He decided to forward the affidavits to the Russian Embassy in Washington and invited a response. The Russians sneered, “The embassy doesn’t feel compelled to provide any evidence beyond that already presented to the commissioner. They railed against the idea that affidavits could be submitted after the conclusion of an extradition hearing; it was contrary to “universally accepted principles of law” for Root to even consider this new evidence.

Caught between Roosevelt and Russia, Root found a third way: He reversed the decision against Pouren while giving Russia the option of renewing its extradition request. Under these conditions, the United States would reconsider Pouren’s case instead of releasing him, but this time the defendant would benefit from the affidavits.

Although the whole affair would now extend beyond the election, Root delivered a partial victory to Roosevelt. Taft would win the presidency, thanks in part to the vote of Russian Jews – and Pouren, ultimately, would win his freedom.

Now, as the Biden administration contemplates a prisoner swap, it finds itself navigating dangerous ground. Even as many Americans push for Griner’s release, some critics say the prisoner swaps are giving Russia all the wrong incentives to convict more Brittney Griners as future bargaining chips.

In 1908, the US government successfully balanced its own competing interests that pitted domestic politics against diplomatic caution. Maybe with the Pouren case as a guide, he can do it again.

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