In the late 1990s, I was a law clerk in the Arlington, Virginia Immigration Court. My most memorable case involved a wealthy Russian businessman named Alex Konanykhin and his wife, Elena Gratcheva. Mr. Konanykhin made his fortune--around a quarter billion dollars--in the Wild West of post-Soviet Russia, but was then chased from his country by former KGB agents and criminals intent on stealing his money. The Individual Hearing that I attended took a full week, which is almost unheard of in Immigration Court. Mr. Konanykhin's attorney was the legendary Michael Maggio, who I got to know a bit during the trial. My role was to sit in the courtroom and take notes. After the hearing, I helped the Immigration Judge write up the decision granting asylum.

There was more to this case, including an appeal to the BIA, improper behavior by several U.S. government officials that resulted in a $100,000 payment to Mr. Konanykhin, an unsuccessful attempt by the couple to evade border authorities and enter Canada, and several different federal court cases. When the dust finally settled from this ten-year odyssey, Mr. Konanykhin received asylum in the U.S. (around the same time, his wife--who was a dependent on his case--passed away).

Even before his immigration woes were fully resolved, Mr. Konanykhin began to re-establish himself as a businessman in the United States. His ventures included a number of internet start-ups. He also wrote a book about his adventures called Defiance, subtitled (rather awkwardly): "How to Succeed in Business Despite Being Hounded by the FBI, the KGB, the INS, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, Interpol, and Mafia Hitmen." More recently, he has appeared on a Shark Tank-type show called Unicorn Hunters.

Mr. Konanykhin was also involved in anti-corruption efforts as far back as the 1990s. Having been robbed of much of his fortune by various nefarious actors in Russia, he was intent on exposing the "mafiocracy" that was taking over his country. While these efforts may have helped him win asylum, they unfortunately failed to prevent the ascendance of the criminal class in Russia. Vladimir Putin and his allies have stolen much of the country's wealth, and jailed, intimidated or murdered anyone who got in their way.

Over the years, I've thought about Mr. Konanykhin now and again. His asylum decision had a lot of useful case law, and I've pulled it out on occasion, when I needed help making a legal argument. His story was also relevant to some of my cases that involved opposition to corruption. On a more personal note, my work on that case--and the positive feedback I received from the Immigration Judge--helped build my confidence as a lawyer and, in some ways, helped inspire my interest in asylum law.

All that said, I was interested to see Mr. Konanykhin's name in the news once more. In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he has taken a strong stance against Vladimir Putin. Here is the text of his Facebook post--

I promise to pay $1,000,000 to the officer(s) who, complying with their constitutional duty, arrest(s) Putin as a war criminal under Russian and international laws. Putin is not the Russian president as he came to power as the result of a special operation of blowing up apartment buildings in Russia, then violated the Constitution by eliminating free elections and murdering his opponents. As an ethnic Russian and a Russia citizen, I see it as my moral duty to facilitate the denazification of Russia. I will continue my assistance to Ukraine in its heroic efforts to withstand the onslaught of Putin's Orda.

The original post apparently included a "Wanted: Dead or Alive" poster, which Facebook took down. I've taken the liberty of including that poster here. I understand why Facebook removed it, since it is impolite to call for the death of world leaders, though perhaps an exception was warranted in this case.

While I doubt that anyone will take Mr. Konanykhin up on his offer, his statement and the support it received sends an important message that Russians in the diaspora are not united behind Mr. Putin. Indeed, I suspect that most Russians outside the country oppose the current war and would be happy to see someone collect Mr. Konanykhin's bounty (for this reason, threats against Russians in the diaspora are counter-productive and misguided).

Also, Mr. Konanykhin's offer is interesting in what it says about the asylum system itself. Asylum is not simply about protecting people from harm. If that were the case, there would be no "nexus" requirement--under current law, to obtain asylum, a person must show that he faces harm on account of his race, religion, nationality, political opinion or particular social group (the nexus). If a person faces harm for some other reason, he would not qualify for asylum. The reason for the nexus requirement is that asylum is an expression of our national values--we value religious freedom, for example, and so we protect people who face harm due to their faith.

Similarly, we protect political asylum seekers because we value political pluralism and we seek to support dissidents who oppose dictatorial regimes (in theory, at least). Mr. Konanykhin received asylum for his political activity (opposition to government corruption). The bounty he recently placed on Mr. Putin's head is a further expression of his political opinion and aligns with the reason our country gave him asylum in the first place.

I see similar--albeit less dramatic--behavior from many of my clients. Long after they have received asylum, they continue to work or volunteer as journalists, for think tanks, with non-profit organizations, and in other capacities to try to improve their home countries.

Asylum is a geopolitical moral judgment. Granting asylum in an individual's case is an expression of our disapproval of that individual's home government. And so when asylees like Mr. Konanykhin continue advocating for change at home, it demonstrates that in this way at least, our asylum system is working.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: