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Inside the Khodorkovsky trial

The founder of Yukos oil and his partner sit in a glass cage as their embezzlement trial slowly proceeds.

A painting of fallen Russian oligarchs Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev is displayed at the Central House of Artists in Moscow, Sept. 16, 2009. The exhibition, "Drawing the Court Process," shows the jailed tycoons Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev in paintings. (Denis Sinyakov/Reuters)

MOSCOW, Russia — Russians returned en masse from their extended New Year’s holiday on Monday, flying home from holidays abroad and returning to work after long stays at their country houses.

The mood was, understandably, sour — except at the small Khamovnichesky Courthouse, on a quiet street perched above the banks of the Moskva River.

Outside room seven on the courthouse’s third floor, a small crowd of about 30 gathered, greeting each other with handshakes and New Year’s well wishes.

At 10 to noon, a handful of armed guards ushered the crowd onto the stairwell, clearing space for the country’s most famous prisoners.

As Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the founder of Yukos oil company, and his partner Platon Lebedev descended the stairs, the crowd erupted into shouts of “Happy New Year!” Khodorkovsky and Lebedev wore massive smiles, studying and searching the crowd for familiar faces. They were each handcuffed to a guard. One woman yelled, “Hold on, guys!”

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are 10 months into a trial for charges of money laundering and embezzlement. They are already serving eight-year sentences for fraud and tax evasion, of which they were convicted in 2005. The new charges carry sentences of up to 22 years in prison.

The trial had been adjourned since Dec. 29, when the court went on break for the New Year holiday, which lasts about two weeks in Russia. Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were forbidden from seeing their lawyers during that time. They spent the holiday in Matrosskaya Tishina, Moscow’s most infamous pre-detention center. That made the wide smiles and enthusiastic handwaves easier to understand.