What with reports of bribery and politically motivated prosecutions, extrajudicial killings, and use of psychiatric commitment as punishment tools, the U.S. State Department paints a bleak picture of the Russian government and justice system.

But where others see human-rights abuses and corruption, Philadelphia lawyer Bruce Marks also sees a business opportunity.

In an earlier life, Marks briefly rose to national prominence running a long-shot Republican campaign for a state Senate seat from Philadelphia, a quixotic quest that pitted the boyish and ebullient Marks against an entrenched Democratic machine.

Amid allegations of vote fraud, Marks was declared the loser in the general election. But the election soon was overturned by a federal judge who found that Marks' Democratic opponent and city election officials had engaged in a fraudulent absentee-ballot scheme that tipped the results.

Marks, 52, long ago left the world of elective politics to practice law, but in a niche that bears striking parallels to his fight over the Second District seat, he now represents clients who maintain that the deck is stacked against them by local politicos - in this case apparatchiks and oligarchs in Russia and Ukraine.

Marks' business strategy is similar to that of other Philadelphia law firms, large and small. Competition for work is intense in the Philadelphia region, so they seek work in other jurisdictions, and very often, like Marks, go abroad to generate business.

But Marks' practice has an unusual twist: His clients are wealthy business people with commercial disputes in Russia or Ukraine.

And they often are on the outs with Kremlin insiders.

They can't get a fair shake in the region, Marks contends, because the legal systems there function only to protect entrenched insiders.

So, in a sophisticated and high-stakes form of international forum shopping, Marks sues opponents in the United States and other Western jurisdictions to try to level the playing field, he says.

"The judiciary in those countries is basically corrupt," Marks says. "My clients have no problem trying these cases in the impartial courts of the United States. The other side universally does not."

Marks' 14-plus-lawyer firm has offices on Market Street in Center City and in Kiev and Moscow.

His basis for suing Russian and Ukrainian defendants in the United States is that they often have extensive business interests here, although the alleged harm has taken place overseas.

Such is the case in a huge lawsuit Marks is pursuing in federal court in Colorado on behalf of a Toronto firm that says it was cheated by Lukoil, the Russian petroleum giant, out of its interest in a massive diamond strike in Russia.

In Marks' world, peopled as it is with shadowy Russian oligarchs, cowboy capitalists, and alleged Russian mobsters, it is sometimes hard to know who the good guys are:

Two of Marks' current clients have been charged with crimes in Russia, the result, Marks maintains, of political vendettas. He also represents some Russian clients ensnared in criminal probes in the United States.

His clients have accused defendants not only of business chicanery but, on at least two occasions, murder.

Yet Marks' assertion that his clients can't get fair hearings in Russia or Ukraine and that, in some instances, they face physical harm if they pursue their cases at home is well documented and widely accepted by Western legal experts.

"It is sort of like The Sopranos; organized crime is big in Russia, and they play for keeps," said Ethan Burger, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University's Law Center who has testified as an expert witness of behalf of Marks' clients. "Where so-called organized crime begins and the government ends is hard to know."

The U.S. State Department has voiced similar concerns.

"Corruption was widespread throughout the executive, legislative, and judicial branches at all levels of government," the department said in its 2009 report on the human-rights climate in Russia.

Marks' career as an elected official began with the victory in the 1993 special election to fill the term of a state senator who had died in office, but it was short-lived. He was defeated in the regular election the next year and went back to practicing law.

The hyperkinetic Marks founded Marks & Sokolov in 1997, after talks with a then-local attorney of Russian background, Dimitry Afanasiev, who raved about the business opportunities in the burgeoning Russian economy.

Other Western law firms had the same idea and were converging on Moscow to represent Russians seeking to expand their businesses abroad and Western interests that wanted to set up shop in Russia.

Marks, who is fluent in Russian and studied Russian language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania before going to law school there, was quickly sold on the idea.

His market niche is that of a small firm with a lower cost structure competing for business against much larger law firms with extensive international operations.

The firm is too small to snatch away the largest cases from big competitors in New York, London, and Philadelphia, for that matter. Of the big Philadelphia firms, only Dechert L.L.P. has a Moscow office.

But on smaller, routine commercial cases that do not require huge teams of lawyers, his firm has taken away business from big firms.

Marks' main selling point, in addition to the flock of Russian lawyers he deploys in Moscow and the United States, is cost. Though his rate is hefty - $600 an hour - it's below that of international lawyers for big firms, who often charge $800 an hour and up.

The lawyers and staff in Philadelphia are mostly Russian and Ukrainian, some drawn from the city's large communities of expatriates from those countries.

Many of the commercial matters Marks and his firm handle are routine and do not involve high-profile business leaders, government figures, or threats of physical violence. Those can be adjudicated in Russia or Ukraine, or taken to arbitration outside either country.

Wherever the matter is, Marks says he is happy to travel.

"I love to speak Russian; it is fun for me," he says. "I will go anywhere my cell phone works and where I can get the Internet."

Yet, given the Wild West nature of Russian capitalism, some of his clients say they live in fear, and Marks says he takes precautions for himself.

One of his clients maintained in a sworn affidavit filed in a federal criminal case in San Francisco that a business competitor had ordered the execution of one of the client's managers.

The man was killed by a remote-control bomb as he walked to his parked car.

The competitor, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavel Lazarenko, was convicted in federal district court in San Francisco in 2004 of money laundering. Marks' aggrieved client had hired him to urge the court to impose a maximum sentence.

In another case, a client maintains that his mother was murdered in Uzbekistan by Russian mobsters in retaliation for his legal battle to retake control of a company.

Although Marks says he has never been threatened, he never stays in a high-rise apartment building in Moscow because he fears being thrown out a window.

"If they are going to take me out, I don't want it to look like an accident," he says.

Contact staff writer Chris Mondics at 215-854-5957 or cmondics@phillynews.com.