The return of big brother

November 1, 2002

Many people believe that Russia's security service is trying to intimidate academics and stifle open debate. Nick Holdsworth reports.

Russian scientists, academics and environmentalists are feeling the chill of a new cold war more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union heralded the end of an icy status quo.

Today's danger comes not from powerful national rivals, but from an enemy within - the Federal Bureau of Security (FSB), the KGB's successor. Freedom of speech and academic expression is under threat today as never before in Russia's brief history of post-communist democracy, say human rights activists and scientists.

A wave of cases brought against researchers, academics and environmentalists in the past two years - a period that coincides with the presidency of Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent and one-time head of the FSB - has alarmed academics the world over.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science puts Russia at the top of its list of alerts for scientists at risk from their own governments. It has 21 cases of concern, equalled only by China. Amnesty International has adopted as a prisoner of conscience the environmentalist and former Russian naval officer Grigory Pasko, who is serving four years in a labour camp for publicising Russia's dumping of radioactive waste and ammunition in the Sea of Japan.

Physicist Valentin Danilov was accused of spying for China, and he spent 18 months in a Siberian jail before being released in September when a judge ruled that he had no case to answer. Danilov - whose alleged offence was to sign a contract to supply technical details about Russian space satellites, based on declassified documents - has since been put under a restraining order. He cannot leave his home city of Krasnoyarsk, where he is head of the the local technical university's thermo-physics centre.

In Moscow, Igor Sutyagin, one of Russia's brightest young arms-control researchers, is due to go on trial soon. He has been held on remand since he was arrested three years ago on charges that he sold secrets to the CIA via a British company.

Human-rights activists say his case is one of the most bizarre and apparently groundless attempts by the FSB to accuse an academic of spying. Russian activist Sergei Grigoryants says: "If Sutyagin is guilty of compromising state secrets, then any of his colleagues could be accused - or any other independent academic who criticises the government or has contact with foreigners."

Yulia Dultsina, head of the New York office of the International Foundation of Civil Liberties - founded two years ago by Russian billionaire Boris Berezovksy, who lives in self-imposed exile in London since falling foul of the Kremlin - goes further. "These cases target a certain type of person - brilliant, independent-thinking, connected to foreigners. You could say that the FSB intends to intimidate a certain group of people in Russia. These are not random cases."

Sutyagin is a 37-year-old researcher at Moscow's US and Canada Institute and an expert on non-proliferation and Russia's nuclear armaments. The array of charges against him initially included allegations that a university study of military-civilian relations in 12 former communist countries, including Russia, was a front for Canadian espionage. The charge was later abandoned.

Today, Sutyagin stands accused of treason over claims that he sold state secrets to a London company that the FSB alleges was a CIA front. Sutyagin and those close to him say his work was based on Russian press reports and used no classified sources.

Sutyagin had won respect in Russia and abroad for the brilliance of his research into and analysis of nuclear and non-proliferation topics. He was a co-author of Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces , the first detailed, independent and open study of Russia's nuclear weapons complex.

The study was conducted by the Moscow Centre for Arms Control Studies, an independent, grant-funded unit of Moscow's Institute of Physics and Technology. It was based solely on open sources and approved interviews with members of Russia's military and nuclear establishments.

"The goal of the project was to provide Russian citizens and policy-makers with information about nuclear weapons, arms control and disarmament based on open scientific analysis," says Pavel Podvig, the book's editor and the only academic close to Sutyagin who will talk about the case.

"We were aware of the risks of this research - we discussed this during our work on the book. We knew we were in risky territory, but our defence was that we never had access to any kind of classified data. Whatever we came up with (by way of analysis) was just our best estimates based on open information. We could not possibly be divulging any secrets because we had no idea what those secrets were," says Podvig, who divides his time between Moscow and a research position at Princeton University.

Not long after the book was published in Russia in late 1998, Sutyagin, who had written a chapter on Russia's strategic defence forces, was commissioned to write a report on Russian missile defence by an FSB officer from his home institute's "first department". This office is staffed by security service officials - there is one at every Russian academic institution engaged in any work deemed to fall within the FSB's remit.

The officer later came back and warned Sutyagin that FSB "experts" thought the report contained classified material. At about the same time, Sutyagin noticed that he was under occasional surveillance.

On October 1999, Sutyagin was arrested in his hometown of Obninsk, Kaluga region, near Moscow, and Podvig's apartment and offices were searched. The FSB confiscated all the unsold copies of the nuclear forces book they found.

The FSB case was first brought in a Kaluga district court and later transferred to Moscow - where Sutyagin is held in the old KGB jail at Lefortovo while he awaits trial. It has been characterised by farce and a lack of any kind of evidence that would stand up to normal scrutiny, says Sutyagin's defence.

In December 2001, the Kaluga court ruled that the indictment presented by the FSB was too vague and that the prosecution had not presented enough evidence to convict. But rather than dismiss the case, the court sent it back to the FSB for more investigation. Sutyagin's defence objected and appealed to the Supreme Court. The appeal failed, and Sutyagin stayed in jail.

In hearing after hearing, Sutyagin's lawyers have successfully paraded the FSB's "failure to present proper charges and numerous violations of procedure that violate Sutyagin's right to defend himself".

His defence says: "In short, what the Kaluga court has found was that the case against Sutyagin was fabricated by the FSB and that the charges have no factual or legal foundation."

And yet Sutyagin remains in prison, because, Podvig says, everyone involved in the case - right up to the Supreme Court judge - is too frightened of the FSB to release him. "Everybody is absolutely scared. It was obvious to the judge in Kaluga that there was no evidence to support the charges and that the FSB had to do more to come up with a case, and yet he left Igor in jail.

"No one will confront the FSB. The Supreme Court is scared ****less. The judge overrode an (early October Moscow court) ruling to keep Igor in jail, but did nothing to release him," Podvig says.

According to Podvig, if there is a plan to the FSB's harassment - which he doubts - it is to force "the system, society, the courts, journalists to accept the FSB word for everything and to intimidate people".

President Putin's overtures to the West and his bids for a place on the world stage are coupled with indifference to, or even implicit support of, such tactics, Podvig believes.

Sutyagin faces up to 14 years in prison if convicted. But should he get "just" four years or even an acquittal, the FSB will have achieved its goal of stifling open debate on matters it deems to be its exclusive preserve, say academic freedom campaigners.

The FSB, which says it never comments on cases under investigation, had nothing to say about the Sutyagin case.

Podvig, who was spurred by Sutyagin's incarceration to take up his position as visiting researcher at Princeton's Program on Science and Global Security, says the losers in this case are the Russian people and Russian security.

"Look at what passed for public discussion in Russia during the talks after America's withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and before the new disarmament treaty was signed in May this year, and you understand the risks: poor-quality decision-making in the Russian military, no proper public debate, no proper information.

"In the end, Russia's national interests are based on what some stupid lieutenant from the KGB thinks - and this is exactly what the FSB feels comfortable with. It thinks its interests are those of the country."

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments