Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 137

Developments in Russia’s Far East this week focused attention once again on both the Russian Pacific Fleet’s nuclear waste disposal problems and the lengths to which authorities are apparently prepared to go to keep that information from the public. On July 13, reports out of Vladivostok indicated that Vladimir Soifer, a well-known Russian nuclear scientist who has been researching the effects of the Pacific Fleet’s nuclear waste dumping, is under suspicion for illegal possession of secret documents (see the Monitor, July 14). On July 3, agents of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor organization to the Soviet-era KGB, reportedly raided Soifer’s apartment and his laboratory, where they confiscated letters, documents and other materials–some of which are said to have been classified. Soifer’s possession of the materials allegedly demonstrated that the 69-year-old scientist had violated security protocols and, possibly, done damage to Russian national security. The materials seized from Soifer, who has not been arrested, were turned over to military intelligence officers for evaluation.

The circumstances surrounding the Soifer investigation suggest that the FSB may be preparing to charge him with passing secret documents to foreign citizens. According to Russian reports, the institute for which Soifer worked, the Pacific Ocean Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, has engaged in joint projects with U.S. organizations. Soifer himself has also worked actively with foreign environmental organizations. Of particular interest is the fact that Soifer’s brother, a biophysicist, has lived in the United States since the 1970s and is a consultant to financier George Soros. The latter’s philanthropic efforts in Moscow have been greeted with something less than enthusiasm by many Russian nationalists (AP, Ekho Moskvy Radio, July 13; Izvestia, Kommersant daily, July 14).

As observers in Moscow have noted, moreover, Soifer’s arrest comes as the long trial of a Russian naval whistleblower–Captain Grigory Pasko–appears to be drawing to a close. Pasko is a crusading military journalist who made a reputation investigating the Pacific Fleet’s dumping of liquid nuclear wastes into the Sea of Japan. A reporter for the Navy newspaper “Boevaya Vakhta” (Combat Vigil), Pasko was arrested in November 1997 upon his return from a trip to Japan. Indeed, Pasko’s relationships with Japanese media organizations appears to have been his undoing. The FSB has accused Pasko of compromising Russian national security by passing classified information to the Japanese. His treason trial is expected to wind up this month, and there have been suggestions that he may be found innocent. The prosecution, which has more recently admitted that Pasko’s work did not in fact harm Russian national security (Itar-Tass, July 2), is nevertheless demanding a twelve-year prison sentence. Some in Moscow believe that Soifer’s arrest is aimed at intimidating those who might be heartened by Pasko’s possible acquittal.

But Pasko, by all accounts, has already been punished, and his treatment is an indictment of both Russia’s legal justice and its prison system. Pasko has been in detention for more than a year-and-a-half, yet still has not been found innocent or guilty. Much of his internment, moreover, has been spent in solitary confinement. More important, perhaps, he has suffered the abysmal conditions prevalent throughout Russia’s prison system. As a result, his health has degenerated markedly, and he reportedly has lost much of the fervor which marked his early confrontation with the authorities. Amnesty International has designated Pasko a “prisoner of conscience,” and other human rights groups in Russia and abroad have taken up his cause (New York Times, July 8).