No one doubts that the Russian state is weak. It is deep in debt to foreigners and cannot pay. It owes wages to its employees and even to its soldiers. The little it does spend amounts to less than $200 per person per year. It cannot collect its taxes or enforce its laws, and whole regions of the country, like Chechnya in the Caucasus or Primorsky in the far east, are outside the central government’s effective control.
But when the state comes down on an individual, it still seems strong enough. Grigory Pasko, a naval officer and journalist, has spent over a year and a half in jail, much of it in solitary confinement. In 1997, writing for a Russian navy newspaper, Pasko reported the navy’s dumping of liquid nuclear waste into the Sea of Japan, an unacknowledged but common practice since the 1950s. Pasko was arrested and charged with treason. During his trial, now nearing its conclusion, the prosecution acknowledged that the information he revealed did not harm Russia’s national security. Pasko may be acquitted, but his health is broken.
Aleksandr Nikitin, a naval officer who reported on the nuclear-waste problems of Russia’s northern fleet for Norway’s Bellona Foundation, was arrested as a spy in 1996. Pressure from Norway and European groups forced Nikitin’s release from prison, but he remains under close surveillance and prohibited from traveling outside St. Petersburg. His Kafkaesque trial is still at an early stage.
A third such case may now be aborning. Last week near Vladivostok, agents of the Federal Security Service (FSB) raided the home and laboratory of Vladimir Soifer, a scientist who, like Grigory Pasko, was looking into the dumping of nuclear waste by the Pacific Fleet. Soifer, 69, was in Moscow undergoing treatment for diabetes and was not arrested. The FSB turned the documents and materials it seized over to military intelligence.
Soifer has worked for the Pacific Ocean Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which has professional relationships with environmental organizations in the United States. Soifer also has a brother, a biophysicist, who has lived in the United States since the 1970s. These international connections could figure in charges that Soifer mishandled classified information and shared it with foreigners. Or, as in Nikitin’s case, international support for Soifer could restrain Russian authorities from indulging their worst instincts.