Russian activist admits he spied Confession: The man who exposed Russia's 1979 anthrax accident says he was forced to spy. But his alleged handlers say he spied for Sweden.

May 26, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- An environmental activist who has spent years valiantly crusading to discover the truth behind a deadly Soviet-era anthrax accident was badgered so relentlessly and ominously by Russian authorities that he finally broke and agreed to become an informant for them.

In a dramatic public confession yesterday, Sergei Volkov described how he was blackmailed and his family impoverished because of his efforts to expose dark secrets of the Soviet past, in a country where civic activism is often considered tantamount to treason.

"You have to understand, I broke psychologically," he said.

Unrepentant intelligence officers coolly declared yesterday that Volkov might very well be a spy -- but a Swedish one.

Volkov is a mild-mannered man given to long digressions when he talks. He hardly seems like espionage material, but his painstaking investigation of an anthrax outbreak in the city of Sverdlovsk in 1979, where a secret military lab was operating, undeniably riled powerful forces.

"Recruiting Volkov as an agent was not only to get information, but to shut him up, because in this way he would come under their control," said Sergei Grigoryants, an advocate for press freedom.

Even as Volkov was speaking to reporters, President Boris N. Yeltsin was assuring an international gathering of editors at the Kremlin that "Russia has become a full-fledged member of the community of democratic states, a country where the principle of the freedom of the press and information has become established."

Volkov's case puts that principle to the test.

He said he was coerced into cooperating this year and told to find out what he could about foreign correspondents he talked with in Moscow and about participants at a conference on biological warfare in Stockholm, Sweden, that he attended two weeks ago.

His compensation amounted to 200 rubles, or about $37 -- which he placed into an envelope at a news conference yesterday and mailed back to the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB.

His career as an informer was short-lived: By the end of the Stockholm meeting, he had told his Swedish hosts about his work for the spy service. He then laid low in Moscow, surfacing briefly yesterday to tell his story.

The methods used by the security service, as described by Volkov at the news conference and in an article that appeared in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, were classic examples of the way the KGB used to go about its work. That such methods have surfaced again in Russia, seven years after the demise of the Soviet Union, suggests just how entrenched old habits can be.

And the reaction of what is now known as the FSB was reminiscent of the past as well.

A Swedish provocation

In the Krasnodar region, where Volkov lives, a spokesman for the local FSB office said late yesterday that the environmentalist had distorted the facts. Volkov approached the FSB, said Nikolai Panchishkin, not the other way around. Moreover, Panchishkin charged, it was probably a provocation organized by the Swedish intelligence service.

In Stockholm, Annika Soder, the spokeswoman for the Swedish Foreign Ministry, said: "We know very, very little about this." She could neither confirm nor deny any involvement by Swedish intelligence.

Volkov has spent much of the past five years investigating the aftermath of a 1979 accident at a biological weapons laboratory in Sverdlovsk, now renamed Yekaterinburg, in which anthrax was released and hundreds of civilians were killed.

The official death toll stands at 92, but Volkov thinks the number may be closer to 1,000. His interviews with survivors have raised questions about how the anthrax might have been re-engineered in the lab, or perhaps have had another lethal agent

piggy-backed onto it.

Volkov was a resident of the city at the time, but because of his son's poor health, moved to the southern Russian town of Gelendzhik several years ago.

He continued his work on the Sverdlovsk disaster, and in December accompanied a German television crew to the site.

"It was then that my life turned into a complete nightmare," he said.

Volkov was unemployed; as soon as he returned to Gelendzhik his wife was fired. Then the hook was planted.

In January a police officer approached Volkov on the street and asked him as a civilian to witness the search of a man who had been arrested with drugs, as is customary under Russian police procedure. But soon after that, Volkov learned that he was to be interrogated as a material witness in the case. Then two men accosted him, told him they knew he was in a bad way, and that it was a short step from being a witness to being a defendant.

There was one way out, they said: to cooperate in "combating crime."

Volkov was interviewed in Moscow by The Sun in February, and later held a news conference here on the Sverdlovsk incident. When he returned to Gelendzhik, he said yesterday, he found his invalid son collecting empty bottles so that the family might have a few kopecks to live on.

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