KGB successor tries old tricks on new victim Secrecy: The case against a former Russian naval officer who blew the whistle on decaying nuclear submarines bears a marked resemblance to a chemist's trial in 1992.

Sun Journal

November 15, 1998|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- During those bleak spring days of 1993, locked away in a louse-ridden Russian prison, Dr. Vil S. Mirzayanov had little reason to suspect that he would someday consider thanking the accusers and KGB agents who put him there.

Mirzayanov, a slight, measured, diffident man, was accused of revealing state secrets. He had been a chemist working in a Moscow laboratory developing chemical weapons, and his job was to disguise all traces of the work so scientific sleuths would not be able to recognize what was going on.

His convictions got the better of him, and this quiet man went on to cause no end of trouble. He soon found himself in prison, charged with violating a secret law on state secrets. The law was so secret that the court was not allowed to tell him what the law was, or what he had done to break it.

If this sounds familiar, that's because it has just happened again. Aleksandr K. Nikitin, a similarly modest man, was put on trial last month for violating a secret law on state secrets. Nikitin got into trouble because he worked for the Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian environmental group, helping to write a report documenting the dangers created by aging Russian nuclear submarines and their waste.

Many news reports have described Nikitin as the first prisoner of conscience since Andrei Sakharov, the physicist who developed the hydrogen bomb but was sent into internal exile in 1980 because he became a human-rights activist. What short -- and inaccurate -- memories.

Mirzayanov isn't complaining. If Western newspapers have forgotten his case, the KGB surely hasn't, he says. If it will help get the case against Nikitin dismissed, Mirzayanov says, by all means call him the first prisoner of conscience since Sakharov.

Mirzayanov got into trouble in 1992 after he published an article in Moscow News and gave an interview to The Sun saying that Russia was doing chemical-weapons research despite proclaiming publicly that it had stopped such work.

He spent time in prison, lost his job and faced the prospect of a long jail sentence. Even when his situation seemed at its worst, Mirzayanov was not sorry that he had spoken up. "I only regret I crawled to them all those years," he said at the time.

Almost miraculously, the case against Mirzayanov eventually was dismissed, with considerable pressure from Western scientists and politicians. It attracted an enormous amount of attention because the KGB was testing its strength. It tried unsuccessfully to intimidate The Sun's reporter into testifying against Mirzayanov.

Mirzayanov, 63, went on to marry an American woman, Gale Colby, who had helped organize support for him. Today, he's living in Princeton, N.J., and is a research scientist at Rutgers University.

He never expected to be happy, and sometimes he thinks he should thank those who started the case against him.

"I feel some satisfaction that I helped eliminate one of the poison stingers of the Russian empire," he says. "I am a very happy husband."

Apparently, Mirzayanov says, the KGB -- now called the FSB -- has decided it is again time to assert itself. He thinks the KGB has chosen this moment because the government in Moscow has been weakened by President Boris N. Yeltsin's illness and by economic disaster.

The KGB wants to show the Russian leadership that it still has the ability to control the nation, Mirzayanov says. "Because of that, I am afraid the fate of Nikitin depends on the good will of this monster," he says.

Like Mirzayanov, Nikitin, 46, is an insider. He was a navy captain who before his retirement in November 1992 was assigned to inspect the safety of nuclear reactors belonging to the Northern Fleet, based in Murmansk on the Barents Sea.

In 1996, he helped the Bellona Foundation write a report, "The Russian Northern Fleet, Sources of Radioactive Contamination." Russia has 170 demobilized nuclear submarines -- many of them tied up in the Murmansk region -- and more than 100 of them have used nuclear fuel aboard.

Environmentalists in Norway, which borders Russia near Murmansk, have been worried that they have a potential nuclear disaster next door. Though unemotional in tone, the 168-page Bellona report can hardly reassure them. It goes into great detail, describing Russia's deteriorating submarines and careless storage of radioactive waste.

As a result of helping with the report, Nikitin was charged with espionage and treason, though he and Bellona have argued that all the information came from public sources. Government officials openly admit that the Northern Fleet has created great hazards.

"The metal of the demobilized subs is getting more and more rusty, so a problem comparable to Chernobyl can take place at any moment," Nikolai Yegorov, deputy minister of nuclear energy, told a newspaper.

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