Russian secret services block sociological study

Publish date: December 13, 2004

Written by: Rashid Alimov

Komsomolskaya Pravda, a Russian tabloid famous for its shock headlines and wide circulation, published an article on November 12th accusing renowned Russian sociologist Olga Tsepilova of have ties to “friends in the CIA.” Academics are demanding the paper print their answer describing the situation in a different way. Otherwise, say the academics, they will settle the matter in court.

Researchers accused of working for the CIA

With the help of a provocation, a sociological study of life in the closed nuclear city of Ozersk—and how people live in this town, which has been deemed the most radioactively contaminated place on earth—was derailed. The sociologists from the Russian Academy of sciences who were planning on making the journey to the closed city were summoned to St. Petersburg’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, and charged with espionage—though there was no proof of these allegations. The charges have since been dropped. But in on November 12th, Komsomolskaya Pravda published an article asserting that the sociologists had “received money from friends in the CIA” and that the FSB was conducting an “investigation.”

The article, however, was a blatant fabrication as the sociologists in question had been cleared of any wrongdoing in writing by the FSB over the summer. Why an erroneous and concocted article about this specific incident would surface more than half a year later and describe the scholars as still under investigation for ties with the CIA is a matter of speculation. But it fits a wider pattern of harassment directed by the Russian government and its security services against NGOs and independent scholars who are studying Russia’s ailing nuclear industry.

Atmosphere for research in Russia growing foul
Earlier this year, Russian courts, employing heavy-handed Soviet techniques like judge replacement and jury tampering, sentences USA-Canada Institute researcher Igor Sutyagin to 15 years hard labour for alleged collaboration with the CIA. Valentin Danilov, a Krasnoyask-based weapons researcher, was first acquitted by a jury of selling military secrets to China, but was found guilty on appeal from prosecutors and also sentenced to hard labour for treason.

And Russian president Vladimir Putin has made no secret of his distaste for research and NGO. In his 2004 State of the Union address, he essentially declared war on NGOs that received funding grants from the west, accusing them one and all of anti-state activities.

“The appearance of this article was not unexpected for me. I expected some action from our opponents. They just couldn’t take it when we officially forced them to admit the invalidity of their complaint,” said Ivan Pavlov, the attorney for Tsepilova and her and legal advisor to Bellona’s Environmental Rights Center.

“Because they couldn’t achieve the desired results in the legal sphere, they took the discussion to the press—but we are prepared to discuss it on that level too,” said Pavlov in an interview with Bellona Web. “We demanded the paper run our answer [to their charges] and if the editors don’t, then we’ll be meeting in court.”

According to Russian libel legislation, a person who considers himself for have been slandered in a news article containing misleading or false information is entitled to seek redress in court. In cases of commentary and opinion articles, Russian legislation provides that a person who thinks they have been defamed by the commentary has the right to publish a retort to the opinion of the article’s writer.


Tsepilova’s sociological research
The closed nuclear city of Ozersk—one of 10 such closed cities in Russia—hosts Mayak, the Russian Federal Agency for Atomic Energy, or Rosatom’s most radioactively contaminated enterprise. Some 200,000 people live in the 30 kilometer zone surrounding Mayak.

“Planet of Hopes” an Ozersk NGO, had planned as to conduct a sociological to carry out a sociological investigation of local opinion on ecological and social problems, and examine human rights violations in the city.

The projects was financed by the National Endowment for Democracy, or NED, which dispenses funding allocated by US Congress to various projects worldwide. NED funded the proposed project in Ozersk in full. Nadezhda Kutepova, director of Planet of Hopes, was one of the driving forces behind conducting the research project.

At the same time, Tsepilova was already directing a project on closed nuclear cities at her institute, and was actively searching for organizations and foundations to cooperate in her work.

Sociologist Kutepova has fought for the rights of the residents of her home city in the form of receiving social benefits due to them by the federal government given their proximity to Mayak, organised nuclear education programmes for city residents, among many other projects geared toward opening the city to the benefits of the outside world.

“The necessity and unique quality of the research at hand lies in the fact that no closed nuclear city has ever undergone study by independent scientists,” said Kutepova.

Tsepilova herself said “it is important to note that Nadya Kutepova took absolutely no part in out research, did not hinder the realization of our own academic plans and trusted us as professionals. For Plant of Hopes, it was simply very important that serious, professional and variegated research had been begun in their city.”

–> To conduct the sociological research portion of Planet of Hopes’ project, entitled “Closed Nuclear Cities: Civic Activity and Human Rights,” the organisation invited two groups of professional academic sociologists from the St. Petersburg Institute of Sociology at the Russian Academy of Sciences, or SIRAN. The groups were headed up by Tsepilova and Alexander Duka.

Tsepilova– who holds a PhD in sociological studies—has worked for 23 years within thee field of social ecology, has more than 50 publications to her credit and is a nationally and internationally recognized expert in the study of contaminated territories and regions posing high ecological risks. One of her research works is dedicated to the city of Kirishi, a region of ecological desolation at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s. Other of her works, now in progress, include “The Nuclear Cities of Russia: Possibilities for Reducing Ecological Risks,”
based on the city of Sosnovy Bor, home to the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant, 70 kilometers west of St. Petersburg.

Duka—managing secretary SI RAN’s sociology and civic society departments—holds a PhD in political science, is, in the assessment of the Russian academic community, among the research elite.

“I was very taken with the idea of conducting sociological research precisely in Ozersk,” said Tsepilova in an interview with Bellona Web. “This is an especially vivid object for research for sociologists and ecologists. It has experienced a number of radiation catastrophes, which continue to attract and increase ecological risks. The results, both scientific and practical, could have been unique. And we would have surely helped the impoverished region.”

The study planned for Ozersk fell within the framework of a two part official set of guidelines to be conducted by SI SAN from 2003 to 2005. The first was “Nuclear Cities: a Social Analysis” and “The Transformation of Authority Groups and Authority Structures During the Post- Soviet Period.”

The Presidium of the Academy of Sciences approved the projects and issued them registration numbers. In 2002, the city of Ozersk became an official specimen for study.

In April 2004, Duka and Tsepilova visited Ozersk and met with representatives of the local administration. The representatives seemed interested in the sociologists’ work—2005 being an election year in Ozersk, thus making the administration especially sensitive to its constituents—especially that part of their work that would seriously analysis the concerns of city residents. Such analysis had never been conducted there before. And it still has not.

As such, no pre-election surveys or statistics were compiled, nor were any scientific studies. Aside from that, it is likely that within the foreseeable future, Rosatom’s (formerly the Ministry of Atomic Energy’s) 10 closed cities, including Ozersk, will be opened, as Rosatom Chief Alexander Rumyantsev has announced on several occasions. Preparing for such drastic changes without taking into account the needs and opinions of the cities’ inhabitants is, however, impossible.

In their agreement with Ozersk city officials, the sociologists agreed to include a number of topics of interest to the governing powers, as well as furnish them with the full results of their study. It was also stipulated as a precondition that publication of the results be confined to the scientific press.

–> When all agreements had been practically reached, the sociologists handed over the documents necessary to receive permission to work within the closes territory in April and returned to St. Petersburg—complete with the signature of the director of their institute.

All of these documents were formulated on the basis of authentic information and were correctly filled out and compiled. Then, early in the morning on May 12th, 24 hours prior to the sociology team’s departure, Tsepilova received a call from the vice-mayor of Ozersk and said that the director of the Mayak Chemical Combine, Vitaly Sadovnikov, had vetoed the sociologists’ visit to the city.

Ozersk’s vice-mayor advised Tsepilova to urgently send within the next two hours—before 9 am St. Petersburg time—a letter signed by the director of the sociology institute to Sadovnikov that would show possible Russian grant-makers that could hypothetically finance such a study. The letter was simply meant to calm Sadovnikov down, she was told, as all the agreements had been obtained and all the formalities observed.

It most likely was not even worth the sociologists’ time to write it, and the mere suggestion of writing it was a form of entrapment or provocation. The provocation lay in the fact that it was nearly impossible to write such a letter, and if such a letter was sent, it could be declared invalid as the funding actually came from the West. Furthermore, in their haste and during the early morning hours, it was inevitable that defects in its writing were bound to occur.

Simply imagine a person, who for two years has sought funding for his research, a year organising methodology and is now engaged in the usual last-minute pre-departure preparations. As a result, Tsepilova signed the name of the director of her institute—who she was unable to locate in the early morning hours—herself, was given a stamp validating the signature from the director’s secretary and faxed the letter to the Ozersk administration.

Obviously, this constitutes an act of low-level forgery on Tsepilova’s behalf, but, by law, prior agreement with the Ozersk administration, and other concerned authorities, no such letter to receive documents for entry into Ozersk was ever really required.


It seemed, however, that the study was saved by the letter and Sadovnikov could now, having rubbed shoulders with US Congressmen coming for visits to the Mayak where the US government is financing the building of the Fissile Materials Storage Facility could proudly say —we have many contracts with the west, many ecological programmes that we run on US funding, but here is a sociological study financed by Russian money.

FSB interrogation
But the sociologists weren’t going anywhere all of the forgoing hustle and bustle about the letter to Sadovnikov had been a ruse to derail their impending study. Almost instantaneously, the faxed letter from Tsepilova was in the hands of the Ozersk FSB, and on May 20th, she was summoned to St. Petersburg’s FSB headquarters. It was a clear case of entrapment and provocation. It must have been assumed by the FSB officers involved that she would not be able to fax the letter to Sadovnikov on such break-neck notice without forging the director’s signature. Even if she had obtained his signature, the entire process seemed to have been centered on accusing her of forgery anyway.

When heading to the FSB, Tsepilova brought with her a full methodological description of the study she intended to conduct. But no one planned on discussing that with her. They just called her scientific activities by a phrase straight from crime literature —a collection of data.

It was as if the question from one of Tsepilova’s sociological questionnaires: —what is more important to you, economic stability or ecological well-being was the same as saying —why don’t you tell us about your state secrets here. As if there was some secret passage from Ozersk to the rest of the world via which —that which is said here echoes there. Meanwhile, as a result of the 1957 accident at Mayak, 23,500 square kilometers were contaminated, and lake Karachai is forever considered dead. This accident was first discovered, in point of fact, in 1957 by a Danish newspaper for the simple fact that one cannot hide a catastrophe of such magnitude. At the end of the day, Mayak is still poisoning the environment with the build-up of radiotoxic waste without any accidents to blame it on.

To return to Tsepilova’s —chat with the FSB, she was told that she would be charged with treason and espionage, carrying with it a prison sentence of 12 to 20 years. Obviously aiming to intimidate her, the agents repeatedly invoked the case of researcher Igor Sutyagin, who in April was sentenced to 15 years hard labor by a Moscow city court for alleged treason.

She was also accused of forgery. But Russian legal codes governing forgery concern only official documents such as those that would have been submitted for her to obtain her Ozersk entrance permit. They do not concern a letter that was requested last minute by Sadovnikov’s deputy at the last minute and which in any case was not a required document for her entrance in to Ozersk. Such misconduct, as viewed by Russian law, is an internal matter for her institute to settle.

It is noteworthy that Alexander Duka, who did not let even formalities slip by, was also not allowed to go to Ozersk. He still has not been given a reason for the refusal. The remained of the group of sociologists who were to accompany Duka and Tsepilova were left simply to unpack.

FSB revs up only to back down
It would seem that if the FSB actually suspected that renowned and respected Russian scholars work for foreign intelligence agencies, they might perhaps want to see the matter through to court. To blow the National Endowment for Democracy’s cover and end its activities in Russia.

But this was not the FSB’s goal. The true purpose, apparently, was one thing to shield Sadovnikov from a sociological study of Ozersk. Therefore, let the only voice guiding the future of Ozersk be that of the director of Mayak, and to heck with the opinion of the people who have to live there.

Meanwhile, as soon as it was known the sociologists would not be making their trip, the press service of Ozersk’s administration hurried to separate themselves from the FSB and Sadovnikov, announcing that the visit and study would not occur ‘for reasons independent of the city administration, local authorities did not hinder them’.

It is clear that the FSB was aiming to quash precisely this research project. They have, of course, worked to quash future projects of this nature as well, shut the door on the issue of the institute by pressuring Tsepilova’s colleagues, but having failed to achieve the desired results, have waved the matter off. The passion for a spy hunt is not at issue here.

And all of this came to light rather suddenly. With attorney Pavlov’s help, Tsepilova wrote and sent a letter to the FSB demanding that if she was accused of something, that she be officially charged.

Tsepilova exonerated by FSB
On June 21st, she received a note by return post: In filling out your pass to Ozersk, you presented falsified information which was the reason why you did not receive a pass. And that is that. End of discussion. There is no procedural status, and there is no case. This summary was signed by on Yuri Ignashchenkov, deputy director of St. Petersburg and Leningrad Regional FSB.


When Tsepilova was called to the FSB in May, she was told that they had no doubt about the espionage related character of Planet of Hope. Maybe the NGO had been charged? For example Kutepova, who had dreamed about a serious sociological study of her home town? Kutepova, a sociologist herself by education, who was sure that such a research study would be a sign of democracy in the city and raise its status? But no charges were filed against Kutepova either.

She herself wrote to her local FSB, and received an answer in August signed by its deputy director, one A. N. Ryabchenko, in which it was outlined that “ the FSB has no issue with your activities of the activities of your organization in connection with the described sociological research project in the city of Ozersk.”

Kutepova was not surprised by the answer.

“It would have been strange had they answered otherwise,” she said.

The research has been called off, the contact between scholars and NGOs that so frightens the FSB and administrations of closed cities is now severed—but don’t dare blame the scholars and the NGOs in serious illegal activity.

Komsomolskaya Pravda publishes its ‘scoop’
It is unclear what drove the FSB to unload this story in its interpretation on a Komsomolskaya Pravda correspondent Alexander Sobolyev, who dutifully transcribed the authorities’ version of events. Maybe the FSB was plagued by subconscious discomfort that it had accused the scholars of serious crimes, and the authorities ended up with zilch. Or maybe the FSB just wanted to remind society how important its work it. Nonetheless, the November 12th issue of Komsomolskaya Pravda carried the Sobolyev’s article under the headline “To a nuclear centre via falsification”.


The article carried the same old accusations, blended together in a stew of omissions, inaccuracies and outright lies. The article asserted that Tsepilova submitted a false application to the Ozersk administration. But we know this to be false: all necessary documents submitted to the city administration by the sociologists permitting their research team to do its work were in order.

National Endowment for Democracy, or NED, was called in the article ‘friends of the CIA’ and ‘an organization, well-known to our secret services’. It was claimed, Tsepilova recieved a grant directly from NED, not from the Ozersk-based NGO.

Aside from that, the article stated that “the majority of Russia’s weapons-grade plutonium is concentrated at Ozerk’s Mayak plant.” But this, too, is not quite the case. Within the framework of the Russian-American Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) effort, a storage facility for weapons grade plutonium declared to be surplus to Russia’s defence needs has been built—and it is not even ready to receive that plutonium yet. Furthermore, the facility was built by the Pentagon-run CTR programme and the mammoth US construction contractor Bechtel. The Pentagon earmarked $305 million for the completion of this facility and is still covering cost overruns. Another $378 million was spent by the US on containers for the plutonium. All of this information is openly available on US government web sites, but is almost entirely absent from information sources within Russia. At the very least, opponents of the project—such as Lev Maximov, who considers the facility an ecological and security hazard—have been unable to secure this information so easily available on US government web sites from Minatom, Rosatom’s predecessor.

Komsomolskaya Pravda’s article concludes with the assertion that Tsepilova’s activities are “currently under investigation”—a patent falsehood when taking the FSB’s responses to Tsepilova and Kutepova’s inquiries into account.

Furthermore, in its one-sided rush to print its sensation, Komsomolskaya Pravda never paused to get comment from Tsepilova herself. She has since sent a letter to the paper’s editors for publication. Now she and her colleagues are waiting for it to come out. If it doesn’t, they will be suing the paper for libel in court. Then, no one will be able to accuse the scholars in “collecting data.” One must answer for one’s words.

Tsepilova continues her work—alone
As for the progress of her own work at the moment, Tsepilova says she is continuing to pursue opportunities to reduce ecological risks in closed nuclear cities. But the work is not easy.

“I am experiencing significant opposition and pressure from various quarters,” she said in a recent interview.

“Today, excluding the director of my project, there is not one person in academic sociological circles attempting to openly study nuclear-sociological issues of state importance. But it doesn’t seem to make such a big difference—but all the same…”