When troops of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry boarded a train bringing Aleksandr Nikitin home from Kiev last week, the harried environmentalist felt a chill anyone would when confronted by the uniformed omnipotence of the state: moments later, he felt the familiar fury of being singled out for ‘special treatment.’
After examining passports in their usual way they took a second look at Nikitin’s. He was taken off the train, the border guards disappearing to “check something.”
While he waited the train left and Nikitin stood alone, except for the troika of border guards, on a snow-covered forest track in the middle of nowhere.
Nowhere was Byel Gomel, a vast expanse of forest and thickets once used by Ukrainian insurgents to hide from the NKVD – border guards of the Stalin era. Nearly fifty years later, Byel Gomel was witnessing persecution again, inspired this time by the Russian Security Police (FSB) and meted out by their Ukrainian cousins.
That history’s players might have been acting things out a little differently was lost on Nikitin as he was led off to a derelict railway car the border guards used as an office and jail. But detention had lost its novelty for Nikitin.
Charged with espionage and disclosing state secrets, he was arrested by the FSB in February 1996 and jailed for 10 months. Three years later, Russia’s highest court found insufficient evidence of any wrongdoing, but failed to dismiss his case.
Like dissidents of the Soviet era, Nikitin is subject to round-the-clock surveillance, intimidation tactics and an unsophisticated array of dirty tricks while under virtual house arrest in St. Petersburg. ‘Special treatment’ from Ukrainian border police was but a crude reminder of the FSB’s reach.
Nikitin received somewhat of a respite in February when his case appeared under the scrutiny of the world press. The FSB had kept their distance, only venturing to violate his rights publicly when it could be disguised as random thuggery.
So wasting another hour away while Border Police Capt. Petrenko called his Interior Ministry supervisors was, for Nikitin, a reminder that his FSB foes were back at work.
Early in March, jurisdiction for his case passed from the St. Petersburg City Court back into the hands of the FSB, ushering in a new regime of persecution.
Meanwhile, at his gloomy border post, Petrenko ended his feign of a bad connection with superiors. After an hour of pretending, he unloaded his conscience.
“You’re a military man. We’re both captains. You know how it is to have to follow orders,” Petrenko apologised, betraying a prior knowledge of Nikitin’s identity, his naval past and the orders to hang on to Nikitin for an hour.
Nikitin, who had already suspected their involvement, got the confirmation he didn’t need. The FSB had placed a call to their Ukrainian counterparts. It was their way of saying “welcome back.”
With five American dollars and a few rubles – his train ticket no longer valid — Nikitin climbed aboard a cargo train bound for Moscow. There, he borrowed money from friends to get back to St. Petersburg.
It was another day in the life of Aleksandr Nikitin.
Two days earlier, when he was leaving St. Petersburg to visit his grandfather, anxious customs officers had searched him; they were nervous about the prospect of finding nothing incriminating.
“I expect it (harassment) to continue now … especially with a new crop of FSB cadets about to start their fieldwork,” Nikitin said, referring to the FSB practise of having aspiring agents train by harassing helpless citizens.
“I’m one of those less dangerous cases they can study closely,” Nikitin said, expecting his phone to stay tapped, his email to be intercepted and the return of tyranny to his life.