Alexander Nikitin looks over the last decade since his trumped-up arrest

Publish date: February 10, 2006

Written by: Rashid Alimov

Translated by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG―Earlier this week, as Bellona St. Petersburg head Alexander Nikitin recalled the morning he was arrested 10 years ago by the Federal Security Service (FSB) on trumped-up charges of espionage, he drank a little toast to his freedom and full acquittal by the Russian supreme court in 2000. It was a bitter-sweet memory―his represented the first case when an alleged spy had won out against the FSB, the successor organisation to the KGB―a true benchmark in Russian legal history.


But the moment also had an foul after-taste—he knows better than almost anyone that the screws on NGOs are tightening from the top, and no one can predict how far the Russian government is willing to go to put a choke-hold on the country’s nascent civil society movement.

“If my arrest happened not 10 years ago but now, everything would have ended much worse. Today the judicial branch is not independent anymore,” Nikitin said as he thought over the last decade’s progression of Russia’s freedoms from bad to worse.

At a panel meeting Wednesday at the Russia-German Exchange NGO in St Petersburg, the emergence of “state-created fear” and what impact it had on the generations of Soviet people and how it was used and directed by the state was discussed.

“This kind of fear influenced everyone, and could not but influence them. It impinged on my literary works as well. In the USSR this fear emerged not at once―it was worked out by party ideologists and the structure of unmotivated mass repressions,” said Daniil Granin, a writer who advocated for Nikitin during the environmentalist’s trial and author of a book “Fear.” The topic of the 1997 book is how fear “affected the people, distorted them, became a habit and a quality of life,”―and why Russian people, so brave during World War II, were trembling before their own authorities after the war was over.

“You know, on Monday morning, the phone rang in my flat. And one of my friends asked―do you remember what happened on February, 6th ten years ago?” Nikitin recalled during the discussion at the Russia-German Exchange.

“I do not remember any sense of fear at that moment in 1996. It felt sure that it was a misunderstanding that would be settled in the nearest future. Three months afterward, there was an especially difficult situation―it was not clear whether I would have a lawyer independent of the FSB, whether he would be allowed to defend me or not,” because of the alleged state secrets involved, said Nikitin.

“During the Yeltsin era, the country was much poorer than now, but it was free. I do not think that if my arrest happened now my feelings would be the same. No harsh verdicts on Pasko, Sutyagin, Danilov and the others had been passed down in 1996 yet,” said Nikitin in reference to other scientific experts and journalists who have been imprisoned for their knowledge and alleged connections to espionage.


On February 6th 1996, the Bellona Foundation issued a press-release: “At 7:00 a.m. this morning, Bellona co-worker Alexander Nikitin was arrested by five FSB agents in his home. He was taken to the local FSB head quarters, where he now is in detention. Nikitin is accused of espionage according to paragraph 64 a of Russian Criminal Law, the minimum penalty of which is 10 years imprisonment. Maximum penalty is execution”.

The accusations were made against Nikitin for his contribution to a Bellona report on the environmental dangers posed by the laid up and rusted out nuclear submarines of the Russian Northern Fleet.

“The cell where I was put turned out to be for two. Two cots, two bedside tables, a very small window with two rows of fencing. The main thick fence against escape, and the second―we called it "eyelashes"―prevented the prisoners from seeing what is going on in the prison yard. Only the sky and the upper floor of one of the neighboring houses was seen through the eyelashes,” Nikitin recalls in a book “Nikitin case,” co-authored by Nikitin and Nina Katerli, which was published in St Petersburg in 2001.

“The position of FSB was unclear that time. One of my investigators used to say – “what are we? A financial Service or something else?” I remember how they complained about then St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak who visited them once, and humiliated their Service absoltely,” said Nikitin.

“Now a kind of merging of FSB and business has happened. When driving to our office past the Big House the FSB department and prison, I always see parked cars of the latest models. And all these changes began in the year 2000.”

After Nikitin was arrested, the FSB publicly claimed he was arrested on a train and bearing a ticket to Canada. But Nikitin never planned to leave Russia, and after he was released on agreement not to leave St. Petersburg and was eventually acquitted by the courts, he continued his public environmental activity. Nikitin is now the chairman of the board of the St Petersburg based Environmental Rights Center Bellona.

And as the head of this organization, Nikitin faces new displays of the fear returning. In 2003 several scientists from Sosnovy Bor, where the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant is situated, called Bellona and proposed a joint publication of their longstanding measurements, as their laboratory faced closure.

“Within a few days, the verdict on Danilov was proclaimed in Krasnoyarsk, and at our new meeting the scientists refused from any future cooperation,” Nikitin said.

Now Bellona is preparing another joint publication―with other medical scientists, which would be released by the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in April 2006. But this project also faces fear and counteraction from scientific administrators.

“The situation in the country has changed. Now the FSB controls everything, and court decisions are dictated from Kremlin”, says Nikitin.

The result of the Nikitin case―the first victory over the uncontrolled FSB machine in such a case―can not be revised. The case, closed in 2000, showed that courts in Russia can be independent, and society can be compassionate.

“This is the civil society, the NGOs are striving for, ”Nikitin said.