Crackdown in Baikal

During the Soviet era the charge of revealing state secrets was enough to land you in a Siberian labor camp, if you were lucky. Whether or not you had actually committed a crime was of little relevance. And there being no court of justice, except the Central Committee of the CP, your chances of being acquitted were about as good as your chances of enjoying winter in Siberia.

But the Soviet days are over and Russia has received its diploma, walked across the stage of world civilization, and entered the hallowed halls of democracy. The free market, the only guarantor of freedom and liberty in the modern era effectively dismantled the “evil empire,” paving the way for prosperity and success.

In Russia today however, the charge of revealing state secrets continues to be used by the state, particularly to silence critics of the country’s backward environmental practices.

Grigory Pasko, a reporter jailed in 1997 after “revealing” Russia’s dumping of nuclear waste in the Sea of Japan was charged with espionage. His appeal to the Supreme Court was rejected earlier this year and he is currently serving a four-year sentence in prison camp.

Many of the charges against Pasko were based on his work for the military newspaper Boyevaya Vakhta. According to a 1999 article in the Vladivostok News, “Prosecutorstook the curious position that Pasko committed espionage while reporting stories for the military itself. Pasko was called a traitor because, for example, he reported on a document about agricultural output, which ‘could cause harm to the political and economic relationship between the Russian Federation and North Korea.'”

Pasko was also charged with collecting and transferring ten items of “secret” information to the Japanese media, including a report on the financial situation of the Pacific Fleet, a manual for spacecraft rescuing, and a list of accidents on nuclear submarines. Hardly compelling evidence, but in Russia today enough to land one behind bars.

And retired navy captain Alexander Nikitin was also charged with treason through espionage after contributing to a report on the nuclear safety of the Russian Northern Fleet. Nikitin was fully acquitted in April 2000 after four years of legal entanglement.

And now the Federal Security Service (FSB), successor to the KGB, has accused geologists at the Sosnovgeos geological lab of disclosing state secrets to Baikal Environmental Wave, a non-governmental organization in Irkutsk devoted to public engagement with environmental issues and the protection of Lake Baikal. On Friday 22 November, the offices of Baikal wave were searched.

According to Marina Rihvanova, co-chairwoman of the Baikal Wave council, “Some people were walking in our office shutting down computers and carrying them onto the first floor. The others were looking through our papers, folders, library books; they were especially interested in maps. They’ve found some old aerial photo-maps of Bodaybo district on which one can see riverbeds destroyed by the gold mining, it had a stamp from 1990. They’ve taken a folder about our foreign volunteers and the list of private phones of our staffers. The safe lock was searched. They didn’t find anything relative to the case.”

But the maps that the FSB claims are sensitive were distributed ten months ago and not only to Baikal Wave but also to the state nuclear watchdog Gosatomnadzor, the meteorological bureau, the regional radioecological service, and health services. Baikal Wave was the only organization whose offices were searched. State secrets, in this case, are only secret if they fall into the hands of those who oppose the interests of the state and its minions.

Vsevolod Medvedev, chief geologist from Sosnovgeos told Bellona Web that he had been questioned by FSB. “I asked [during the interrogation] why what was not secret a year ago is now secret, but they just laughed,” he said.

The question is critical, however, and may reveal the impetus behind the FSB investigation. The “secret” map that Baikal Wave received from Sosnovgeos is titled “Concentration of uran in the waters around AECP (Angarsk Electrolysis Chemical Plant),” a plant that produces uranium hexaflouride and separates uranium isotopes. The map and 107-page report that accompanies it draw attention to the increasing radioactivity around the plant and its impact on the people and environment of the city of Angarsk.

Baikal Wave was planning to use the map as part of a public hearing on 27 November regarding the proposed construction of a 2400km (1500 mile) oil pipeline from Angarsk to China. The pipeline, being developed by Russia’s second largest oil company YUKOS threatens the Baikal Watershed and Tunkinsky National Park, through which it will run. Although YUKOS denies having collaborated with FSB, the timing of the investigation, just a few days before the public hearing, leads to such speculation. And according to Rhivanova, “It’s pretty clear that the FSB is working for YUKOS.”

The project, which YUKOS hopes to complete by 2005, has been submitted to the Ministry of Natural Resources for approval. In general, there is a severe paucity of knowledge regarding the project among local people. Baikal Wave, through public hearings, has been able to disseminate information and expose the many illegalities of the project including the fact that it runs through the Baikal Watershed, a UN World Heritage Site.

And if Russia’s environmental record is to serve any purpose other than sending one into a catatonic state of depression, it should be to warn against the kind of monumental projects that have already ravished much of the Russian countryside. According to Lisa Woodson writing in Russian Conservation News, “An estimated five percent of Russia’s oil leaks from 48,000 kilometers of ruptured pipelines enroute to Europe and the US, totaling fifteen million tons each year. This means that every day as much oil spills into Russia’s forests, rivers, and lakes as spilled into Prince William Sound, Alaska during the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989.”

And even YUKOS in its preliminary documents admits that, “The probability of an accident on the oil pipeline is quite real, as analysis of similar accidents on Transneft [the state owned oil company] lines shows.” Once the pipeline is built it will be operated by Transneft, further distancing YUKOS from problems related to the functioning pipeline. YUKOS will be able to claim that Transneft, as operator of the pipeline, is responsible for leaks or accidents that occur.

At the moment, it looks as though Baikal Wave will be spared the fate of Pasko and others who have spoken out against environmental mismanagement in Russia. But the geologists who provided the organization with the maps may not be. According to the FSB they will be charged with distributing state secrets, presumably compromising national security.

ADAM FEDERMAN can be reached at:


Adam Federman is a contributing editor at Earth Island Journal.He is the recipient of a Polk Grant for Investigative Reporting, a Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, and a Russia Fulbright Fellowship. You can find more of his work at