It seems that columnist Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal is taking a leadership role in issuing the clarion call to American journalists regarding the dangers of neo-Soviet Russia. Last time it was Russia's "torture colonies" and now a column called "Putin's Political Prisoners."
In its Soviet heyday, Moscow's dreaded Lefortovo prison served as a way station to the Gulag for political prisoners such as Yevgenia Ginzburg, Vladimir Bukovsky and Natan Sharansky. Under Vladimir Putin, it performs exactly the same function.
In December, Russian scientist Igor Reshetin was sentenced to 11½ years in a "strict regime" prison colony on charges of having sold dual-use technologies to China for its space programs. In 1996, Mr. Reshetin's company, TsNIIMASh-Export, was contracted to supply China with a series of technical reports, mostly dealing with the re-entry of spaceships into earth's atmosphere. The deal, worth about $30 million, represented about half of Russia's space-related exports to China at the time; business was expected to grow to about $100 million a year. In 2002, Mr. Reshetin submitted his reports to two expert government commissions, which certified that they contained no classified information.
By the next year, however, TsNIIMASh-Export was under investigation by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), the KGB's successor. In 2005, Mr. Reshetin, who suffers from heart disease, was remanded to Lefortovo, where he and a colleague spent two years before sentencing. During his trial, 62 publicly available monographs were produced to demonstrate that no secret information had been disclosed. "I have seen all the reports sent to China," Alexander Kraiko, a head of department at a Russian technical institute, told the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. "The information they contain was published in widely accessed print [publications] in Russian and in the U.S.A."
Given current conditions in Russia's penal colonies, which I described in this column last week, Mr. Reshetin's conviction amounts to a death sentence. Convicted with him are business associates Sergei Vizir (11 years), Mikhail Ivanov (five years), and Alexander Rozhkin (five years). Another business associate, Sergei Tverdokhlebov, spent two months in Lefortovo, signed a "voluntary confession," and died of a heart attack shortly thereafter.
Why were the authorities so hell-bent on punishing Mr. Reshetin? One theory is that Mr. Rashetin simply fell afoul a local FSB agent eager to justify his pay and win advancement by taking down a "spy." An almost identical scenario played out against another scientist, Valentin Danilov, who in 2004 was sentenced to 14 years in a penal colony on bogus charges of passing "secret" information to the Chinese -- information that had been declassified years earlier.
Even more strained was the case against Igor Sutyagin, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences' prestigious Institute for the Study of the United States and Canada, who was accused of illicitly disclosing details about Russia's nuclear posture. His "spying," too, amounted to a paper he had written based on open-source information (including speeches by Russia's own defense minister). Yet that didn't prevent a court from handing down a 15-year sentence. Similar convictions for "spying" have been handed down to at least four others: Anatoly Babkin; Oskar Kaibyshev; Vladimir Shchurov and Grigory Pasko.
The second theory about Mr. Reshetin's case is that he fell victim to the Kremlin's habit of criminalizing its (business) competitors: in this case the state-owned arms-maker Rosvoorushenie, which Novaya Gazeta speculates may have wanted a piece of a lucrative market that Mr. Reshetin was inconveniently making his own.
If so, that makes the case similar to that of former energy giant Yukos, whose assets were looted by Gazprom and other Kremlin-connected entities in 2004. While former CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky's indefinite imprisonment in a Siberian penal colony has attracted widespread media notice, less attention is paid to the 41 other Yukos defendants. One of them, lawyer Svetlana Bakhmina, was arrested in 2004 on charges of tax evasion and forbidden from speaking to her two young children for nearly six months. In 2006, her request to have her sentence suspended until her youngest child turns 14 was denied; instead, she was immediately transferred to a penal colony several hundred miles south of Moscow, where she is serving a 6½ year sentence.
Then there is the case of Vasily Aleksanyan, another Yukos lawyer, who was diagnosed with HIV shortly after his 2006 arrest. Russian authorities refused to treat him throughout most of his nearly 700-day pretrial detention; he is now being held in a medical facility, handcuffed to his bed. Drew Holiner, Mr. Aleksanyan's lawyer, says the authorities' motive is to force his client "to give false testimony against former colleagues in return for some form of deal." Their gambit may not succeed, since Mr. Aleksanyan is said to be suffering from an AIDS-related lymphoma and may soon die.
Though smaller in scope and ferocity, the Yukos case shares some of the notorious characteristics of a Soviet purge, particularly the effort to manufacture a "conspiracy" by bringing charges against a wide array of individuals.
The Soviet touch is also in evidence in the case of Larisa Ivanovna Arap. A member of Garry Kasparov's United Civic Front, Ms. Arap had campaigned on behalf of abused children in Russia's psychiatric hospitals. Last July, she herself was involuntarily detained at a psychiatric hospital on account of a critical article she had written, "shot up with psychotropic drugs," according to her husband, and held for over a month. Though she was released after public protest, a local district court issued the opinion that her hospitalization had been perfectly legal. As in the Soviet period, mere criticism of the performance of a state institution may now suffice as evidence of mental derangement.
In her acclaimed history of the Gulag, Anne Applebaum observes that under Stalin one could easily get arrested "for nothing," whereas under his successors arrests usually happened "for something -- if not for a genuine criminal act, then for . . . literary, religious, or political opposition to the Soviet system." Of the many things that make present trends in Russia so worrying, surely one is that the line between "something" and "nothing" is becoming increasingly blurred.