Physics Repression

Hypersound silence. How scientists become the prey of the FSB

Three physicists were arrested in so called “Novosibirsk case”. It wasn’t the first time. Previously, four scientists were also accused of treason in different years. All of the scientists accused in all these cases participated in the projects of the seventh framework program of the European Union “TransHyBerian” (coordinator — Von Karman Institute of Hydrodynamics, Belgium). However, the interlocutors and sources of T-invariant suggest that the contacts of scientists with China and Iran are only an excuse, not the reason for the arrests.

In less than a year at the Khristianovich Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences (ITAM) three employees were accused of treason. On April 7, 2023, Chief Researcher Valery Zvegintsev was arrested. In 2001, he founded and headed the laboratory “Aerogas dynamics of high speeds” at the institute. In 2006, Alexander Shiplyuk, the future director of ITAM, became the head of this laboratory. Shiplyuk was arrested in August 2022. Shortly before this, in June 2022, Alexander Maslov was arrested. He was the chief researcher of ITAM and for more than twenty years had been working as the deputy director of the institute for scientific work; Maslov was in charge of the aerodynamic direction. All three were co-authors of papers for many years at different times — the fact which can be confirmed by a simple search in open databases of scientific articles. Do these arrests mean that other scientists who are also their co-authors are under a threat of arrest? This issue is being seriously discussed among the staff of the Institute.

A collective state treason

On the day Valery Ivanovich (Zvegintsev – ed.) was arrested, I was not at the Institute, my colleagues told me,” says an ITAM employee, “the next day I saw that a search was conducted at his workplace. It shocked me so much, that I could not work for a long time. We all understand that this can happen to anyone now. Employees who are close to “closed” topics are in complete apathy and try to leave such projects. Especially young people cannot withstand moral pressure, some have already quit.”

Formally, three scientists were charged under article 275 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation with treason for disclosing secret information in speeches at conferences and publications in China and Iran at different times. But none of the interlocutors believes in the seriousness of this accusation. No one says, what is the real reason for the arrest of ITAM scientists. Neither lawyers, nor relatives, nor colleagues. Some refer to them not having any right to disclose. Others to the fact that any public information will now harm those arrested. Others to their own ignorance.

What points to the fact that the contacts with China and Iran were just the useful occasion, not the real reason?

First, in recent years, China and Iran have officially become friendly states, with which the country’s leadership is calling on Russian scientists to cooperate. Secondly, the speeches and publications in question were already made at the time when any external contacts of physicists were under strict control and had being passed through the approval of two institute expert commissions.

Back in 2019, I told our director Shiplyuk,” an employee of the institute recalls, “that I would go to a popular science festival in the former republic of the USSR to give a lecture that was not related to the subject of our institute. But A.N. asked me to get an expert opinion on my report anyway. I was surprised at the time by his persistence. I noted how he strictly followed any our external performances, even when it came to the near abroad.

However, despite the arrests of three key personnel, these expert commissions were not dissolved or reorganized due to the fact that they had given approval of reports or publications of classified materials. Although, it would seem that in this case members of the commissions should be arrested. Thirdly, in 2019, the head of the SB RAS, Valentin Parmon, got as a deputy lieutenant general of the FSB Sergey Staritsyn, whose area of responsibility includes relations with government agencies, including special services. This means that Lieutenant-General Staritsyn specifically does not control the activities of expert commissions, which, in turn, give permission for external publications and reports of scientists from Novosibirsk not in a sufficiently qualified manner.

We do not see any intensive activity on the part of the Academy,” the staff of the institute continue, “it is believed that there was no communication between the leadership of the SB RAS and the Novosibirsk FSB that could help us.

In addition, the violations imputed to scientists fall under Article 283.2 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (violation of the requirements for the protection of state secrets), which may happen due to negligence as well. Treason also implies the deliberate transfer of secret information. Would it be the case, the “accomplices” after the arrest of the first “traitor” should have left the country immediately. This is another reason for the depression of ITAM scientists: in order not to divulge state secrets, one can and must strictly obey the regulations, and it is not clear how to defend oneself from charges of treason if the same person participates in “closed” works and open international projects at the same time. All three arrested persons were such employees.

“Kinzhal” in the back

First time, a version, which connected scientist studying hypersonic technologies with the use of these technologies was voiced by journalists in June of 2018. They were especially interested in the “Avangard” and “Kinzhal” (“Kinzhal” literally means ‘a dagger’) missile systems. (The authors of this note weren’t identified, most likely their names were the collective pseudonym of the duty editors of the “Kommersant” Publishing House). First time the guess about this connection occurred in connection with the accusation of treason against Victor Kudryavtsev, a scientist from the Central Research Institute for Machine Building (TSNIIMASH).
By the time of his arrest, he had not had access to secret work for more than ten years. These events revolve around his cooperation in the TransHyBerian project of the Seventh Framework Program of the European Union.

Victor Kudryavtsev was the coordinator of this project from his institute. The project had been carried out from 2011 to 2013. Another participant in the project was the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute named after Professor N. E. Zhukovsky (Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute, CAI), in which Anatoly Gubanov, arrested in December 2020, and Valery Golubkin, arrested in April 2021, used to work. The third participant of this international project from the Russian side was the ITAM (Khristianovich Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics SB RAS). Alexander Maslov was the appointed coordinator from the Novosibirsk Institute. Maslov was arrested on June 28, 2022, and two days later, on June 30, Dmitry Kolker, a researcher at the Institute of Laser Physics of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Novosibirsk State University, was arrested under the same article in Novosibirsk (he died on July 2, 2022 from cancer in a pre-trial detention center).

Kolker does not have any common scientific papers with physicists from the ITAM in the public domain. Kolker’s latest scientific work was not related to hypersonic topics. However, Kolker had another affiliation with the organization in which he worked — LLC “Special Technologies”, whose main activity is, in particular, “the creation of mid-IR laser sources for guidance and countermeasure systems.” This affiliation is indicated in the publication of Dmitry Kolker in 2012, just at the time when work on the project in the EU framework program was in progress. There is no information about whether Kolker’s work of that period intersected with the work of colleagues from ITAM, but the fact that they were worried about the issues of increasing the frequency of lasers in hypersonic experiments can be seen from publications of the same time.

Is it possible to assume that all those arrested and associated with participation in this EU project, as well as Dmitry Kolker, are involved in the development of the “Kinzhal”? “Almost unbelievable,” says one of the members of an expert commission similar to those who give access to external publications of ITAM, “if this were the case, they would have a different level of secrecy, they would not have such free international contacts and open publications. Most likely they fell into the “dual-use technology trap”. This happens when scientists with access to classified topics come to the attention of law enforcement agencies, because law enforcers find references to their open work in a data obtained from classified sources, for example, from special reports.

This is indirectly confirmed by one of the scientists who was present at the trial to extend the preventive measure for Viktor Kudryavtsev in 2018. Due to a procedural incident, the lawyers then forgot to request a non-disclosure agreement for the materials of the investigation, and after the meeting they said that the investigators had a “joker” in the form of operational information prepared by a high-ranking intelligence officer. It looked like the secret services discovered a leak of classified information and linked it to scientists who were conducting research on hypersound. In June 2019, Kudryavtsev’s student Roman Kovalev was detained in the same case. In September 2019, Kudryavtsev’s case was suspended, the defendant was released due to a serious health condition (he died of cancer in April 2021). And Kovalev pleaded guilty, was convicted and in 2022, was released also in connection with an oncological disease (he died in April 2022).

The absence of qualified unbiased expertise at the stage of investigation made it impossible either to refute the “picture of the world” that had developed in the head of the FSB officers, or to predict their further actions.

Perhaps this explains so many coincidences and contradictions in the “hypersonic case”. None of those arrested since 2016 to 2023 tried to hide. People didn’t feel guilty. But the security forces stubbornly searched for those who could be blamed for the leaks (or what they took for leaks) related to hypersonic developments.

Back in 2016, the head of Viktor Kudryavtsev from TSNIIMASH, Vladimir Lapygin, was accused of treason for transferring to China “a software package that allows calculating the optimal aerodynamic characteristics of hypersonic aircraft containing information constituting a state secret.” According to the prosecution, the transfer of this information took place in 2011, just at the time when hypersonic experiments began under the projects of the EU framework program.

79-year-old Lapygin was released four years later on parole. Prior to this, President Putin twice denied him a pardon. While serving his sentence, Lapygin was visited by the investigator of the first department of the FSB Investigation Department Alexander Chaban (future investigator in the treason case against journalist Ivan Safronov). Thus, the investigation relied on some information about the leak, but what exactly was taken for a leak of information, how open research on hypersound in joint projects with the European Union is connected with it, could only be established by an independent examination, an objective investigation and an impartial court. The chances of finding such a combination in the Russian law enforcement system are zero, since there were no acquittals in any of the cases mentioned above. All processes were held behind closed doors.

As a result, a paradoxical situation evolved. Relatives, whose only hope is publicity, are silent so as not to harm those who are already in Lefortovo. The institute staff, on the contrary, in an open letter appeal “to the authorities of the Russian Federation, collectives of scientific and industrial organizations, the professional scientific community, as well as to all caring citizens of our country with a request to protect Russian aerodynamic science” in order to save those who has not yet been sent to “Lefortovo”.

There were no responses from authorities, teams and communities to this letter, despite the fact that the letter was published on the eve of the General Meeting of the Russian Academy of Sciences. On May 23, Valentin Parmon, head of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, delivered the report “On the results of the activities of the Siberian Branch”, in which he described the work of the branch in the direction of achieving technological sovereignty by Russia and cited developments in the fields of mathematics, physics, and energy as an example. The names of the arrested Siberian physicists were not mentioned in the report. Just as they were not mentioned in the report of the President of the Russian Academy of Sciences Gennady Krasnikov, who noted in his speech: “We are closely following every accusation made against the Academy, members of the Academy and leading scientists. We have created a special consultation mechanism in which leading academic lawyers and legal scholars work to provide members of the Academy with legal protection. I note that all cases are different, but we try to consider each of them comprehensively, to understand the essence of what is happening, to provide support where necessary. And, of course, we are in constant contact with law enforcement agencies.”

And the speech of the President of the Russian Academy of Sciences began with the words that “the events taking place in the country open up new opportunities for scientists”. Evidently, these “new opportunities” have forced employees of the ITAM write an open letter.

The interview with the attorney Ivan Pavlov

T-invariant asked Ivan Pavlov, attorney and the creator of advocacy project “First department”, why scientist are (now) the most vulnerable group for law-enforcing agencies

T-i: What are the typical stories that result in scientists being prosecuted for treason?

IP: There are four forms of state treason. Two classic ones: espionage and the issuance of state secrets. According to them, scientists are prosecuted. There is also the provision of assistance to a foreign state in activities directed against the security of Russia – for this scientists have never been prosecuted, until 2022 this wording was never used, it first appeared in the Kara-Murza case. Another form of treason appeared in 2022: going over to the side of the enemy. Scientists were not under investigation for this either. An accusation of espionage is used if a person does not have access to state secrets. The issuance of state secrets is the transfer of secrets entrusted to a person by virtue of his work. Scientists are at risk if they come into contact with sensitive information and have international contacts. For high treason, they prosecute scientists who participated in international projects, albeit approved in all instances. Even approvals at the government level do not stop the Chekists from reconsidering their attitude towards past scientific projects, they bring charges of treason against scientist on the basis of taking part in such projects. In some instances criminal cases were initiated for a lecture at a foreign university, for talks, reports on projects for foreign partners.

T-i: There are tens of thousands Russian scientists who had international contacts. In 2020, Novaya Gazeta wrote about thirty criminal cases for treason against scientists. What is the principle behind these criminal cases? Who was noticed by accident? Who is a convenient victim?

IP: It really is the perfect storm here. It is important that scientists are easy prey for the FSB. Usually these are old people of the Soviet temper, whom it is easy for the Chekists to break. It should be noted that the capacity of the FSB investigators is not so large. Cases of treason carry weight for the FSB. Due to them, there is a career growth of all those who were involved in them. Several scientists are prosecuted every year.

T-i: How are these few scientists pulled out of the mass of cases of contact with foreigners and writing reports?

IP: Each such case is quite laborious, materials are collected for several years. Chekists are pedantic people. Until a file is filled up with documents, the general will not give a sanction for detention. As a result, there are few international scientific projects now, Russia is becoming a closed country, scientists are afraid to contact foreign colleagues. The Chekists managed to close Russian science from external contacts.

T-i: Was it the task of the law-enforcement agencies to achieve exactly this?

IP: Probably, no one formally verbalized this task, but at the execution level it was understood in exactly this way. From the experience of my conversations with the FSB investigators, they think this way: if a scientist has international contacts, he is a potential enemy, he should be surveilled. For a lecture given abroad - a sentence. They have had this understanding of national security for a long time.

T-i: There is an opinion among scientists that contacts with the Chinese are especially dangerous.

IP: Yes, China is a country that scientists like to be accused of spying for. Have in mind the fact that in international contacts scientists are only executors, decisions regarding the transfer of information within the framework of some projects are made by their institutions. In every criminal case that I dealt with, the scientists complied with all the requirements, but that didn’t stop the FSB. For the FSB, the disclosure of a case is not a court verdict, but the detention of a “spy”. We are not talking about any preventive measures: the FSB can detain a person immediately after the transfer of information to foreigners. If they were concerned about state security, I think they would not allow such information to be transmitted.

T-i: Are scientists detained for state treason generally loyal to the state?

IP: Yes. The first oppositionist who fell under this article was Kara-Murza. All the past accused of treason had nothing to do with opposition activities.

T-i: And how do the FSB officers convince such scientists during interrogations that they (scientists) have committed treason?

IP: Brutally. Break their morals. They say: that’s it, you you’re in a deep trouble. The term is from 12 to 20. If you rock the boat, you will get closer to 20. If you behave well, maybe we will give you lower than the lowest.

T-i: Did the war with Ukraine increase the number of persecutions of scientists for a state treason?

IP: No. Now there is an outbreak of treason cases, but it is not about scientists. There are many cases against young people for providing assistance or for allegedly wanting to fight on the side of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

T-i: Did the leadership of the Academy of Sciences try to defend scientists persecuted for treason?

IP: There were timid attempts, but they were immediately stopped. In general, I know little about the activity of the RAS. But there were interviews with the former head of the Russian Academy of Sciences Alexander Sergeev, in which he spoke out in support of scientists involved in treason.

T-i: For the entire existence of the article on treason, there was only one case when the accused was freed from the charge.

IP: Alexander Nikitin was acquitted in 1999. In the case of Svetlana Davydova, the case was closed at the investigation stage. The case of sailor Minakov was also stopped. The case of the physicist Kudryavtsev was suspended due to illness. We dragged out Mitko’s case and didn’t let them pass the verdict. He was under house arrest and died at home.

T-i: In the current situation, this is what can be done to help.

IP: Sort of like palliative care. But it is obviously better to die at home than behind bars.

T-i: The arrest of Zvegintsev is already the eighth arrest since 2016 among employees of scientific organizations in one way or another connected with hypersonic and aircraft —TSNIIMASH, Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (CAI), ITAM, Institute of Laser Physics SB RAS. Employees of these institutions — Vladimir Lapygin, Viktor Kudryavtsev, Roman Kovalev, Anatoly Gubanov, Valery Golubkin, Dmitry Kolker, Anatoly Maslov, Alexander Shiplyuk, Evgeny Zvegintsev — were arrested from 2016 to 2023. Is there an explanation for this?

IP: Putin once blurted out that Russia has promising developments in the field of hypersound that need to be protected. Here they took it under the visor. FSB officers are opportunists. In fact, they protect nothing and no one, but simply destroy scientists.

T-i: Do you have any idea why Zvegintsev was sent under house arrest, and not in a pre-trial detention center?

IP: Maybe Kolker’s death had some effect. Sometimes there are cases when they are ashamed to take old scientists into custody. But house arrest is not a sanatorium either. A bunch of restrictions, you have to walk with a bracelet. I had a case when a person spent three years in an apartment without walking. If there is no balcony, you have to sit by the open window to get some fresh air.

T-i: Relatives of the arrested Novosibirsk scientists do not contact the press.

IP: Afraid. Now, in any case, they are afraid of publicity. And the lawyers are scared too.

T-i: Is publicity always useful for the accused in cases of treason?

IP: Certainly, not in every case. Where it helps, it should be used. But yes, now is not the best time for publicity. Now it helps less than before.

T-i: How do you know if publicity is needed?

IP: Take an experienced lawyer, he will evaluate all the circumstances. Publicity is needed if there is an opportunity to pay attention to the absurdity and stupidity of the accusation. If it can be shown very simply. Highlight a clear falsification. Which is explicit, which does not need to be proved in a complicated way. There is a chance that it will help: Chekists do not like to look like fools, perhaps they will free a person. In other cases, perhaps, I would not recommend publicity.

This material was made by Olga ORLOVA and Alexander LITOY.
Translated into English by Maxim VOROBYOV.

,   27.05.2023

, ,