JUSTICE (CBC - Report)
Reporter: Dan Bjarnason
Producer: Alex Shprintsen
Near Murmansk in northern Russia, tethered to their final resting place are the cadavers of almost 100 decommissioned Russian nuclear submarines; their reactors cracked, their hulls eroding.
They were conceived with a simple mission: to torpedo an enemy's shipping and turn his cities into nuclear funeral pyres. Now they rot and rust like dinosaur skeletons on the beach. Their nuclear fuel still aboard, ironically a menace no longer to those rival NATO navies, but rather to their own citizens.
Alexander Nikitin has become his country's biggest whistle blower. He now lives alone in St. Petersburg; his wife and daughter moved to Canada because life for them in Russia had become a nightmare. A retired naval officer, Nikitin wrote of what he knew firsthand of Russia's possible new Chernobyl in the making. He had hoped his writings would generate money from a sympathetic world to finance the proper dismantling of those subs.
"I told the truth about the condition of our nuclear safety," Nikitin says. "I was on one side. And on the other was this entire machine of the state, prepared to gobble up one little man.
"What they are accusing me of has nothing to do with Russia's security. On the contrary, not doing what we urged them to do in our report may undermine Russia's safety."
In St. Petersburg, a city so steeped in Russian heroism and patriotism, it is ironic that a former naval captain who dedicated his career to defending his country is now accused of betraying it.
This, then, is the story of Alexander Nikitin, a story rooted in that report for the Norwegian environmental group Bellona warning of Russia's decaying northern fleet of nuclear submarines. Russian subs at sea are a risk to their crews, Nikitin says. And he adds those decommissioned and in port a threat to civilians because of hundreds of nuclear reactors still inside and unattended. Embarrassed and with no money to deal with the threat, Russia's defence and security apparatus fights back the old way -- by striking out at the messenger and ignoring the message.
Professor Alexei Yablokov is Russia's leading scientist and environmentalist and a former advisor to Boris Yeltsin.
"This is a real floating Chernobyl. We have to understand, this is a real floating Chernobyl," Yablokov says. "One nuclear reactor from a submarine exploding equals to, I don't know, ten or twenty Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.
"The nuclear submarines typically have two reactors, which are maybe ten times less than Chernobyl. But only ten times less. It will be absolutely enough to cover Britain, to reach Canada, to reach the United States, this nuclear cloud from exploded nuclear submarine."
It's those kind of no-nonsense wake-up calls that have cost Yablokov his government job and have prompted critics to denounce him too as a traitor.
"I am not a traitor," Yablokov says. "I say the same like Nikitin. I am patriot. I feel myself like patriot. Like people who dream about future of my country. Who dream about healthy future for my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren."
Nikitin's job was to ensure such a safe future. Tagged as a high flyer almost from the day he joined the Soviet navy in the 1960s, he rose to become the senior safety inspector of nuclear subs. In 1992, his work no longer valued by a navy and a country going bankrupt, and unable to find satisfying work in Russia, Nikitin decided to apply to move to Canada. And in 1995, while waiting for permission to emigrate, he helped write the Northern Fleet expose.
The drama of Nikitin's battle with the secret police began in Moscow in October, 1995, when he boarded the midnight train to St. Petersburg. In his pocket, he clutched his ticket to a new life: a Canadian visa. Now, surely everything would be different, once he and his family got to Canada. In St. Petersburg the next day, he shared the news with his wife Tanya.
That night, came the infamous knock on the door. The secret police were in the hall. And so it seems, to Nikitin and his wife, it was the ghost of Stalin.
"We were sure that the time of the 1937 purges, when they would walk in, take people away who would then never come back, had long gone," Nitkitin says.
"The night search and the interrogation which lasted all night in the FSB (Federal Security Bureau) headquarters were, I think, a measure to intimidate crush and break me. My wife and daughter were very frightened because so many people had come into our tiny apartment, searched it, knocked everything upside down and took everything away, even personal things."
In February, 1996: four months after the original raid, Nikitin was arrested and imprisoned, but still not charged.
Retired Adm. Evgeny Tchernov was a commander of a nuclear sub himself and decorated as a hero of the Soviet Union. He has exposed many of the navy's cover-ups of Russia's decaying fleet.
"This infuriates me and I am mad as hell!" he says. "They were afraid the truth would come out. That truth would be testimony to their poor work, to their incompetence, to their irresponsibility and to their cowardice in trying to hold on to their positions without reporting to their superiors about the catastrophic state of the fleet. They never demanded that these problems be solved; they never demanded the money, the means to do it."
The perilous state of the nuclear fleet has struck directly at Adm. Tchernov and his wife. Their son, a submariner, died after an accident at sea. To the admiral, Russian subs and the well-being of their crews remains a highly personal matter. Tchernov's own daughter, Tanya, is also connected to the navy; she's married to a submarine specialist. Her husband is Alexander Nikitin.
"It so happened that when Alexander was in prison, I lost my brother," Tchernova says. "He died of leukemia after being contaminated with a very large dose of radiation. He himself was a submariner on that same northern fleet. This was awful, especially watching my parents. I will never forget this, and maybe this is also why all this is so important for me."
In the new Russia, the defunct KGB is reincarnated as the FSB. New uniforms, same old idea. The KGB/FSB has lost authority and funding, but the Nikitin case is a grand opportunity for the secret police to stage its comeback.
"When they arrested me, the first words from the lead investigator were 'I am the detective. This is the prosecutor. This is your lawyer, a former KGB officer, and you will go to prison!' In other words, the investigator had already decided everything," Nikitin says.
For ten months he logs the tedium of his imprisonment before he's finally released in December, 1996. Still no charges, no trial date and no real freedom. He is not allowed to leave St. Petersburg. Just like the good old days, he's hounded and tailed and wiretapped.
"They'd break into our apartment when we were out," Nikitin says. "They'd follow my wife and daughter as they went about their day, they'd dig into their personal lives. A car would be driving along and it was obvious that these were people who were on the tail. And then all these children's games with the slashing of tires or putting glue into locks."
"It's such a wall, it's such a force. Nothing has changed, unfortunately, in these last few years," Tchernova says. In the West, people tend to think that something has changed in Russia. Unfortunately, very little. This is a collision of two systems. On one side very decent people, and on the other, the Soviet regime that existed for 70 years."
Nikolai Mormul, now a retired admiral, was a pioneer of Russia's first nuclear sub. He's witnessed nuclear accidents at sea. Adm. Mormul first blew the whistle on all this and was shipped off to the Gulag for five years. But before anyone heard of Nikitin, Mormul was already writing about the perilous state of Russia's fleet a factor that later becomes vital in Nikitin's defence.
"They have ripped off the Russian people to maintain an entire army of secret police which is greater than the real army," Mormul says. "I am talking about the KGB forces, the interior ministry forces and so on. There are more parasites sitting on the backs of the people now than there were during the Soviet times.
"The problem is, as of today, about two-thirds of all nuclear waste in the world is in that region. This cannot but be of concern to other people. Our decommissioned subs are floating in groups, in tombs. This is a cemetery."
By 1997, as he awaited his trial, the world was beginning to watch. Now the new Russia's first prisoner of conscience, Nikitin is swamped with messages of solidarity, ecological prizes, news of rallies; all generating publicity. He hears from school kids, from diplomats, from presidents. And prime ministers: In October, 1997; Jean Chretien met in Moscow with his counterpart, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and told him how important the case is to Canada.
"I have informed the prime minister that he -- he has applied to come to Canada. And we're willing to take him any day, if they let him go," Chretien told a news conference.
They didn't let him go.
He sits in St. Petersburg while his case weaves its tortured way through the Russian courts.
In the summer of 1998, Nikitin's wife and daughter, unable to cope any longer with police harassment, moved to Toronto to battle from there.
Tanya's father, the retired admiral, says foreign pressure is vital.
"Were it not for international support, he most certainly would have been quickly executed and that would have been it. As our leader and mentor comrade Stalin used to say: when there is a person, there is a problem. No person, no problem," Tchernov says.
Montreal lawyer Irwin Cotler has earned an international reputation
as a battler for civil rights. And now he's taken up the cause of Nikitin
and his wife, putting the former Russian naval officer in the same league
as other icons in the struggle for justice.
The trial finally came in October, 1998. Three years after that initial KGB/FSB raid, the charges against Nikitin are still unclear, but they do relate to that Norwegian report. Chapter 8.2 of the book about revealing submarine locations where nuclear accidents happened; and chapter 2.3; technical data on reactors that may have caused those accidents at sea.
We wanted an official comment on the Nikitin case so we asked the FSB, the successor to the dreaded secret police, the dreaded KGB. But we were told "sorry, but no!" Commenting on the Nikitin case might appear to be interfering with the administration of justice, and the secret police would never dream of doing that.
The CBC could find only one person in all of Russia who would explain to us the party line. He's Evgeny Zubarev, a reporter for the St. Petersburg newspaper "Rush Hour," which has close ties with the KGB/FSB.
"My view is that a military officer who is making money by providing information to a foreign organization -- well that already leads to certain questions. I think it's strange." Zubarev says.
"When I began my research for Bellona, I worked just right around here, in a garage as a mechanic," Nikitin says. "When I was there, without trying too hard, I could earn $50-70 a day. In one day! While Bellona paid me a purely symbolic amount; $250 a month. So what money is he talking about? Is that the kind of money that would entice you to risk going to jail for 20 years?"
"I've seen the Bellona report, where there are references to submarine records and their itineraries," Zubarev says. "This has nothing to do with ecology. But it's obvious that military people could have an interest in this sort of information. For submarines, especially strategic submarines, the most important task is to keep their itineraries secret."
"What itineraries?" Nikitin asks. "You see there is no such concept, a submarine itinerary. Such a concept simply doesn't exist. A submarine isn't some city bus that goes back and forth along some route. It's unpredictable where a sub goes: where it comes in; when it gets loaded up; when it floats to the surface; when it turns left or right. Knowing nothing about this, he's giving you this bullshit!"
Most analysts of submarine warfare agree an accident location in itself tells you nothing of value about a submarine's actual operations and its so-called itinerary.
The official accusations were outlined by a Russian pre-trial TV program where the head investigator was interviewed.
"We sent Nikitin's Chapter 8.2 to all kinds of experts and they concluded that Nikitin could not have gathered that information from open sources. And so Chapter 8.2 contained information classified as a state secret," he told the TV interviewer.
State secret? No way, says Adm. Mormul, who has written several books on the Russian sub time-bomb and becomes the key witness at the trial.
Bellona's report contained no facts that had not already been published openly somewhere else," Mormul says. "I personally was involved in writing and consulting for this report and I can vouch for every figure, every name, every incident, every coordinate of a sub. I can prove, through my personal archive, that all these documents had already been published."
The trial judge, it seems, agrees. He rules that the submarine information is from open sources. The judge concludes there's no evidence for a conviction. But in today's Russia, that doesn't mean acquittal; it means investigate more.
What we are seeing here is a case that is exactly analogous to those of the political prisoners in the former Soviet Union. In other words they are proceeding -- the Russian prosecution -- here on the same principle of Gulag justice, which was 'give us the man and we'll find the crime.'" Cotler says.
In February, 1999 the case went to Russia's Supreme Court. There was the same bizarre verdict: no conviction, no acquittal, more investigation.
"Even though the courts found that there was no evidence to commit him -- to convict him; even though the courts found that the prosecution had proceeded on the basis of an illegally based set of laws and regulation and therefore an acquittal should have almost automatically been entered, they sent it back for further 'investigation.'" Cotler says. "This could admittedly go on for a long period of time. In other words, a prosecution has now turned into a persecution on a human level as well as a legal level."
Legal niceties count for little in the Lubyanka, the old KGB headquarters where, over the years, untold thousands of Russians were dragged in and never came out. Now the KGB/FSB is trying to recover power and funding lost since the Soviet days, and cracking a spy case may just be the ticket. So they're in there right now, beavering away long into the night, coming up with new evidence.
"The former KGB is calling the shots in this case," Cotler says. " If that is indeed what is happening, then Russians have a lot to worry about because it means that in fact the transition to democracy has not yet taken place, and there is still governance by possibly the former KGB."
Tanya Tchernova now living in Toronto, counselled and encouraged by Irwin Cotler, carries on the war against the KGB/FSB on two fronts: to liberate her husband and to vindicate his warnings about a radiation catastrophe.
"It's important to have a good ending. But not just for my sake," Tchernova say. "I know that if Alexander's case ends with a guilty verdict, then people will be afraid to talk about this problem. And we can't be silent about it. No way!"
In the spring of 1999, Nikitin was allowed to visit his mother in Ukraine, now a separate and independent country. Many feel the KGB/FSB solution would be that he be allowed to escape; that he simply not come back.
"You know it's usually people who are guilty who escape," Nikitin says. "Criminals run away from justice, criminals go into hiding. I am not a criminal. And this case isn't just my case, Nikitin's case. This is a struggle between the old and the new. And by a quirk of fate, I am right in the middle of that struggle. So I will never run away and I have no right to, for it's not just my personal fate that's being decided."
But can Nikitin ever get real justice in the country that invented show trials?
"I would very much like to believe in it, but my experience doesn't let me have that hope," Tchernova says.
In St. Petersburg, there is a dark brooding feeling about how all this will end. In this David and Goliath duel, David is a lonely figure with little more than grit, great moral stature and some influential friends. He carries on his dangerous struggle against Goliath, the secret police who, outside, circle for the kill armed with unlimited resources, their own laws and decades of expertise in getting what they want. In Russia, the police really do always get their man. It's hard to find a happy ending anywhere in this story of Alexander Nikitin's long night in the shadow of the KBG.
Since that story first aired, Alexander Nikitin was acquitted of spying. But it's not the end of his tribulations. Although Russia's Supreme Court rejected an appeal to reopen the case, the Prosecutor General's appeal of that decision will be heard beginning August 2, 2000.