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Science behind bars: How state treason cases against scientists are fabricated

In Russia, scientists face systematic imprisonment on state treason charges, particularly those involved in international projects, defense-related work, and research on high-speed aerodynamics or hypersonic studies. Often, these are elderly people with severe illnesses, and some may not live to see their sentences. The Insider spoke with human rights activists and the families of the repressed scientists to understand the process behind these cases and explore potential ways of protection against such accusations.

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  • Activities of heightened state importance

  • Chain of arrests

  • A typical state treason case

  • Verification for classified information

  • Expert reports suitable for the FSB

  • Many scientists are at risk

  • Disturbing signals prior to arrests

  • Science in depression

Activities of heightened state importance

At the end of June, the Moscow City Court sentenced 71-year-old professor of MIPT (Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology) and employee of the Zhukovsky Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI), Valery Golubkin, to 12 years of strict regime imprisonment. The FSB (Federal Security Service) also arrested his supervisor, Anatoly Gubanov. They were charged with state treason related to their work on the international project HEXAFLY-INT, which aimed to create a hypersonic passenger aircraft. Additionally, over the course of the year, several scientists from Novosibirsk were arrested under the same charge of state treason: Alexander Shiplyuk, the head of the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences (ITPM SB RAS), as well as two scientific researchers from ITPM - Anatoly Maslov and Valery Zvegintsev.

Valery Golubkin at the Moscow City Court
Valery Golubkin at the Moscow City Court

Last year, Dmitry Kolker, the head of the laboratory of quantum optical technologies at the Institute of Laser Physics of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences (ILP SB RAS), was arrested on suspicion of state treason. On July 2, it was the anniversary of his death – he died in pre-trial detention three days after his arrest. Kolker was accused of providing China with information containing state secrets. His son stated that his father delivered lectures in a Chinese university in Russian. An FSB employee accompanied the scientist on his trip to China and prohibited him from speaking or presenting in English during the visit.

Russian scientists are often accused of state treason allegedly for collaborating with China, says Dmitry Zair-Bek, the head of the human rights project First Department. However, this is primarily due to the fact that Russia and China have numerous joint scientific projects, making it easier to find alleged traitors. Many cases against scientists are linked to the period of the “Medvedev thaw,” when cooperation with other countries was in vogue. Now, the situation has changed, and those who simply fulfilled their official duties are being treated differently and imprisoned, according to Ivan Pavlov, a lawyer, human rights activist, and founder of the human rights projects Team 29 and First Department.

Despite being in the fourth stage of cancer, Kolker was taken from the clinic, flown to Moscow on a plane, and sent to pre-trial detention. After detaining a person on suspicion of state treason, the FSB almost always insists on sending the detainee to pre-trial detention, Pavlov says. “There are rare exceptions, but there are also such sad cases as Kolker's when they took him to pre-trial detention almost from his deathbed. They wouldn't have gained anything had they let him die at home.”

Dmitry Kolker, Doctor of Physical and Mathematical Sciences
Dmitry Kolker, Doctor of Physical and Mathematical Sciences

According to Pavlov, the FSB's handling of a case is connected to the concept of “realization” – a term they use to describe a series of actions, including arrests and searches. Typically, these searches are carried out simultaneously and at multiple locations, such as the suspect's residence, dacha, workplace, and even involving their close associates, all early in the morning. After the suspect is taken for interrogation, they are swiftly brought to court, where the measure of restraint is decided. This entire process is usually accomplished in a single day, which the FSB deems as the “day of realization” and considers crucial, the lawyer says.

“If they fail, they don't get the taste of victory. They must arrest and detain. That's why they killed Kolker. Just because of their desire to achieve their goal. They collected documents, conducted surveillance, wiretapped, read correspondences. It was necessary to make the arrest in order to add a new star onto the already pierced shoulder board. They wouldn't spoil their celebration.”

The Free Russia Foundation also believes that through these “spy” cases, the FSB “simulates activities of heightened state importance while providing specific officers with career advancements and financial gains.” For example, investigator Alexander Chaban, who handled cases involving journalist Ivan Safronov, scientist Victor Kudryavtsev, his student Roman Kovalev, physicist Anatoly Gubanov, and others, received a promotion. He went from being a lieutenant colonel to a full colonel.

The FSB simulates activities of state importance while providing specific officers with career advancements

Chain of arrests

In recent years, the number of cases related to state treason has increased, says Pavlov. “Before 2014, there were only two or three verdicts per year, but after 2014, there were sometimes 15 verdicts, and last year was particularly fruitful.” According to the Agency portal, 22 criminal cases of state treason were initiated last year, and as much as 20 from January 1 to April 11, 2023.

Cases of state treason involving scientists are more frequently investigated in Moscow by the central apparatus – the First Department of the FSB Directorate. Zair-Bek says that “everyone at the top is aware of each of these cases.” For scientists, classified information exists not only on paper but also in their minds, as they are the developers. Major General of the FSB in reserve and member of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Alexander Mikhailov, explained the rationale of the special services to Kommersant, saying, “It is easier to detect leaks when dealing with people who are attempting to access this information, but it is very difficult, practically impossible when a person is a carrier of this information, or even the sole carrier.”

Pavlov explains that the intelligence services favor cases that resemble “matryoshka” nested dolls. Initially, they “break” a person by telling them that they face 12 to 20 years of imprisonment (recently, the punishment has been tightened to life imprisonment). Then they promise that if the person “behaves well,” they will receive a sentence of less than 12 years. Furthermore, if the person admits their guilt and provides testimony against someone else, they will receive a six-year sentence.

“The academic community in Russia is an easy target; they can be easily broken. I was fortunate with those who confided in me; they had strong character. However, the majority is a sad sight. Almost all of these people are products of the Soviet era; they cannot conceive that the system can make mistakes and direct its entire arsenal of repressive measures against them. They are the ones who usually serve this regime with faith and devotion. And when an investigator asks something of them, they comply.”

Typically, this process begins with a large investigative team arriving at the scientific research institute to “handle” the scientists within, Zair-Bek explains. They demand documentation and diligently search for any potential grounds for accusations:

“After that, the 'realization' phase begins. Initially, they single out one individual for 'realization.' Depending on whether they possess any incriminating evidence or not, they may negotiate with that person to provide testimony against someone else (a common scenario), or if they have sufficient evidence, they proceed to initiate a case against another individual, leading to arrests and detentions, even without additional testimony. This pattern characterizes cases against scientists from ITPM in Novosibirsk, the TsAGI case, and the TsNIIMash case.”

The cases of ITPM and Central Research Institute for Mechanical Engineering (TsNIIMash) are not formally related, but the scientists from ITPM in Novosibirsk were colleagues of TsNIIMash employee Victor Kudryavtsev. They worked together on a joint project with Belgium, which also led to previous accusations of state treason against Kudryavtsev, as Yaroslav Kudryavtsev, the son of the scientist, told The Insider. According to him, the investigator traveled to his father's colleagues in Novosibirsk in the context of Kudryavtsev's case and interrogated them: “He confiscated materials related to other projects from them. Then, most likely, the FSB submitted these other projects for examination, and they dug up something there.”

A typical state treason case

Scientific researcher Victor Kudryavtsev from TsNIIMash was arrested on suspicion of state treason in the summer of 2018 and sent to pre-trial detention, where he spent over a year. He was later released with a travel ban, but unfortunately passed away in 2021. Kudryavtsev was accused of providing classified information to a Belgian institute as part of the joint project TRANSHYBERIAN, information that is still publicly available to this day. The case unfolded according to a classic scenario: another scientist from the institute was “investigated,” followed by wide-ranging searches, and attempts by the FSB to persuade Kudryavtsev to strike a deal and implicate one of his colleagues.

Scientific researcher Victor Kudryavtsev
Scientific researcher Victor Kudryavtsev

The process involving Kudryavtsev was preceded by the case of another TsNIIMash employee, Vladimir Lapygin, who was convicted of state treason in favor of China. Lapygin worked on a similar subject matter to Kudryavtsev, as described by Kudryavtsev's son:

“My father went to court as a defense witness for Lapygin. The trial ended with a relatively mild sentence for such a charge – seven years. Later, Lapygin himself mentioned that the judge almost apologized to his wife, saying that they couldn't impose a lighter sentence, and that if it were up to him, he would have punished him for negligence with documents but not for state treason.”
The judge said that if it were up to him, he would have punished him for negligence with documents but not for state treason

The investigation by the FSB against Kudryavtsev, as it turned out, began long before his arrest. The project associated with the accusations had concluded around 2013, according to Kudryavtsev Jr.'s recollections. He mentioned that the “investigative” phase started sometime after that, around 2014 or 2015.

“They began actively monitoring my father - they gained access to his email, which was not difficult at all. From then on, they dug into his affairs for almost five years. But my father never noticed anything unusual – no surveillance or anything.”

The first search at Kudryavtsev's home occurred in 2017. According to his son, the law enforcement officers arrived without a warrant, but they still confiscated all computer devices and his father's passport:

“Outwardly, my father remained unruffled - well, they took everything, so what? He bought a new laptop, what else could he do? Less than a year after the initial search, they came for him again. It was right after the FIFA World Cup. I don't know if they planned it that way or if they spontaneously decided to conduct further searches, or it was just a coincidence.”

On the day of Victor Kudryavtsev's arrest in July 2018, law enforcement officers conducted a search at his son's place as well. However, they seemed unsure of what they were looking for. As Victor Kudryavtsev Jr. recalls, “they said, 'Hand over whatever you have.' I asked if they meant weapons or drugs, but they clarified that it was related to the charges against his father. They then asked if there were any items bearing NATO symbols. They also conducted searches in the garage and its basement, without much enthusiasm, trying to find hidden compartments.”

They took Victor Kudryavtsev Sr. to Lefortovo and insisted that he confess. However, as Yaroslav Kudryavtsev recalls, they didn't explain the specific accusations against his father, saying he should figure it out himself because “if he was brought here, there must be a reason.” According to Yaroslav, the investigator talked to his father without any official record because he wanted to strike a deal – he wanted the scientist to confess and reveal more information. Typically, the arrested person is offered the option of implicating one of their colleagues. However, Kudryavtsev chose not to do so. Yaroslav remembers, “When they got tired of dealing with my father, they took his colleague, Kovalyov, who decided to cooperate.” Roman Kovalyov was sentenced to seven years but later released due to his deteriorating health – he had stage four cancer. He remained free for about two weeks before passing away.

Verification for classified information

Verification for classified information is a standard procedure in every institute since Stalin's times, and there must be a First Department in each of them. Any employee who participates in regional, national, or international conferences must obtain a clearance stating the absence of classified information in their presentation, speech, or poster. This is not optional; it is a mandatory requirement. The management then decides whether the employee can present the report or not. If approved, the scientist attaches this clearance to the documents submitted to the conference organizing committee. In some cases, the control can be even stricter. For instance, at foreign conferences, an FSB employee might accompany the presenter. However, this doesn't happen all the time. Such accompaniment is typically organized only for scientists working on particularly sensitive topics.

Any employee who participates in a conference must obtain a clearance stating the absence of classified information in their presentation

The project that Viktor Kudryavtsev worked on was being implemented from 2011 to 2013, and all the necessary checks were already conducted back then, as explained by his son. There's a First Department, responsible for granting permissions for publication, in TsNIIMash as well. In larger organizations, there are experts familiar with the classified list of topics that should not be discussed publicly. An ordinary person is not aware of what can be disclosed and what cannot. Materials that a scientific researcher intends to share with foreign partners are also subject to examination, Kudryavtsev says.

“They call it 'exporting materials abroad.' The experts provide assessments stating that these materials do not contain state or commercial secrets, and this procedure is followed in all research institutions.”

Expert reports suitable for the FSB

After Viktor Kudryavtsev's interrogations, the FSB submitted all the materials relevant to the case for examination. Before this step, there are typically discussions with those who issued the clearance, certifying that the materials did not contain classified information, Yaroslav Kudryavtsev says. According to him, in some instances, FSB agents inquired whether the clearance had been genuinely provided or if it had been merely signed without a thorough review of the materials, or if the individual who issued the clearance had been coerced into doing it. Yaroslav Kudryavtsev says that experts often yield to the pressure:

“They start protecting themselves. Fear sets in, and they grasp onto the versions proposed by the investigator, attempting to distance themselves in the hope of avoiding implication.”

Based on the fact that the initial examination was conducted incorrectly, the materials are sent for reevaluation. The FSB relies solely on experts handpicked by themselves, who provide conclusions favorable to the security service, according to Pavlov. He states that often the findings indicating the presence of classified information in the materials are “stretched” or exaggerated. However, the defense cannot turn to an alternative expert because it requires someone with security clearance approved by the FSB, and the agency can arbitrarily revoke this clearance without providing substantial reasons. Moreover, many positions are directly linked to holding such clearance; thus, losing it also means losing the job.

The defense cannot turn to an alternative expert since it requires someone with security clearance

FSB experts are guided by lists of information subject to classification as secret, which are maintained at each respective agency. These lists themselves are also classified, according to Pavlov, and consist of several hundred items:

“I am familiar with many of these lists, and the language used in them is horrifyingly vague and ambiguous, allowing virtually anything to be fit under them if desired. Nevertheless, even in such circumstances, the experts frequently struggle to accurately identify the classified information. However, neither the investigator nor the court shows any concern about this matter,” Pavlov says.

In such a situation, people who initially issued clearances to the scientists could also be persecuted, but this does not happen, Pavlov says. He explains that “the Chekists” (FSB officers) act according to a pattern: their area of responsibility is Article 275 (state treason). Other crimes do not interest them. The maximum that can be brought against these individuals, says Pavlov, is, for example, the violation of official powers, Article 286. The lawyer is confident that the FSB is not interested in this article since it is a relatively minor offense that does not allow for pre-trial detention.

Meanwhile, certain shortcomings can always be found in documentation. For example, it may turn out that using a mailbox on is not allowed. Instead, the email should have been sent from the institutional address, says Kudryavtsev.

“Violations can be found in any work, much like a fire inspector can find issues in any scenario. The crucial aspect is whether these violations fall under Article 275, which pertains to knowingly assisting another state to harm Russia. The FSB's objective is to meticulously construct a significant case from these minor infractions. For the Chekists, it provides an opportunity to engage in their work—it's what they thrive on,” Kudryavtsev says.

According to Pavlov, the FSB's true concern is not the country's security: “There have been instances where they monitored individuals and witnessed them sending materials right before their eyes. If national security were their genuine concern, they could have intervened. However, their intention is for the crime to be fully committed; otherwise, it would be an incomplete crime, and they wouldn't be sufficiently rewarded.”

Many scientists are at risk

Human rights advocates believe that many scientists are currently at risk. This includes those who have ever participated in international projects and shared data with their foreign colleagues, scientists whose work is connected to the defense sector, as well as physicists conducting research in the field of high-speed aerodynamics or hypersonic studies – they are subject to close attention from “security personnel.” Spies are often sought among them. Ivan Pavlov confirms that in the past five years, a dominant group of scientists targeted under Article 275 are those involved in hypersonic research:

“Putin once mentioned that we have advancements in hypersonic technology that need protection, and immediately, protectors emerged.”
In the past five years, a dominant group of scientists prosecuted on state treason charges are those involved in hypersonic research

Yaroslav Kudryavtsev said that his father “got in trouble” precisely on this topic. Although the term “hypersonic” has been known since the 1950s, it has recently gained attention due to the development of missiles showcased to Putin.

Apparently, real progress has been achieved in this field. This is evident in Ukraine, where these missiles fly and cause significant damage. However, how this progress was achieved remains unknown. For example, TsNIIMash was not involved in the development of these missiles. But it does have a large aerodynamic tube where models could have been brought, tested, utilizing the institute's capabilities.

Physics is an area of scientific interest that is considered risky, according to Zair-Bek. Besides that, anything related to dual-use or military developments, as well as anything representing the state's strategic interests, is also at risk:

“We believe that scientists working in bioengineering and bioinformatics may also come under the scrutiny of the federal security service in the coming years. And to some extent, this is already happening; it's just not widely known to the public.”

From a purely statistical perspective, cooperation with China is more likely to lead to a case of treason than cooperation with other countries, Zair-Bek speculated. However, he added that the criteria for selecting a target are quite ambiguous.

Disturbing signals prior to arrests

The country's top leadership regularly and publicly calls for strengthening counterintelligence, fighting enemies, and seeking out spies. Cases of treason are initiated steadily, but information about them is released in a wave-like fashion, following relevant statements made by Putin, says Zair-Bek. After each such statement (especially after the start of the war), the FSB reports within a short period that it has found spies or terrorists, neutralized saboteurs, depending on the theme of the president's speech. However, this does not mean that the cases were immediately initiated after the statement. These are materials that the FSB accumulates and presents to the public at the right moment to demonstrate that the service is responding to the president's directives, the expert says.

The FSB accumulates and presents to the public at the right moment to demonstrate that the service is responding to the president's directives

“Chekists” are very secretive – no one will know that an investigation has started, says Pavlov: “They won't let you know when the storm clouds are gathering... But if someone from the group of scientists who worked on the project is already being summoned for questioning, then the entire group is at risk.”

Zair-Bek further points out that a troubling indication would be the arrival of operatives or FSB investigators at the institute to scrutinize documents, including scientific records. This serves as the initial warning sign and a reason to approach the First Department. The second red flag emerges when there is apparent interest in the potential target or their colleagues, such as being called in for questioning. This should prompt raising an alarm. Finally, the last warning sign is if one of the colleagues is detained, the human rights advocate says.

The first and last acquittal in a case of treason was issued in 1999, just a couple of days before Vladimir Putin became the acting president of Russia, Zair-Bek recalls: “Acquittals in cases of state treason are impossible, but theoretically one can try to have the case dropped or achieve a sentence below the lowest threshold.”

Science in depression

Research institutes are facing a decline not only in the number of young specialists but also in the foreign professorial staff and laboratory management. Initially, the idea of import substitution seemed absurd, but it has now become an essential requirement. If this approach continues, there might be some progress in Russia within the next ten years.

According to Kudryavtsev, it is theoretically possible to work in science without international collaboration, just as it was during Soviet times. However, in such a scenario, the need for intelligence operatives arises, who would procure international scientific information:

“We managed to produce numerous bombs and missiles by simply stealing technology from the West. Intelligence operatives would acquire and bring these technologies to our scientists, who then refined them in prison research facilities (sharashkas). This was a unique way of organizing the state, with some individuals working in prisons while others guarded them.”

Kudryavtsev says that among scientists, just like in the general population, there is a clear divide. Some scientists are content with the increase in military-related work, enjoying the benefits of military contracts and improved salaries. Particularly, those working directly on missile production, such as in design bureaus, are highly satisfied. However, these people are unable to engage in international cooperation and approach it similarly to “Chekists.” They are fully aware that their work is tied to war efforts, Kudryavtsev says. “On the other hand, scientists who do not contribute to military projects are mostly experiencing depression.” Moreover, challenges arise concerning the supply of foreign reagents and consumables for scientific instruments.

In their open letter, scientists from ITPM stated that the events pose a grave threat to Russian aerodynamics science. They emphasized that Maslov, Shiplyuk, and Zvegintsev are renowned for their brilliant scientific achievements and could have left the country long ago, yet they “always remained faithful to the country's interests.” The scientists warned that they no longer understand how to proceed with their work, as any article or presentation could become grounds for accusations of state treason. Institute employees considered the most terrifying aspect of this situation to be its impact on the scientific youth: top students are already refusing to work at ITPM, and the best young researchers are leaving the field of science. Furthermore, certain critical research areas necessary for the development of future aerospace technology are being shut down as employees fear engaging in these investigations. The scientific community is aware that such consequences can affect any discipline.

In the open letter, which has now transformed into a petition in support of Valery Golubkin and has garnered over 145,000 signatures, the scientists also voiced concerns about the undermining of scientific and technical potential, and the fear among people to pursue careers in the scientific field, leading to an exodus of young specialists from the country. Golubkin's colleagues expressed their distress that his case is unfolding during the “Year of Science and Technology,” which is intended to attract young professionals to the scientific realm. However, in reality, the authorities demonstrate that they “have the power to target anyone, without the burden of proof, resulting in a conviction that is inevitably incriminating.”

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