In Putin’s Russia Arrests Spread Fast and Wide

The Federal Security Service building in Moscow, August 29, 2018. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

They came to pick up Dmitry Kolker, a sick physicist, from the intensive care unit. They came for hockey star Ivan Fedotov as he left practice with a film crew in tow. They came for Vladimir Mau, rector of a state university, the week he was re-elected to the board of Gazprom.

The message sent by these high-profile detentions: almost everyone is now punishable in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The wave of arrests across the country in recent days has signaled that the Kremlin intends to tighten the noose around Russian society even further. This appears to be a manifestation of Putin’s declaration in the early weeks of his war in Ukraine that Russia needed to get rid of pro-Western “scum and traitors”, and it creates an unmistakable chill.

Sign up for The Morning of the New York Times newsletter

“Every day feels like the last,” Leonid Gozman, 71, a commentator who continues to speak out against Putin and the war, said in a phone interview from Moscow, acknowledging fears he too could be arrested.

None of the targets of the recent crackdown were outspoken critics of the Kremlin; many of Putin’s most vocal opponents who chose to stay in Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, such as politicians Ilya Yashin and Vladimir Kara-Murza, were already in prison. But each of the targets of the recent crackdown represented an outward-looking Russia that Putin is increasingly portraying as an existential threat. And the way they were taken into custody seemed designed to make waves.

Kolker, the physicist, checked into a hospital in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk last week for treatment for terminal cancer that was so weak he was unable to eat. The next day, agents from the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, arrived and, accusing him of treason, airlifted him to a Moscow prison. Over the weekend, he died in custody.

“The FSB killed my father,” his 21-year-old son Maxim wrote in all caps on social media, alongside an image of the three-line telegram sent by authorities notifying the family of the death. “They didn’t even let our family say goodbye.”

Maxim Kolker, who is following in his father’s footsteps as a physicist in Novosibirsk, said Dmitry Kolker was known to hire students to work in his lab, helping to persuade some budding Russian scientists not to seek work at the ‘foreign.

Now, he said in a telephone interview, the family must bring Kolker’s body from Moscow at their own expense.

It is unclear why the FSB targeted Dmitry Kolker, 54, a specialist in quantum optics. State media reported that he was imprisoned on suspicion of passing secrets overseas. But Kremlin critics say it is part of a broader FSB campaign to clamp down on free thought in academia. Another Novosibirsk physicist who was also arrested for treason last week, Anatoly Maslov, remains in custody.

The arrests came at the same time as the fraud arrest of Mau, a prominent Russian economist who heads a sprawling state university, the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.

Mau, 62, was by no means a public critic of the Kremlin. He had joined more than 300 senior university officials in signing an open letter in March calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “necessary decision”, and he was re-elected to the board of Gazprom, the Russian energy giant last week. But he also had a reputation as what scholars of Russian politics call a “systemic liberal,” someone who worked within Putin’s system to try to nudge it in a more open, pro-Western direction.

It turns out his Kremlin ties weren’t enough to save Mau from a fraud case that once ensnared the rector of another top university and which critics say appears designed to quell the last pockets of dissent in Russian academia.

“A great enemy of government and of government stability are people who carry knowledge,” said Gozman, who worked with Mau as a government adviser in the 1990s. “Truth is an enemy here.”

Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist who taught at Mau’s academy until April, called the institution “a teaching center for most of the country’s civic bureaucracy” and described his arrest as the criminal prosecution in Russia’s highest level since 2016. This indicated, she said, that ideological purity was becoming an increasingly important priority for Russian authorities, particularly in the field of education.

“In education, it is important that a person actively professes and shares the values ​​that he must plant in the minds of his students,” said Schulmann, now a member of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. “Here, ambiguous loyalty may not be allowed.”

Putin said so himself. In the March speech in which he denounced traitors within Russia, he called out those who physically reside in Russia but live in the West “in their thoughts, in their slave consciousness.”

He also increasingly argues that truly patriotic Russians must commit to living and working in Russia. He told an economic conference in St. Petersburg last month that “real, solid success and a sense of dignity and self-respect only come when you tie your future and that of your children to your homeland. “.

In this context, the news that Fedotov, the goalkeeper of the Russian national hockey team who won silver at the Beijing Olympics in February, signed a contract in May with the Philadelphia Flyers was probably considered a challenge.

Fedotov, 25, one of the hockey world’s rising stars, was planning to leave for the United States this month, according to Russian media.

Instead, on Friday, as he was leaving a training session in Saint Petersburg, he was stopped by a group of men, some masked and camouflaged, and taken away in a van, according to a television journalist. who was shooting a special report. around him and saw the incident.

Fedotov’s alleged crime, according to Russian news agencies: evading military service. Russian men under 27 are required to serve for one year, although sports stars can usually avoid conscription. On Monday, state news agency RIA Novosti reported that Fedotov had been taken to an unnamed Russian Navy training base.

The elaborate detention was widely seen as a punishment for choosing to play in the United States rather than stay in Russia. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they put him on a submarine and sent him out to sea,” RIA Novosti quoted a Soviet sports veteran as saying. “He’s not going anywhere after this.”

For Gozman, the liberal commentator who remains in Moscow, the common thread running through the recent arrests was their seemingly gratuitous cruelty. Under Putin’s system, he said, such behavior is more likely to be rewarded than censored by the state.

“The system is constructed in such a way that excessive cruelty by an official is rarely punished,” Gozman said. “But excessive sweetness can be. Thus, any given official seeks to show great tenacity.

© 2022 The New York Times Company


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button