Will Russian Science Be Stunted by Putin’s Fear of Espionage?

The global collegiality of the scientific and engineering community may come into conflict with the paranoia of Russia’s intelligence establishment

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Davide Monteleone / Contrasto / Redux

Moscow Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in February 2010

Igor Sutyagin, the convicted Russian spy, still has a neat folder with the secrets he allegedly sold to the CIA. In London the other day, when we met at the military think tank where he works, he laid them out for me like tarot cards across a table. They were mostly newspaper clippings, along with copies of Russian military journals, their ink faded and edges worn thin. In the mid-1990s, two Americans paid him to collect such clippings in search of tidbits about the Russian military, and to supplement his tiny academic salary, he was glad to accept the work. But amid the spy craze that has become state policy in Russia, this side job was enough to convict Sutyagin for espionage in 2004. He spent 11 years in prison for it.

To this day, his name is shorthand in Russia’s scientific community for a common warning — a kind of spook story about how even the most straightforward work with foreigners can get you branded a spy. There have been a handful of similar cases over the past decade, but Sutyagin’s was the first and remains the most famous. Staring down at his file of secrets, he sums up his lesson like this: “Think 10 times before working with any foreigners,” he says. “You might end up in prison.”

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But if this warning is heeded by Russia’s scientists, Sutyagin admits that it would amount to a death sentence for their research. (Historically, Russian scientists and engineers have a tremendous record; for example, shaming the U.S. in 1957 by launching Sputnik, the first man-made satellite.) Today, no field of research can thrive without international collaboration, peer review and academic conferences. Yet all these things have been subordinated in Russia to the cause of catching spies — real or imagined. Last month, President Vladimir Putin, himself a former spymaster, signed a law that puts many scientists at risk of committing treason if they so much as “consult” with foreigners on their research. That presents them with a choice: either accept intellectual seclusion or get used to living with the fear of arrest.

Last week, the results of that choice were clear in a study released by the Russian Association for the Advancement of Science, an advisory body to the government. In its 120-page report, it eviscerated the current state of Russia’s scientific institutions as “catastrophic,” with the worst problems facing the most sensitive fields — defense and space technology. “Instead of investigating new developments, the work of Russian scientists is often less concerned with science than with ideology and propaganda,” the document states. Their aim is not to find a breakthrough but to “justify” the technology that is already being used, partly because of “intense pressure from military officials.”

The pressure from Russia’s spy chasers, long raised as a chief concern in the scientific community, was not addressed directly in the report. “Yes, we all know this problem,” says one of the authors of the study, Lidiya Trifomova. “But we could not go into it,” she tells me, explaining that the study was sponsored by the state. Another author, Denis Andreyuk, was more forthright. Counterintelligence agencies have indeed become “like a yoke” for Russian scientists, he says. “As a journalist you’re probably coming at this from a human-rights perspective, in order to put out the fire that’s burning,” he adds. “But it’s too late. The house has burned down.”

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It began burning amid the deprivation of the 1990s, when Russia’s leading research centers, long accustomed to generous state support, were forced to adapt to the laws of the market. My grandfather was the deputy head of a physics institute that produced heat-resistant metals for Soviet spaceships. He was forced to barter its stockpile of alloys for toasters and refrigerators that he then sold on the open market in order to fund research. One of his colleagues, a prominent specialist in thermal physics, made it through those years by selling cigarettes at an outdoor bazaar.

By the time the economy recovered in 1999, Putin had been promoted to head the FSB secret police, and a new worry for scientists emerged. Sutyagin, a military researcher focusing on North America at the Russian Academy of Sciences, was arrested that year in October by seven FSB agents, who came to his apartment just as he was packing for an academic conference in Rome. When they took him to jail to await trial for espionage, his first thought was, “This must be hell.” The crowded cell was so dark that he could only see the glinting teeth of the other inmates. When the door slammed shut behind him, he remembers thinking that they looked like fangs.

Similar cases followed. Valentin Danilov, a noted astrophysicist, was arrested a few months after Sutyagin and charged with espionage. His crime was the construction of a model satellite for a Chinese aerospace firm. The evidence against him was so flimsy that a jury acquitted him of all charges in 2003. But the prosecutors persisted, putting him on trial again the following year. In court, he presented evidence that none of the technology he used in his model satellite was classified — indeed, the Nobel laureate Vitaly Ginzburg noted that it could be found in a physics textbook — but it didn’t help. In 2004, Danilov was sentenced to 14 years in prison. He served eight years in a Siberian labor camp, and last month, he was finally paroled, having lost his teeth and much of his health to malnutrition.

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A week after his release, he appeared gaunt but happy when I spoke to him on Skype. The first thing he did after getting home, he said, was sharpen his kitchen knives, which had grown dull over the years. He took this as a good sign. “It means there were no other men in the house,” Danilov says. The only question that still bothers him about his case is the same one that troubles Sutyagin. “I still want to know what secrets I sold. To this day, no one has ever told me.”

And under the law Putin signed last month, this question will cease to matter. Drafted and proposed by the FSB, which took over for the KGB after the Soviet Union collapsed, the law aims to expand what counts in Russia as espionage and treason. If under the previous law these crimes required that a person with access to state secrets knowingly passed them to a foreign government, the new law is far easier to breach. It does not even require the offender to have access to classified material. You can, for instance, simply read some research about Russian military hardware in a periodical, and in order to be convicted of espionage, you do not even need to share it with a foreign government. You can simply discuss it over lunch with someone from an “international organization,” a term vague enough to include everything from the Red Cross to Oxford University — or, indeed, TIME magazine. By the letter of the law, that could qualify as treason. “It is ridiculously vague,” says Andrei Soldatov, an expert on the Russian secret services. “It will basically create thousands of Sutyagins.”

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Now living in London, Sutyagin is still jittery from his time in the camps and does not like to think about his trial or the lives of his peers back home. He has only one piece of advice for them: “Leave.” In 2010, he got his chance to follow that advice during a spy swap between Russia and the U.S., when the FBI caught a group of 10 Russian agents, including the now famous Anna Chapman, and traded them for four men convicted of spying in Russia. Sutyagin was among them. On the plane to Vienna, where the swap took place, he says the U.S. diplomats asked him not to seek U.S. asylum. “They freed me for humanitarian reasons,” he says. “But they felt no responsibility for me, because I was not an actual spy.” So the next year he settled in London, where a former colleague gave him a research job at RUSI, a think tank connected to the British Defence Ministry.

On the afternoon we met, a cybersecurity conference was being held in its library, and scientists from a dozen countries were in attendance. “We had Syrians here the other day,” he says, a little awed by the openness. Approaching the bookshelf, Sutyagin pulled out a British war journal and opened it to a page showing a Russian cruise missile, the R-77. “During my trial, the name of this thing was one of my secrets,” he says. “Except it had been published in this journal two years before.” Smiling and shaking his head, he speaks in Russian, saying the equivalent of “go figure.”

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