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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

CONFESSIONS OF A RUSSOPHILE: Nikitin Case a Real Scream




Anyone who has ever seen Edvard Munch's "The Scream" has to wonder how Norway's premier 19th-century artist managed, unbeknownst to himself, to capture the essence of Russia on one small canvas loaded with paint and angst. The ghostly figure in black, wraithlike arms raised to the head, mouth stretched wide in a silent, eternal wail f I feel like that pretty much every time I ride the Moscow metro.


I'm relatively certain that Munch never made it this far east, so he must have been operating on divine inspiration. Little did he know that Russoholics everywhere would adopt his chef-d'oeuvre as their symbol. One of my colleagues used to have an inflatable doll of Munch's howling horror on his desk in our Moscow newsroom.


That's the glory of art: It reaches across decades and national boundaries to illuminate the human condition. It's why I'm so glad that "Beavis and Butthead" is now being shown on Russian television.


Recently I have been rereading Franz Kafka's "The Trial," searching for illumination in the case of Alexander Nikitin, the environmentalist who has been mired in Russia's pathetically misnomered "justice" system for the past three years.


Kafka died in 1924, almost three decades before Nikitin was born, so the chances of the two men having met are fairly minimal. And the philosophical ruminations of a German-speaking Jew living in Prague before World War I should have little to tell us about the tribulations of a Russian scientist trying to help his country avert nuclear catastrophe at the tail end of the 20th century.


But Kafka could have penned his masterpiece sitting at the back of the Supreme Court last week, when three judges ruled that the security organs, who so far have been unable to marshal a case against Nikitin, should be given another chance. Not only does this make a nonsense of the presumption of innocence so nobly enshrined in Russia's Constitution, it defies plain old common sense.


The facts of the case, for those not following it as obsessively as we journalists, are as follows: Nikitin, a retired naval officer, was working for Bellona, a Norwegian environmental organization investigating nuclear disasters-in-the-making in the waters around Murmansk, which happens to be just a few hundred kilometers from Norway. In conjunction with others, he produced a report on the Northern Fleet, which has some pretty sketchy ways of getting rid of spent and damaged nuclear fuel. The report came out in 1994, and most people would agree it painted a grim picture. Nikitin insists that all the material he gave to Bellona came from open sources, and the defense has demonstrated this persuasively in court.


What's more, Russian law requires anyone with information regarding hazards to the health and safety of its citizens to come forward. Nikitin did just that, and was arrested, Bellona's offices were searched and closed, its employees branded as spies, and Nikitin, charged with espionage and treason, went to prison for 10 months to await trial.


Nikitin was eventually released, but the case just keeps dragging on. The plaintiff is the FSB (the KGB with another set of initials, and smelling just as foul). The problem is it couldn't really come up with a charge, since Nikitin broke no laws. So it manufactured some "decrees" which, it seems, are so sensitive that they can't be shown to anyone f not the defendant, his lawyers or the judge. Are you getting that Kafkaesque frisson yet?


Not surprisingly, the FSB could not quite manage to pull it off. They failed to show that Nikitin was guilty of anything except being born Russian. So the judge f this is the good part f told them to go back again and do it right this time. After seeing the entire defense case, hearing all the testimony, the prosecution gets another go. International lawyers contemplate the case with hair standing on end f this is not only double jeopardy, it is triple, quadruple, whatever it takes.


Meanwhile, Nikitin is confined to St. Petersburg. Environmental work has all but ground to a halt, since few are willing to risk the wrath of the FSB. Just to drive the point home, another environmental whistle-blower, Grigory Pasko, rots in jail in Vladivostok on a similar charge.


Of course, nuclear waste is still leaking into the groundwater around Murmansk, and a ship full of damaged fuel rods is in imminent danger of flipping over and causing a steam explosion that would make Chernobyl look like a walk in the park.


Forget Kafka. This is "The Scream" all over again.