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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Physicist Says He's No Spy




After 25 years of working in a scientific laboratory studying radioactivity in the ocean and still considering himself a true communist, physicist Vladimir Soifer has suddenly found himself in the ranks of Russia's persecuted environmentalists.


The Federal Security Service, or FSB, raided his lab and home in Vladivostok, seizing documents and even personal letters from his wife.


The FSB said it suspects Soifer of mishandling classified documents and that his work "poses a threat to the Russian state and its military security."


Soifer, 69, who in recent years has studied the effects of a nuclear accident on a military submarine in Chazhma Bay near Vladivostok, vowed to press on with his work to make information about radioactive contamination public.


In an interview Wednesday in Moscow, Soifer said the FSB search was initiated by the Pacific Fleet.


"They just don't realize whom they are dealing with. I'm one of those mastodons who still believes in communist ideals, not the type of communism we had here, but the real one," Soifer said by telephone.


"It will be impossible for them to do anything with me. I will never leave this country. And they will never be ableto squeeze me out of Russia."


Soifer said he was most offended that anyone thought he could represent a threat to Russia's state and military security.


"All the documents I ever work with are related strictly to ecology," he said.


Soifer and the Pacific Fleet both deny any connections with Grigory Pasko, a navy captain who documented the Pacific Fleet's nuclear dumping practices and is now being tried in Vladivostok on charges of espionage. But the similarities are striking.


Soifer's situation also echoes the case of Alexander Nikitin, a navy officer who was arrested after he co-wrote a 1996 report with the Norwegian environmental group Bellona about the potential threat posed by nuclear submarines abandoned in the Far North.


Soifer wrote a chapter in a book sponsored by Switzerland's Green Cross on Chazhma Bay, which was recently published. Although there are dozens of other authors writing on environmental issues, the FSB confiscated the book among other items, Soifer said.


FSB chief Vladimir Putin was quoted by Komsomolskaya Pravda last week as saying that the intelligence service is planning to keep a close eye on the activities of ecological organizations. "Sadly foreign secret services use not only diplomatic cover but very actively use all sorts of ecological, public and commercial organizations. ... This is why regardless of the pressure from the public and mass media, such organizations will always be the focus of our attention. This is required by the interests of the state," Putin said.


On June 28, four FSB agents and four representatives of the Pacific Oceanographic Institute searched the institute's laboratory for nuclear oceanography, which Soifer set up in 1974 to study nuclear isotopes in the ocean.


Xeroxed copies of classified documents, including Pacific Fleet reports on nuclear radiation, were found on the shelves and in the safe box.


On July 3, FSB agents searched Soifer's home and confiscated his documents and correspondences. The experience, he said, was upsetting.


"They started when I was not even home," he said.


His colleagues highly regard his scientific achievements. They say they were shocked, and they can't think of any real reasons for the search.


"He is a difficult person to work with, very emotional and authoritative, but there is no way he would trade any state secrets," said Anatoly Salyuk, who has worked with Soifer for 15 years.


After the searches, Soifer came to Moscow.


"I am trying my best to get the Russian Academy of Science to appeal to all relevant state organizations with the request to declassify the materials of the Chazhma Bay accident, just like it was done with the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident," Soifer said.


Declassifying information about Chernobyl allowed scientists to conduct invaluable research and work on both the rehabilitation of the contaminated area and the prevention of similar disasters in the future, he said.


The accident in Chazhma Bay took place on Aug. 10, 1985, eight months before the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe. According to Soifer, a spontaneous chain reaction occurred on the Soviet K-431 nuclear submarine when the crew made an error while reloading nuclear fuel. As a result, 10 people died and the bay was contaminated with radioactive materials.


Soifer and his laboratory staff began to work on the site in the 1990s. For years, they had little trouble getting access, but this changed, he said, during the past year, and he has not been allowed to visit the bay himself for sometime.


"Now the research is effectively decapitated," he said. Soifer claims his laboratory has worked out ways to clean up the bottom of the bay.


Soifer acknowledged that he may have mishandled some documents.


"But they are ecology related and thus cannot be made secret," he said. "The officials who try to limit access to such information should be prosecuted for criminal offense."


The Russian Constitution forbids the classification of information related to environmental safety. But military officials point to the overriding consideration of military security, since polluted areas often occur in military zones.


"All the documents with environmental information are open to the public, but according to Soviet army rules, they might still be classified," said Vladimir Goryachev, Soifer's deputy.


Alexander Kazakov, director of the institute's department of classified documents, said it is a violation of regulations to make copies of a classified document, especially if it belongs to other organizations.


"Conditions for the leakage of state secrets have been created; that is why the FSB launched an investigation," Kazakov said.


From the time it was created in 1974, the Pacific Oceanographic Institute was a closed office, since some laboratories did research for nuclear submarines. Supervisors from the KGB regularly came to the office and asked informants to report on unreliable people.


A year ago, the FSB deprived Soifer of official access to classified document but, according to Kazakov, Soifer's office has never been checked before.


Soifer said in the search of his apartment, the FSB confiscated his documents, including his traveling passport, and about 60 personal letters from his wife of almost 50 years. He said the agents can keep his possessions for up to 180 days.


"The interference of [their] dirty hands into my personal life really did hurt me," Soifer said.


He also expressed worry that the local FSB could misuse some of the items they seized.


"I had this videotape, which was empty, ... but where is the guarantee that they will not record something on it to implement me?" Soifer said.


Nonna Chernyakova contributed to this report.