Old Habits

Russia’s security service is acting more and more like its Soviet predecessor when it comes to harassing journalists and media outlets.

Fellows Spring 2004

By Nathan Hodge

June 02, 2009

Aleksandr Podrabinek sits in his cramped office in central Moscow. A small bank of computer equipment hums against a nearby wall. This is where he runs Prima News (http://www.prima-news.ru), an online news site that focuses on human rights.

With his black turtleneck sweater, neatly trimmed beard, and thinning hair, the 50-year-old looks dressed for a poetry reading. He puts some water on for tea, lights a cigarette, and produces the Xerox copy of a single, handwritten page – a police report signed by Junior Sgt. S.E. Budrevich.

According to the report, on December 29, 2003, Sergeant Budrevich, who was guarding a police checkpoint outside Moscow, stopped a vehicle as part of an operation dubbed “Anti-Terror Whirlwind.” The vehicle contained 4,376 copies of a book, titled FSB Vzryvaet Rossiyu (The FSB Blows up Russia, which was published in English as Blowing up Russia: Terror from Within), by émigré historian Yuri Felshtinsky and former FSB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko. Prima had ordered the books from Giness, a company based in the northwestern Russian city of Pskov. Podrabinek, who has posted the book’s complete text on Prima’s Web site, had planned to sell copies to other Russian book distributors.

In the report, Budrevich wrote that “copies of a publication were discovered that in our view contained a hidden political agenda.” He immediately altered the FSB – Russia’s state security service, the successor to the KGB – which promptly seized the entire shipment of books.

Unlike the KGB, the FSB is not supposed to be in the business of seizing critical literature. But increasingly, the agency is making it clear – to Russian and foreign journalists alike – that certain topics are off-limits. And this is not an isolated incident. In fact, many journalists and human rights advocates in Russia see a worrying trend of FSB interference, and although there’s no sign of it yet, they fear that this could lead to a revival of old habits of self-censorship among the press.

Among the taboo topics, says Leonid Velekhov, deputy editor of the investigative monthly Sovershenno Sekretno, is a bomb scare that gripped Russia in the fall of 1999 – and this is precisely what the book was about. Based on contemporary press accounts, official documents, and insider knowledge, Blowing up Russia centers around a conspiracy theory that the FSB was involved in a string of bombing attacks that leveled apartment buildings across Russia, and that these bombings, which Russian authorities blamed on Chechen separatists, were used to galvanize public support for the invasion of Chechnya, a region that had enjoyed de facto independence from Moscow following the humiliating withdrawal of Russian forces in 1996.

The book is all the more damning for two reasons. First, its co-author, Litvinenko, a former FSB agent, was convicted in absentia by a Russian court in June 2002 of abuse of office and now lives in exile in the United Kingdom. And second, as is pointed out in the book, at the time of the bombings, Vladimir Putin, who was head of the FSB, had just been chosen in August 1999 to serve as Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister. Four moths later, Yeltsin resigned, making Putin president and allowing him to ride to power on a get-tough-with-Chechnya campaign.

On January 28, 2004, one moth after the books were confiscated, Podrabinek was summoned to Lefortovo Prison in Moscow for about two hours of questioning by the FSB about his contract with Giness. During the interview, Podrabinek, who says he refused to answer any questions, tried to find out why the books had been taken. He says the FSB told him that, in the summer of 2003, a criminal investigation had been opened over the divulging of state secrets in Blowing up Russia, as well as in another book by Litvinenko. No individual, however, had been charged.

“They said they were at the time no suspects in the case,” Podrabinek recounts. “Which was funny, because the authors of the books were well known.” In fact, excerpts from the book were available in Russia and had been published in the August 27, 2001, issue of Novaya Gazeta, a respected political weekly.

The FSB did not return requests for comment.

Podrabinek is no stranger to a public fight with authorities. During the Soviet era, he was imprisoned and exiled for dissident activities, including publishing a samizdat book documenting the abuse of Soviet psychiatry (published in the West under the title Punitive Medicine). In 1978, he was convicted of anti-Soviet activities and sentenced to five years’ exile in northeastern Siberia. In 1980, he was sentenced to an additional three-and-a-half years in a prison camp for the same offense after several of his articles were published abroad.

After his release and subsequent “rehabilitation” under the glasnostera amnesty of political prisoners, Podrabinek continued writing and publishing. In 1987, he founded Ekspres Khronika (Express Chronicle), a crusading weekly newspaper that focused on human rights and social issues.

Ekspres Khronika folded in 2000 for financial reasons, and since then, Podrabinek has been working on Prima News and running a book kiosk in Moscow’s Pushkin Square. But this latest incident with the FSB has him concerned. “It wouldn’t have been illegal if it was based on some court order,” he says. “But in order to get that court decision you need some kind of legal basis. And there isn’t one in this case. They’re doing it just like they did in Soviet times: The KGB shows up and takes away the books, simple as that.”

But it’s not just books that the FSB is going after. In October 2003, a group of human rights organizations, including the Moscow Helsinki Group, the Russian PEN Center, and the Andrei Sakharov Museum, organized a Chechen film festival, following similar ones that had been held in the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom. But on the eve of the festival that was to take place in Moscow, the manager of Kino Center na Presne, where the event was to occur, informed the organizers that they would not be able to show the films. One of the movies, a French documentary titled “The Assassination of Russia,” focused on one of the apartment bombings; others investigated the FSB’s role in the Chechen war.

Yuri Samodurov, director of the Andrei Sakharov Museum, says he has no direct evidence that the FSB pressured the theater manager to pull out, but he surmises that the agency may have acted behind the scenes. “My hypothesis is based on my discussions with Kino Center, insofar as when I asked them what films they had an objection to, they named the ones that had to do with the affairs of the FSB,” says Samodurov.

Three months later, on January 29, 2004, FSB agents raided the offices of the muckraking weekly Versiya and confiscated the remaining copies of a September 2003 issue of the newspaper that contained an article about the technical specifications of a new class of submarine, one of which was supposedly operating near the nuclear submarine Kursk when it sank in August 2000, much to the embarrassment of the Putin administration. According to the statement of an unnamed FSB official, quoted by the news agency RIA-Novosti, the issue was confiscated because it allegedly disclosed state secrets. However, Andrey Soldatov, Versiya’s national security editor, has said that the article was based on publicly available information.

Leaning back in his chair among the shelves that are overflowing with books and papers, Podrabinek contemplates the fact that his book shipment remains in FSB custody. Asked what he thinks will happen with them, he shrugs, “What’ll happen tomorrow? No one knows…. If everything here were done on the basis of law, then we would be able to say.”

He says he believes that the FSB launched the criminal case as an excuse to further intimidate those who cover the FSB’s activities, but that officials won’t bring it to trial.

Nonetheless, he definitely sees a worrying trend of FSB harassment and wonders about the future of press freedom in Russia. “There’s no official censorship,” he says. “None at all. But that internal censor lives on inside each editor, who remembers Soviet times and knows that if he doesn’t do what he’s supposed to, then they can put him away.”

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