MOSCOW—President Vladimir Putin promoted science as a path to restoring Russia’s military and economic place in the world—he has also jailed a lot of scientists.
More than 30 academics, including specialists who spent decades on strategically important research, have been prosecuted for espionage in the Putin era. The list of scientific “traitors,” accused of passing classified information to unfriendly foreign parties, grew longer when investigators of Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, arrested and accused a 62-year-old expert on aerodynamics, Anatoly Gubanov, of high treason.
Lawyers acting on behalf of these maligned scientists say their clients face trumped up charges for simply doing their jobs and collaborating with fellow scientists across borders. Some argue that FSB agents, who stand to be rewarded for catching “traitors,” have found an easy route to career advancement in the paranoid world of Putin’s Russia.
According to an online library of scientific work, Gubanov was working on a joint project with the European Union called Hexafly-INT. It is a collaborative project intended to pool international knowledge to help develop a supersonic civilian jet. Russian law enforcement says he shared too much.
The FSB locked the arrested aerodynamicist in Moscow’s high-security Lefortovo prison. Neither independent prison observers nor Gubanov’s attorneys have been able to see the scientist. “These first few days before the charges are the most tricky, the FSB is most probably threatening to arrest our client’s beloved children and other family members, who also work in the same field as Gubanov. We face a brick wall, the FSB do not let us in to see our client,” his lawyer, Olga Didze, told The Daily Beast. “This is a tough case, since the Lefortovo court is just fulfilling FSB orders; but we have appealed the arrest of my client who has cancer and is especially vulnerable during the pandemic.”
Before his arrest, Gubanov worked as deputy head of the aircraft and rocket department at the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute or TsAGI, a century-old scientific center that designs airplanes and missiles. The institute brags on its website about working with research and development centers in Europe and the U.S.
The scientist met his future wife, Anna Shkadova, at the institute where he started working in 1979; their three children also work at TsAGI. “If only Gubanov wanted to escape Russia, being a specialist of such high level he could have been successful in any country but he stayed because he is a real patriot of Russia,” Didze told The Daily Beast.
Every few months, news surfaces of the FSB going after another scientist. Russian authorities have been tightening security measures to control state secrets in the military, international politics, foreign intelligence, and economics. The FSB regulates what information gets classified and is applying an increasingly broad interpretation of what could damage national security. Several senior scientists researching fluid dynamics, aerodynamics, and submarine detection methods have been investigated since 2018.
An ocean researcher, Ernst Cherny, has been advocating on behalf of persecuted scientists for 15 years. His group, the Committee to Protect Scientists, includes members of the Russian Academy of Science. His idea was to bring as many voices together as possible. They write letters in support of arrested scientists, addressing them to the Kremlin or to President Putin. “Old experienced academics are easy targets for the FSB, who open a case after case simply to get stars on their epaulets—the prize for catching an old academic spy,” Cherny told The Daily Beast. “But we know too well that most of these charges are false accusations. The FSB sees every scientist cooperating with foreigners as a potential traitor, while scientists involved in international projects focus on the results of their research.”
It emerged on Monday night that while the authorities were concerning themselves with intellectual property theft, criminals were stealing real hardware—secretive radio gear from an IL-80 plane, which is designed to carry the country’s leaders and military commanders in the event of nuclear war. REN TV reported that the thieves breached security in the city of Taganrog where the plane was being repaired and stole vital equipment from the so-called “Doomsday plane.”
Ivan Pavlov leads a group of lawyers and journalists called Team-29, another group defending targeted scientists accused of high treason or espionage. “The FSB has tested persecutions against scientists and now there is a conveyer belt; we have a new case every few months,” Pavlov told The Daily Beast.
Six men in civilian clothes grabbed one of Pavlov’s clients, the president of the Russian Arctic Academy, Valery Mitko, 78, early one morning in June and interrogated him at the so-called Big House, the FSB headquarters in St. Petersburg.
Mitko was charged with high treason. The investigators accused him of passing classified submarine detection methods to Chinese intelligence on his trip to China, where the professor had visited the Dalian University in Liaoning province. “This is a very dangerous trend,” said Pavlov. “By accusing leading journalists like Ivan Safronov or a well-respected scientist like Gubanov, the FSB discredits the entire field, the reputation of Russia.”