Last month, Dmitry Kolker, 54, director of the Laboratory of Quantum Optics at Novosibirsk State University, was dealing with late-stage pancreatic cancer. But on 30 Junе, agents with Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) removed him from a cancer clinic, flew him to Moscow, and detained him on charges of treason. By 2 July, he was dead. His family learned of his fate via a curt telegram.
Kolker’s colleagues at the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) expressed outrage. A group of RAS members signed an open letter protesting FSB’s handling of the case and called for “those guilty of our colleague’s death to be held accountable.” Kolker’s family told local media he was accused of leaking state secrets to China. But the RAS group posted a photo of an expert report from an RAS institute concluding that optics lectures Kolker gave in China in 2018 included no classified information.
The case is far from unusual. Three days before Kolker’s arrest, FSB arrested another researcher in Siberia, Anatoly Maslov, 75, an aerodynamicist at the Khristianovich Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, who now faces up to 20 years in prison on treason charges. A 2020 investigation from independent Moscow newspaper
found that more than 30 scientists had been accused of treason since 2000. Like Maslov, many worked on hypersonics, a research area at the center of a
new arms race
Scientists are “prime targets” for FSB because they have access to sensitive information and often travel to conferences and meet with foreign colleagues, says Ivan Pavlov, a defense lawyer for opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s foundation and several treason suspects who fled Russia himself after being detained by FSB. He says the arrests are driven by perverse incentives at FSB, where agents are eager to supply “enemies of the state” in return for bonuses and promotions.
Eugene Chudnovsky, a physicist at Lehman College and co-chair of the Committee of Concerned Scientists, believes the prosecutions may also be “an intimidation tactic” directed at scientists more deeply involved in sensitive research, which the Russian government is careful not to disrupt too much.
Pavlov says the criteria for classifying information as state secrets are purposefully vague, with all details themselves classified, so it is easy to manufacture an accusation. Victor Kudryavtsev, an aerospace engineer who collaborated with European researchers on a hypersonics project, was arrested in 2018 even though a military review panel had previously approved the work; FSB classified the work 5 years after the project ended.
The relationship between scientists and the Russian security services has long been fraught, says David Holloway, a historian of the Soviet nuclear program at Stanford University. In the Soviet era, “There was certainly an incentive to find guilty people and targets to be met,” he says. “If you are not arresting people, you aren’t doing your job.” But during the Cold War, prominent scientists could leverage their usefulness in the nuclear weapons program to gain some protection with party bosses. “The physicists were somehow protected by the bomb, they were needed.”
The post-Soviet security services are still driven by performance quotas, but they are also “populated by officials who are trying to build their careers or make money through the cases they pursue,” says Brian Taylor, a political scientist at Syracuse University who studies FSB.
Alexander Fedulov, Kolker’s lawyer, says the family intends to fight to clear the physicist’s name. Yaroslav Kudryavtsev, a polymer scientist and Viktor’s son, also kept up efforts to vindicate his father in court, even after he died in 2021 while under court-mandated travel restrictions. But the family gave up this year, after the Ukraine war began and Russia passed laws to end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.
For Chudnovsky, the futility of seeking an acquittal in Russian courts sets these cases apart from the China Initiative in the United States, a controversial law enforcement campaign launched in 2018 to prevent China from stealing U.S.-funded technologies. Still, Pavlov’s team has managed to secure pardons and shorter prison terms for several defendants. “In today’s Russia, freedom is much more valuable than any available justice,” he says.
Private and public support from the scientific community was vital to Victor Kudryavtsev and his family, but ultimately could not do much to protect the scientist, his son says. Boris Altshuler, a theoretical physicist and human rights activist at RAS’s P.N. Lebedev Physical Institute, says that in Soviet times, international pressure from researchers could sometimes bring the security apparatus to heel. “Now, I’m not sure whether the man at the top would listen.”
At home, public displays of support have become scarce since the beginning of the war in Ukraine and a government crackdown on protests and dissent. RAS President Alexander Sergeev, who just a few years ago publicly called for Victor Kudryavtsev to be released from jail, has remained quiet about Kolker and Maslov. In a June speech, he told colleagues to stop “insulting the state” with antiwar declarations.
In Akademgorodok, the enclave of Novosibirsk research institutes where Kolker and Maslov worked, short-lived memorials and graffiti about them keep popping up despite police efforts. At the edge of a forest, a note of protest was taped on top of an official tick warning. It read, “Kolker and Maslov are victims of Moscow occupants, Siberia is not a colony.”
Olga Dobrovidova is a science journalist in Paris who does climate communications work.