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Russia: An Interview With Activist Alexander Nikitin

St. Petersburg, 5 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - One year ago tomorrow retired navy captain Alexander Nikitin heard a knock on his door that would change his life forever.

On that day, February 6, 1996, the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia's successor to the Soviet KGB, requested that Nikitin come in for questioning, promising he would return home in a few hours.

"I remember that day very clearly," Nikitin said in a RFE/RL invterview this week. "They did not have an arrest warrant and they were unsure of themselves because of this. They told (his wife) that I would be back in about two hours."

The FSB officers waited in the stairwell of the apartment building while he washed and ate breakfast. When he walked out the door of his two-room flat, he took about 40,000 rubles and his drivers license. "I didn't even take my passport," he said. But when Nikitin got in the gray government-issue Volga that was waiting outside for him, it was the last time he would see his home for ten months.

Nikitin served 23 years in the Soviet Navy. He rose to the rank of captain. But his title was meaningless to the FSB. The FSB was questioning Nikitin about his role as co-author of a report published by the Norwegian environmental organization Bellona critical of the Russian Navy's North Sea Fleet's handling of nuclear waste.

The same day they brought him in for questioning, the FSB arrested and accused the retired captain of spying and espionage. But they did not charge him with a crime until September 1996. Nikitin would have to wait until December 1996 for the Russian prosecutor's office to admit that "mistakes had been made" in his case.

Nikitin was released December 14, 1996, on his own recognizance by order of the Russian Federal Prosecutor, Yury Skuratov, pending the disposition of his case.

In a candid interview at his apartment with RFE/RL's St Petersburg correspondent, Nikitin reflected on the events and on the current environmental and political situation in his country.

Nikitin says, upon arrival at FSB headquarters, he was shown a document accusing him of spying and espionage. Fifteen minutes later, he was shown an arrest warrant.

"It was then that I understood that a serious game had begun," Nikitin said.

Nikitin was not locked up immediately. Instead, FSB officers questioned him and attempted to get him to agree to use the services of their own hand-picked lawyer, a request he steadfastly refused. After being questioned for seven hours without a break, Nikitin was put in a cell.

"They took my watch and my documents and gave me a mattress," he said.

But, for a man who spent ten months in prison, Nikitin shows a remarkable lack of bitterness. He is soft-spoken and answers questions in a measured and thoughtful manner.

"The way the FSB thinks about environmental issues is exactly the way the Soviet KGB thought of human rights. They consider it an internal affair," said Nikitin. "Of course the FSB needs secrets, it gives them more work to do, it allows them to show their importance," he said. "They want everything to be secret, just like in the USSR."

Nikitin said Russia is still moving with the "inertia of a closed society." "They simply haven't woken up to the danger of the situation yet," he said.

Nikitin is careful to distinguish between what he calls "real secrets," which are legitimately related to national security, and what people in the Soviet Union derisively referred to as "the secrets of street-sweepers." One of the main lessons Nikitin said that he has learned in the past year is the nature of the Russian security services.

"Earlier I never imagined of the KGB or the FSB as such an anti-human system," he said. "They don't answer to anybody, this is very dangerous for society and earlier I didn't think this."

Nikitin and his wife, Tatyana Chernova, proudly showed bags filled with letters of support from people all over the world, including Norway, Germany, France, Canada and the United States.

"I really think that people abroad worry about Sasha's [Nikitin] situation more than our Russians do," said Chernova, who stood by Nikitin throughout the entire ordeal and was instrumental in attracting attention in Russia and abroad to the case.

"She was a one-woman human rights organization," said American journalist Charles Digges, who has covered the affair from the start for the English-language newspaper "The St Petersburg Times."

"She has a backbone of steel."

Chernova, however, is quick to give credit for her husband's release elsewhere.

"Largely thanks to you (the foreign press), Sasha is home now, thank God. But a year after it started it is still not over," Chernova said, adding that the FSB is still holding his passport and drivers license, preventing him from visiting relatives in his native Lviv, Ukraine, or his daughter Yulya who is living and studying in Norway.

"His relatives call and cry and ask why Sasha can't visit them in Ukraine," Chernova said. "They are old and it is difficult and expensive for them to travel here to see him."