St Petersburg, 15 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Alexander Nikitin has been awarded the Goldman Award, one of the most prestigious prizes for environmental activism, for his work on a report criticizing the Russian Northern Fleet's handling of nuclear waste.
Nikitin, a former navy captain, was imprisoned for more than ten months by Russia's Federal Security Service for this work. He was accused of treason and espionage. He was released in December, pending trial on the condition that he not leave St. Petersburg, and was thus not able to leave the country to receive the award. Instead, he had to send his wife, Tatyana Chernova and 18-year-old daughter, Yulia, to receive it for him.
"I never would have tried to flee to the West before trial, Nikitin told the English-language "St. Petersburg Times" Monday. "It would deprive me of clearing my name, but (the FSB) apparently doesn't understand that."
Nikitin's receipt of the Goldman Environmental prize, which carries a $75,000 award, was announced in San Francisco Monday, and promises to focus new international attention on Nikitin's case.
But, FSB spokesman Boris Utkin said international publicity would "have no effect on the process of our investigations."
"So he (Nikitin) won a prize. That's his problem, not ours," said Utkin in remarks reported by "The St. Petersburg Times." "Everything here is going normally, I don't see why the international community would be upset."
Nikitin, a soft-spoken man who displays a remarkable lack of bitterness despite his imprisonment, was philosophical about the irony of being honored abroad yet shunned and harassed by one's own government.
"It is sad that one can be recognized as doing important, crucial work by the rest of the world, while the best one can expect in Russia on an official level is scandal and ten months in prison," Nikitin told the "St. Petersburg Times."
Although the report, published by the Norwegian environmental group Bellona, has been distributed around the world and put on the Internet, FSB agents have confiscated thousands of copies. Moreover, they describe it as "forbidden literature," a phrase reminiscent of the KGB's harassment of Soviet-era dissident writers.
Nikitin said Monday that he plans to use the money to set up a fund for young Russian environmentalists to break the stranglehold the Government holds on ecological research.
"My hope is that environmental work in Russia will someday be
acceptable," Nikitin said. Nikitin also expressed optimism about the future.
"I expect changes for the better in Russia, though, and it is my hope that the younger generation in the Kremlin -- 'a more sober-minded generation' -- will see my case and ecology for the good that it does."
He said he will add to the fund with proceeds from a suit he plans to file against the FSB for wrongful imprisonment and harassment after he is cleared of the charges against him. No trial date has been set.
Nonetheless, Nikitin expected this harassment to increase rather than abate as a result of the prize. "By Wednesday, many papers and the FSB will be saying: 'There, you see? Nikitin, the spy, is getting bankrolled by the West.' Mark my words, they'll report that everywhere," said Nikitin.
Indeed, he said, such harassment had already begun. A number of
documents pertaining to his case, such as press clippings and a summary of the Bellona report, disappeared from his wife's luggage after she left for San Francisco through St. Petersburg's Pulkovo airport last week.
"The suitcase in which (the documents) were packed simply arrived empty," said Nikitin, recounting a telephone conversation with his wife from San Francisco. "Draw your own conclusions."
Chernova had planned to give the documents to U.S. President Bill Clinton at a White House reception for the Goldman prize winners scheduled April 18.
The Goldman Environmental Prize was founded by Richard Goldman, a San Francisco insurance tycoon, in 1989.