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Patriotic Activist Flees Russia After Being Charged With Possessing 'Secret' Maps

For more than 30 years, St. Petersburg resident Anton Kolomitsyn has spent much of his spare time scouring the country for the remains of Soviet soldiers killed during World War II.

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Anton Kolomitsyn is used to receiving official papers. For more than 30 years, he has spent much of his free time tramping the remote corners of Russia looking for the undiscovered remains of Soviet soldiers killed in the area during World War II.

He has an impressive stack of commendations, letters of gratitude, and other tokens of recognition of his efforts.

But early on the morning of January 21, agents of the Federal Security Service (FSB) presented Kolomitsyn with two more official documents: a search warrant and an arrest warrant on charges of possessing state secrets.

"I, of course, know what the FSB is and all their history, but I'd never had any dealings with them before," Kolomitsyn told RFE/RL. "But now one January morning at 7 a.m. I was sleeping a sweet sleep and -- boom! -- they hand me a search warrant. Everything happened politely, officially. They didn't turn out the drawers, but they went through everything.

"They took the computers, the discs, the flash drives," he added. "And they took me to their headquarters on Liteiny [Avenue]."

A few days after that incident, Kolomitsyn fled his homeland. He spoke to RFE/RL from an immigration center in the Netherlands, where he has applied for political asylum.

"I was pretty upset by all that," he recalled. "I have a lot of connections and I consulted with them. They all told me, 'While you are free on your own recognizance, while you still have the chance, gather your stuff and get out.'"

The charges against Kolomitsyn stem from his purchase in May 2018 of a computer disc containing a series of topographic maps of the Karelia region that were compiled by the Soviet Defense Ministry in the 1960s and '70s.

Over his decades as a so-called searcher and a leading member of a volunteer group called Northwest, Kolomitsyn has assembled a vast collection of maps and reference materials that has helped him pinpoint the locations of many wartime skirmishes and engagements.

Over the years, he has participated in expeditions in Siberia, the Urals, the Caucasus, and across central and northwestern Russia.

"Our case itself is secret," said Kolomitsyn's wife, Darya Dedova. "I cannot get access to the case files."
"Our case itself is secret," said Kolomitsyn's wife, Darya Dedova. "I cannot get access to the case files."

"Anton will be the first to tell you that these searches are his entire life," said Kolomitsyn's wife, Darya Dedova, who remains in Russia. "He was raised in a family where his grandfathers were soldiers of the Great Patriotic War and his grandmothers survived the siege of Leningrad. As soon as he was old enough, at the age of 14, he began traveling around Leningrad Oblast with professional members of the searcher movement."

"This wasn't just a matter of working with a pick and a shovel," Dedova said. "He spent huge amounts of time in archives. Every expedition came with enormous preparation. To reconstruct events, he studied all available sources: field reports, maps, German documents that he ordered from American archives.... He had one of the largest collections of maps in the world, without which his expeditions would have been impossible."

A few months after Kolomitsyn made the purchase, in September 2018, officials contacted him and informed him that the maps were considered secret. Kolomitsyn immediately turned over the disc and was told that because he had cooperated, the authorities considered the matter closed.

The maps, apparently, were part of a cache of documents taken from the Defense Ministry in 2008 by then-Colonel Vladimir Lazar. Lazar then allegedly gave the documents to an Estonian citizen named Aleksandr Lesment. Lesment has denied any illegal activity, although the Russian authorities have alleged he was working at the behest of an American spy agency.

"I have a lot of connections and I consulted with them," Kolomitsyn said. "They all told me, 'while you are free on your own recognizance, while you still have the chance, gather your stuff and get out.'"
"I have a lot of connections and I consulted with them," Kolomitsyn said. "They all told me, 'while you are free on your own recognizance, while you still have the chance, gather your stuff and get out.'"

In 2012, Lazar was sentenced to 12 years in prison for espionage in connection with the leak of the maps.

Although the authorities seem to have scrubbed the maps off the Russian Internet, they are easily available for sale on foreign websites, Dedova said.

Kolomitsyn was stunned, then, when the FSB showed up at his door more than a year after he'd been told he was cleared and presented the criminal charges against him, which were punishable by up to four years in prison.

Moreover, he suspects, the FSB was seeking to prove that he had not acted independently but was part of a "gang," that would involve a possible prison term of up to eight years.

"One knowledgeable person told me that the FSB is only interested in working on 'gangs,'" Kolomitsyn said. "When they have a 'gang' case, all the perks and bonuses from the bosses come along."

Why the accusations against Kolomitsyn were revived remains a mystery.

In early 2017, Kolmitsyn discovered high levels of radiation in a string of decaying concrete bunkers built across Karelia in the 1930s as a defensive line against Finland. The so-called Stalin Line bunkers were upgraded in the 1950s and equipped with fluorescent panels coated with radioactive paint.

Abandoned in the 1990s, the bunkers attract hikers, history buffs, children playing soldier, and homeless people. Some of them have been used as the foundations for homes. Others are used to store preserved fruits and vegetables.

Although the Defense Ministry declared the bunkers safe, environmental officials and the state nuclear agency Rosatom undertook a project to decontaminate or close the most dangerous sites after Kolomitsyn and environmental activists sounded the alarm.

Kolomitsyn suspects the FSB might have ulterior reasons for investigating him. During his interrogation in January, he said, the agents told him, "We know a lot about you."

"They said they knew I had participated in demonstrations and that, maybe, I was in contact with 'certain known oppositionists,'" Kolomitsyn said. "Of course, that is not a crime, but it is enough for them to view me as an enemy."

Russia's vague secrecy laws could make them an effective tool against dissent, lawyers say. Maksim Olenichev, a lawyer with the legal-defense organization Team 29, said the law allows state agencies to create their own lists of classified materials and that, often, those lists themselves are considered secret.

"That means that citizens cannot know if there is secret information in any material they might be working with or not," he said. "And the FSB uses this fact."

"Our case itself is secret," said Kolomitsyn's wife. "I cannot get access to the case files."

For now, Kolomitsyn says, he is comfortable in the Dutch immigration center. But he worries that he may be ordered to apply for asylum in Finland because he has a long-term visa to that country.

"I really don't want that to happen," he said. "There are many Russians there and, probably, a lot of security agents. Many of the Russians who live there support [President Vladimir] Putin. People are traveling there all the time and it would be easy to find me there."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting from St. Petersburg by correspondent Tatyana Voltskaya of the North Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service