In Putin's Russia, the Arrests Are Spreading Quickly and Widely
The Federal Security Service building in Moscow, August 29, 2018. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)
They came to the intensive care unit because of Dmitry Kolker, a sick physicist. They came because of Ivan Fedotov, a hockey star who left practice with a film crew in tow. They came for Vladimir Mau, the rector of a state university, the week he was re-elected to Gazprom's board of directors.
The message of these high-profile arrests: In Vladimir Putin's Russia, almost everyone is now punishable.
The spate of arrests across the country in recent days has signaled that the Kremlin intends to tighten the noose on Russian society. It appears to be a manifestation of Putin's declaration in the first weeks of his war in Ukraine that Russia needs to purge itself of pro-Western "scum and traitors," and it creates an unmistakable chill.
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"Every day feels like it could be the last," Leonid Gozman, 71, a commentator who remains opposed to Putin and the war, said in a phone interview from Moscow, admitting fears he too could be arrested could.
None of the targets of the recent raid was an outspoken critic of the Kremlin; many of the most vocal anti-Putin opponents who chose to remain in Russia after invading Ukraine, like politicians Ilya Yashin and Vladimir Kara-Murza, were already in prison. But each of the recent raided targets has presented an outward-looking Russia that Putin increasingly describes as an existential threat. And the manner in which they were taken into custody seemed designed to make waves.
Kolker, the physicist, was hospitalized in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk last week for treatment for terminal cancer, so weak he could not eat. The next day, agents from the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor agency to the KGB, arrived, accused him of treason and flew him to a Moscow prison. He died in custody over the weekend.
"The FSB killed my father," his 21-year-old son Maxim wrote in all capital letters on social media, alongside an image of the three-line telegram sent by authorities notifying the family of the death. "They didn't even let our family say goodbye."
Maxim Kolker, who is following in his father's footsteps as a physicist in Novosibirsk, said Dmitry Kolker was known for hiring students to work in his laboratory in order to persuade some budding Russian scientists not to seek work abroad.
Now, he said in a telephone interview, the Kolker family must bring Kolker's body back from Moscow at their own expense.
It was unclear why the FSB targeted Dmitry Kolker, 54, a specialist in quantum optics. State media reported that he was detained on suspicion of leaking secrets abroad. But Kremlin critics say this is part of a widening campaign by the FSB to crack down on freedom of thought in academia. Another Novosibirsk physicist who was also arrested last week on suspicion of treason, Anatoly Maslov, remains in custody.
The arrests came at the same time as the fraud arrest against Mau, a leading Russian economist who is head of a sprawling state university, the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.
Mau, 62, was by no means a public critic of the Kremlin. He, along with more than 300 top academic officials, signed an open letter in March calling Russia's invasion of Ukraine a "necessary decision," and he was re-elected to the board of Russian energy giant Gazprom just last week. But he also had a reputation as what Russian political scholars call a "systemic liberal," someone who worked within Putin's system to try to push it in a more open and pro-Western direction.
As it turned out, his ties to the Kremlin weren't enough to save Mau from a scam involving the rector of another leading university, which critics say was aimed at erasing lingering dissent in Russian academia.
"A great enemy of government and government stability is people with knowledge," said Gozman, who worked with Mau as a government adviser in the 1990s. "The truth is an enemy here."
Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist who taught at the Mau Academy until April, called the institution "the educational center for most of the country's civil bureaucracy" and described his arrest as Russia's top-level law enforcement since 2016. This indicated that, she said Ideological purity has become an increasingly important priority for the Russian authorities, particularly in the field of education.
"In education, it is important that a person actively professes and shares the values that he must instill in the minds of his students," says Schulmann, now a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. "There must be no ambiguous loyalty allowed here."
Putin said so himself. In the March speech in which he railed against the traitors in central Russia, he called out those who physically live in Russia but "in their minds, in their slave-like consciousness" live in the West.
He also increasingly claims that truly patriotic Russians must make a commitment to live and work in Russia. He told an economics conference in St. Petersburg last month that "real, solid success and a sense of dignity and self-respect come only when you tie your future and your children's future to your motherland."
In this context, the news that Fedotov, the goaltender of the Russian national ice hockey team, which was a silver medalist at the Beijing Olympics in February, had signed with the Philadelphia Flyers in May may have been seen as a challenge.
According to Russian media reports, 25-year-old Fedotov, one of the rising stars of the ice hockey world, was planning to leave for the United States later this month.
Instead, on Friday, as he was leaving a training session in St. Petersburg, he was stopped by a group of men, some masked and cloaked, and taken away in a van, according to a TV journalist who was filming a special report on him and saw the Incident.
Fedotov's alleged crime, according to Russian news agencies: evading military service. Russian men under the age of 27 are required to serve one year, although sports stars can usually escape conscription. On Monday, state news agency RIA Novosti reported Fedotov was taken to an unnamed Russian Navy training base.
The lavish imprisonment was widely seen as punishment for choosing to play in the United States rather than stay in Russia. "I wouldn't be surprised if they put him on a submarine and sent him to sea," RIA Novosti quoted a Soviet sports veteran as saying. "He's not going anywhere after that."
For Gozman, the liberal commentator who remains in Moscow, a common thread running through the recent arrests has been their seemingly baseless cruelty. In Putin's system, such behavior is more likely to be rewarded than censored by the state.
"The system is designed in such a way that excessive cruelty by an officer is rarely punished," Gozman said. “But excessive softness can be. Therefore, every official tries to show great tenacity.”
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President of Russia
Vladimir Alexandrovich Mau
Russian ice hockey player
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