On August 5, Russian investigators arrested Alexander Shiplyuk, director of the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, on treason charges. He became the third Novosibirsk scientist in a month and a half to be accused of high treason.
At the end of June, Anatoly Maslov, chief researcher at the same institute, and Dmitry Kolker, a researcher at the Institute of Laser Physics, were arrested. Authorities transferred them to a Moscow pre-trial detention center. A few days later, Dmitry Kolker died.
Between 2000 and the end of 2020, more than 30 scientists in Russia have been prosecuted and arrested, Novaya Gazeta estimates. Over the past year and a half, more criminal cases have been reported. Most often, scientists are accused of treason, disclosure of state secrets or gaining illegal access to state secrets.
What has made scientists such an easy target—and why is it happening now? Firstly, the wording of the article on treason can potentially cover almost any scientific work. Anything can be a state secret, but even this is not necessary because treason means “providing […] consultations or other assistance to a foreign state, international or foreign organization or their representatives in activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation.” Could a scientific report on air pollution in Siberia threaten the state security? The court will decide!
With the mass emigration of political activists and independent journalists, there is no one else to persecute, and no one has canceled the arrest plan. Thus, the scientists who remained in Russia became a target.
And when ostentatious loyalty is valued far above professionalism, the scientific community has missed the chance to line up along party lines. Academicians of the Russian Academy of Sciences supported the “special operation” too sluggishly, and part of the scientific community across the country generally openly opposed the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine. The Russian government's logic requires punishing those who disagree, even if the victims usually are random people.
Finally, by 2022, scientists have become one of the most defenseless classes in the country. Even their trade union, the Russian Academy of Sciences, prefers to remain silent. On the website of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, you won’t find statements of support for arrested colleagues.
So it turns out that arrested scientists have to rely only on the help of relatives, journalists, and members of informal scientific clubs. Often, such support is insufficient to get a person out of prison.
Scientists are not just another victim of the state. It is they who, with their research, lay the foundation for future technological revolutions. They create knowledge that changes our understanding of the universe. Scientists find solutions to the problems facing humanity. Therefore, their arrests are repressions against the future.
Elia Kabanov is a science writer covering the past, present and future of technology (@metkere)
Illustration: Elia Kabanov feat. MidJourney.
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