Too smart for their own good

Russia is waging a war against its own scientists: special services are searching for traitors among prominent and elderly physicists. Not all of them live to hear the verdict

Too smart for their own good

Anatoly Maslov, physicist, expert on viscous gas dynamics. Photo:

This is Anatoly Maslov, an experimental physicist. He celebrated his 76th birthday in a Moscow pre-trial jail. Now he is in a St. Petersburg detention centre waiting for the trial. He can be sentenced to up to 20 years.

This is Valery Mitko, Arctic researcher and hydroacoustics specialist. He had spent two years under house arrest before dying of a heart attack and not living to hear his verdict — which was also likely to be 20 years behind bars.

This is Alexey Vorobyov, a specialist in rocket engines. He is only 46 but has already received his 20-year sentence. This is Viktor Kudryavtsev, a leading specialist at the research facility of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos. He is no longer with us. He was the oldest prisoner of Moscow’s Lefortovo jail. After a year and a half there, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The investigators let him go on his recognisance so he could live out the last days of his life at home, where he died. The man never admitted guilt.

This is Dmitry Kolker, a one-of-a-kind specialist in quantum optics. He is gone now, too. After his arrest, he spent several hours in jail and died at the nearest hospital. He had stage 4 cancer and could not eat by himself. But the court ruled that he was fit enough go to jail.

This is Valery Golubkin. He is not doing too well either. Recently, he celebrated his 70th birthday in jail, where he has been for the last two years, waiting for his verdict.

Many of them were department heads and research advisors, got published in scientific journals, held seminars and lectures abroad, made scientific discoveries, and got prizes and awards before their arrest. They all are different. Loyal to the system and not so loyal, old and young, liberal and conservative. But they all have one thing in common in today’s Russia: they are scientists who have been accused of treason. And the main beneficiary of their imprisonment is the Federal Security Service (FSB), which deprives them not only of their freedom and ability to work, but sometimes of their lives.

There were reports of another arrest of a Russian scientist last week. He is an elderly aerodynamics scientist from Novosibirsk, Valery Zvegintsev. In the past year, three more of his colleagues have been arrested in the region. Novaya-Europe has collected what is known about them and other Russian scientists arrested in the last five years.

A document of the epoch

On 15 May, the website of the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences published an unusual letter addressed to “the authorities of the Russian Federation, teams of scientific and industrial organisations, the professional research community, and all concerned citizens of our country”. The letter can be considered a document of the epoch.

The institute’s staff reported the arrest of their third scientist in a year — Valery Zvegintsev, the founder of the Laboratory of Large Velocity Aero-Gas Dynamics, who is well over 70. 

The elderly scientist was placed under house arrest in April. Earlier, in the summer of 2022, the FSB arrested two of his colleagues on suspicion of treason: chief researcher Anatoly Maslov and director of the institution Alexander Shiplyuk.

Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, Siberian Branch, Russian Academy of Sciences. Photo: Wikimedia

Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, Siberian Branch, Russian Academy of Sciences. Photo: Wikimedia

As usual, everything has been classified: from the case materials to the nature of the charges. The only thing that is known is that the law enforcers were interested in Valery Zvegintsev because he had allegedly published an article in an Iranian journal. He allegedly divulged state secrets in this article about gas dynamics. Meanwhile, Zvegintsev’s colleagues note that his articles, as well as scientific publications by Maslov and Shiplyuk, have been checked multiple times for classified data, and nothing has been found.

The authors of the letter do not believe Zvegintsev, Maslov and Shiplyuk are guilty and call the arrested men “outstanding aerodynamics scientists,” who educated a large number of students and created their own school of research:

“With their competence and professional reputation, they could have found highly paid and prestigious jobs abroad, but they did not leave their homeland, dedicating their lives to the service of Russian science.”

‘We are afraid.’ The cases of Maslov and Shiplyuk

Anatoly Maslov, 76, was detained on the morning of 28 June 2022. FSB officers allowed him to call his son and inform him without any details of what had happened. The man was then transported to a Moscow pre-trial jail. His lawyer was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Therefore, it is not clear what exactly the scientist is accused of.

Anatoly Maslov. Photo:

Anatoly Maslov. Photo:

According to colleagues and relatives, Maslov was a lifelong researcher of aero-gas dynamics. He wrote several textbooks, collaborated with colleagues from China, the USA, and Germany, and published his research in foreign journals. As his son told journalists, Maslov was repeatedly offered permanent employment from foreign organisations but always refused.

The scientist has many chronic illnesses, including problems with his cardiovascular system. Maslov’s condition worsened last autumn due to the stress of being in the pre-trial detention centre. According to his sons, on one occasion he had to receive emergency treatment for signs of a heart attack. Meanwhile, the prison staff failed to provide him with proper medical care and necessary medication. The scientist’s family also complained that they were not allowed to send him warm clothes.

Maslov was held in the pre-trial jail until at least February 2023, when he was transferred to a detention centre in St. Petersburg.

It is where the criminal case against him will be heard — behind closed doors, which is par for the course in high treason cases.

Alexander Shiplyuk, Director of IMPA, Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Photo:

Alexander Shiplyuk, Director of IMPA, Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Photo:

Maslov’s and Zvegintsev’s boss, 55-year-old Alexander Shiplyuk, Director of the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics at the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, has also been in detention for a year. He is considered one of Russia’s leading specialists in the development of hypersonic missiles. The article he is charged with is the same — high treason. What exactly he is accused of is unknown.

In the open letter in defence of Maslov, Shiplyuk and Zvegintsev, their colleagues focus on the scientists’ publications, which are increasingly becoming the cause of criminal cases against their authors:

“We don’t just fear for the fate of our colleagues. We don’t understand how to do our job anymore. On the one hand, the main indicator of the quality of our work <…> is the extent to which our results are presented to the scientific community, including scientific publications and presentations at conferences. On the other hand, we see that any article or report can lead to accusations of treason. What we are rewarded for today and made an example of to others, tomorrow becomes a reason for criminal prosecution. In this situation, it is practically impossible for our Institute — the only academic organisation in the country with an extensive base for experimental and numerical aerodynamic research — to work. The lack of publications and presentations at conferences is not just a failure to fulfil the organisation’s state assignment, it is the reason for the precipitous drop in the level of research, the latter being the prerequisite for maintaining and growing which is based on active scientific communication.”

Shiplyuk’s lawyers and relatives have not been in touch with journalists. He, like Maslov, was escorted from Novosibirsk by plane to the Lefortovo detention centre in Moscow in the summer of 2022. Thus, Valery Zvegintsev is currently the only Siberian scientist who has been placed under house arrest at the request of the investigation. This may be linked to last year’s tragic outcome of the treason case against another Novosibirsk scientist, 54-year-old Dmitry Kolker.

The death of scientist Kolker: police get away scot-free

Dmitry Kolker was the head of the Quantum Optical Technologies Laboratory at Novosibirsk State University. He was a specialist in laser physics, nonlinear optics and spectroscopy: in particular, he developed gas analysers for unmanned aerial vehicles. He gave lectures at Novosibirsk State Technical University. In the summer of 2022, Kolker was accused of divulging state secrets by reading lectures in China.

Dmitry Kolker during a lecture on laser physics in Guiyang, China. Photo from Dmitry Kolker’s VK page

Dmitry Kolker during a lecture on laser physics in Guiyang, China. Photo from Dmitry Kolker’s VK page

The accusations came despite the fact that the scientist’s reports were checked for state secrets and approved, his lawyers and relatives say. What is more, he gave the lectures in China in the presence of an FSB officer.

Kolker’s wife recalls that in the summer of 2021, her husband was approached by an investigator, demanding that he sign an expert report to frame another scientist, but Kolker refused. A year later, they came for him.

By then, the man had been diagnosed with the last stage of pancreatic cancer. Kolker had been undergoing treatment for a long time; he completed several courses of chemotherapy, but they did not help. By the time of his arrest, he was no longer able to feed himself and was on strong painkillers. However, on 30 June 2022, FSB officers detained him at a private clinic in Novosibirsk, took him to court and then transported him to a detention centre in Moscow.

On the night of 2 July, Kolker died in a hospital near the pre-trial detention centre, where he was urgently transported a few hours after the transit. After his death, it turned out that the judge in his case had ignored the medical certificates provided by Kolker’s doctors. She ruled to arrest the scientist on the basis of a certificate which said that Kolker had a “prostate disease” (when in fact, he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer). Besides, the certificate did not say a word about the fact that the patient had a terminal diagnosis (terminal patients cannot be held at a pre-trial facility).

Dmitry Kolker in his apartment before his hospitalisation, 29 June 2022. Photo by Alina Mironova (daughter of Dmitry Kolker)

Dmitry Kolker in his apartment before his hospitalisation, 29 June 2022. Photo by Alina Mironova (daughter of Dmitry Kolker)

The lawyers filed a complaint with the Russian Investigative Committee regarding the unlawful arrest of the gravely ill scientist, however, it was dismissed. None of the law enforcers apologised to the scientist’s family.

Small spontaneous rallies in Kolker’s memory were held in Novosibirsk for several days, but they were dispersed by the police.

The family transported the body of the scientist from Moscow back to Novosibirsk at their own expense. Kolker’s children started collecting money for the transportation and funeral.

Imprisoned scientists in Moscow

Unlike their Siberian counterparts, the scientific community in Moscow and St. Petersburg is not as brave, despite the fact that in the last five years, more and more researchers have been put behind bars here. But there have been no public letters in defence of those arrested, and certainly no spontaneous rallies. Some of the arrested scientists are fired from the institutes almost immediately — no need to wait for the verdict.

This is what happened to Alexey Vorobyov, Associate Professor at the Rocket Propulsion Department of the Moscow Aviation Institute, the same man whose criminal case was based on “Chinese dust” on the memory card in his smartphone.

In 2021, the Moscow City Court sentenced Vorobyov to 20 years in a high-security prison.

Alexey and his wife Svetlana with their daughter Varya. Photo from the family archives

Alexey and his wife Svetlana with their daughter Varya. Photo from the family archives

The scientist was accused of state treason after his thesis abstract on the digital modelling of a liquid rocket engine was seized during a search. Vorobyov had taken pictures of the document to work on it at home in violation of the rules of procedure, but this cannot be qualified as a crime, the defence said. However, according to the unclassified part of the verdict, an examination by the Institute of Forensic Science of the FSB’s Special Technology Centre found particles of dust from China on the memory card of Vorobyov’s phone, where the photo of the abstract he edited was stored.

Based on this, the investigation concluded that in November 2018, while the scientist was in China, he decided to hand over state secret information to an employee of Harbin Polytechnic University. The defence stressed that the investigation had not established the beneficiary, the time of the transfer, or even if the transfer had taken place. Meanwhile, the abstract refers to scientific papers on the RD-0146 engine, which are in the public domain.

The scientist earned extra money by selecting and mailing various spare parts. The case against him emerged after a user of a specialised forum asked him to send a remote control for a Su military aircraft to China. The Federal Technical and Export Control Service does not consider this remote control to be a military product. The defence believes Vorobyov was the victim of an FSB provocation.

MAI management hastily dismissed Vorobyov and his wife, an MAI lecturer, although no charges were brought against her. The woman was left unemployed with a three-year-old child in her care.

The main building of Harbin Polytechnic University. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The main building of Harbin Polytechnic University. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

After Novaya Gazeta published an article about Alexey Vorobyev, the MAI press service took the time to notify the newspaper that this employee no longer worked for them.

Today, Aleksey Vorobyov is 46. He is serving his sentence in a high-security colony in the town of Morshansk in the Tambov region.

Imprisonments in space

Over the past five years, researchers with ties to Russia’s space agency Roscosmos have borne the brunt of the arrests in Moscow. The most high-profile case is that of physicist Victor Kudryavtsev, a legendary researcher of the TsNIImash (Research Institute of Mechanical Engineering). At the beginning of the 00s, he was in charge of a joint research project with Belgian scientists, approved by President Putin. As coordinator of the Russian team, he sent progress reports to his foreign colleagues. An investigation would accuse him years later of passing on state secrets about the use of hypersonic technology in several missile systems to the Von Karman Institute of Hydrodynamics in Brussels that TsNIImash collaborated with.

Viktor Kudryavtsev. Photo: Wikimedia

Viktor Kudryavtsev. Photo: Wikimedia

Information obtained from Kudryavtsev, the investigation believed, could be used in the development of new weapons. He was arrested in the summer of 2018. The scientist spent a year and a half in the Lefortovo pre-trial jail, becoming the oldest detainee in the facility at the time. Kudryavtsev himself pleaded not guilty to the crime, with his defence claiming that the physicist had not had access to classified information for more than 20 years.

The Belgian institute said in a statement that the joint project contained no classified materials. Only TsNIImash remained silent. While in custody, the scientist developed diabetes and was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. However, the court continued to extend his arrest at the request of the investigation. Only the media campaign in support of Kudryavtsev by human rights activists, journalists and scientists (notably the President of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Alexander Sergeyev) helped to secure his release. In September 2019, he was released on his recognisance, and the criminal investigation against him was suspended. The scientist passed away in the spring of 2021.

Earlier, Sergey Meshcheryakov, an employee of the same institute, and Roman Kovalyov, a student of Kudryavtsev, had been charged in the treason case. The latter made a deal with the investigation, incriminated his mentor and received seven years in prison.

The case of physicists Golubkin and Gubanov

Valery Golubkin, a Professor at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) and an employee of the Zhukovsky Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI), is one of the most famous specialists in the field of hypersonics. Investigators saw treason in the fact that Golubkin took part in an official international project to create a high-speed passenger jet HEXAFLY-INT. The project’s aim was to build a hydrogen-powered aircraft that would travel at faster speeds. For example, flying from Tokyo to Brussels in two hours. TsAGI signed a contract with a European institute, which stipulated that both parties have to send each other progress reports. Golubkin was tasked with writing, editing, and sending out these reports.

The defence pointed out that the scientist had not interacted with any secret documents.

Yet, the investigator ignored both this fact and the fact that before the reports were sent, two committees confirmed that there was no confidential information in the reports.

Even before his arrest, Golubkin had been diagnosed with stage 3 cancer and had undergone successful surgery and chemotherapy courses. He has been in Lefortovo for two years and recently celebrated his 70th birthday there. He is now facing a closed-doors trial and a 20-year prison sentence. The researcher has pleaded not guilty.

Valery Golubkin. Photo from the family archive

Valery Golubkin. Photo from the family archive

…Golubkin’s boss Anatoliy Gubanov was arrested a few months earlier. He also combined teaching at MIPT with scientific work at TsAGI. And he also dealt with topics related to supersonic and hypersonic aircraft. By the time of his arrest, he had worked at TsAGI for over 40 years and was the author of patents for various inventions. Like Golubkin, the FSB accused Gubanov of passing on classified information to a European country as part of an international project to develop a hypersonic civil aircraft. He too had suffered from cancer (lymphoma) several years earlier; by the time of his arrest, it was in remission. Following his arrest, Gubanov partially pleaded guilty to treason and testified against Golubkin.

Today, Gubanov is 66 years old. He has not yet received his sentence.

Neither MIPT nor TsAGI have publicly supported their arrested colleagues. It was only on the student-led VK page of the Institute of Aeromechanics and Flying Technology at MIPT that a fundraiser to cover Anatoly Gubanov’s legal expenses was once announced.

The case of the polar explorer Mitko

In 2020, Valery Mitko, a 79-year-old Arctic explorer, a unique specialist in hydroacoustics, was detained in St. Petersburg. He was accused of treason because he gave several lectures at Dalian University in China. His lecture was based on open-source data.

The persecution of the elderly scientist (he pleaded not guilty) lasted more than two years, which he spent under house arrest, completely prohibited from leaving his small flat near St. Petersburg. Despite a heart condition, three heart attacks, five stents in his coronary vessels and his age, the court has forbidden Mitko from going outside. Such restrictions were imposed at the request of the investigation.

Valery Mitko, President of the Arctic Academy of Sciences and head of the Naval Academy’s hydroacoustics department

Valery Mitko, President of the Arctic Academy of Sciences and head of the Naval Academy’s hydroacoustics department

The lawyers have repeatedly asked for a medical examination of the scientist to suspend the proceedings or allow him to take short walks near his home, at least. But to no avail. “The air comes indirectly to you through the window and the balcony,” prosecutors told the scientist in court when the preventive measure was extended.

Nor was he allowed to visit the Arctic Academy of Sciences, which he headed.

He only got the chance to leave the house and breathe some fresh air three times in 24 months: twice to get surgery, and once when he was hospitalised after a medical emergency.

He passed away in the autumn of 2022. According to his lawyers, Mitko, who served in the Pacific Fleet throughout the 60s as head of radio engineering on a nuclear submarine and was promoted to first-rank captain, had been so insulted by the accusation of treason that he simply could not bear it.

The court dismissed the criminal case against him after he died. The researcher’s family did not get back the laptop and other equipment seized from Mitko during the search — the state confiscated it. His personal belongings clearly made the state richer.

“...Research organisations and their employees need a clear, law-based understanding of where the boundary lies between work for the good of the Motherland and treason... These issues, in our opinion, need to be addressed urgently, otherwise, it will be impossible to prevent a catastrophe... and to prevent the damage caused to Russian science in general!.. The most frightening thing in this situation is the way this environment affects younger scientists. Even now the best students are refusing to come to work for us and our best young staff are leaving the field... They realise that this can affect any research discipline, pushing them away from scientific work. Without a steady inflow of young people, research schools cannot exist... We can now see the signs of a repeat of what happened in the 1990s. Russian science may not survive a second blow of this kind.”

These are excerpts from the open letter written by staff members of the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, whose three scientists were arrested last year. This institution is the only one today in Russia that has publicly, officially and loudly raised the topic of the repression of scientists.

Every other institution has remained silent.

Editor in chief — Kirill Martynov. Terms of use. Privacy policy.