They came for Dmitry Kolker, an ailing physicist, in the intensive care ward. They came for Ivan Fedotov, a hockey star, as he was leaving practice with a film crew in tow. They came for Vladimir Mau, a state university rector, the week he was reelected to the board of Gazprom.
The message sent by these high-profile detentions: Nearly anyone is now punishable in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The flurry of arrests across the country in recent days has signaled that the Kremlin is intent on tightening the noose around Russian society even further. It appears to be a manifestation of Putin’s declaration in the early weeks of his war in Ukraine that Russia needed to cleanse itself of pro-Western “scum and traitors,” and it is creating an unmistakable chill.
“Every day feels like it could be the last,” Leonid Gozman, 71, a commentator who continues to speak out against Putin and the war, said in a phone interview from Moscow, acknowledging the fear that he, too, could be arrested.
None of the targets of the recent crackdown was an outspoken Kremlin critic; many of the loudest Putin opponents who chose to stay in Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, like politicians Ilya Yashin and Vladimir Kara-Murza, were already in jail. But each of the recent crackdown targets represented an outward-looking Russia that Putin increasingly describes as an existential threat. And the ways they were taken into custody appeared designed to make waves.
Kolker, the physicist, entered the hospital in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk last week for treatment for late-stage cancer, so weak that he was unable to eat. The next day, agents for the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, arrived and, accusing him of treason, flew him to a Moscow jail. Over the weekend, he died in custody.
“The FSB killed my father,” his son Maxim, 21, wrote in all capitals on social media alongside an image of the three-line telegram sent by the authorities to notify 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 had been known for hiring students to work in his laboratory, helping persuade some budding Russian scientists not to seek work abroad.
Now, he said in a phone interview, the family has to return Kolker’s body from Moscow at their own cost.
It was unclear why the FSB targeted Dmitry Kolker, 54, a specialist in quantum optics. State media reported that he had been jailed on suspicion of passing secrets abroad. But critics of the Kremlin say it is part of a widening campaign by the FSB to crack down on freedom of thought in the academic world. Another Novosibirsk physicist who was also arrested on suspicion of treason last week, Anatoly Maslov, remains in custody.
The arrests came at the same time as the arrest on fraud charges of Mau, a leading Russian economist who is the head of a sprawling state university, the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.
Mau, 62, was in no way a public critic of the Kremlin. He had joined more than 300 senior academic officials in signing a March open letter calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “necessary decision,” and he was reelected to the board of Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, just last week. But he also had a reputation as what scholars of Russian politics call a “systemic liberal,” someone who was working within Putin’s system to try to nudge it in a more open and pro-Western direction.
His Kremlin ties were not enough, it turned out, to save Mau from a fraud case that has already ensnared the rector of another leading university and that critics said appeared designed to snuff out remaining pockets of dissent in Russian academia.
“A big enemy of the government and the stability of the government are people who carry knowledge,” said Gozman, who worked with Mau as a government adviser in the 1990s. “Truth is an enemy here.”
Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist who taught at Mau’s academy until April, called the institution “the educational hub for most of the country’s civic bureaucracy” and described his arrest as Russia’s highest-level criminal prosecution since 2016. It indicated, she said, that ideological purity was becoming an ever more important priority for Russian authorities, especially in education.
“In education, it is important that a person actively profess and share the values that he has to implant in the heads of his students,” said Schulmann, now a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. “Here, ambiguous loyalty may not be permitted.”
Putin has said as much himself. In the speech in March in which he railed about the traitors in Russia’s midst, he called out those who physically reside in Russia but live in the West “in their thoughts, in their slave-like consciousness.”
He is also increasingly asserting that truly patriotic Russians must be committed to living and working in Russia. He told an economic conference in St. Petersburg last month that “real, solid success and a feeling of dignity and self-respect only occurs when you tie your future and your children’s future to your Motherland.”
In that context, the news that Fedotov, the goalie of Russia’s silver-medal national hockey team at the Beijing Olympics in February, signed a contract in May with the Philadelphia Flyers was likely to have been seen as a challenge.
Fedotov, 25, one the hockey world’s up-and-coming stars, was planning to leave for the United States this month, according to Russian media reports.
Instead, on Friday, as he was leaving a practice session in St. Petersburg, he was stopped by a group of men, some in masks and camouflage, and taken away in a van, according to a television journalist who was filming a special report about him and saw the incident.
Fedotov’s alleged crime, according to Russian news agencies: evading military service. Russian men under 27 are required to serve for one year, although sports stars are typically able to avoid conscription. On Monday, the RIA Novosti state news agency reported that Fedotov had been taken to an unnamed Russian navy training base.
The elaborate detention was widely perceived as punishment for his having chosen to play in the United States rather than stay in Russia. “I won’t be surprised if they put him on some submarine and send him out to sea,” RIA Novosti quoted a Soviet sports veteran as saying. “He won’t go anywhere after that.”
To Gozman, the liberal commentator who remains in Moscow, a common thread running through the recent arrests was their seemingly gratuitous cruelty. In Putin’s system, he said, such behavior is more likely to be rewarded than censured by the state.
“The system is built in such a way that excessive cruelty by an official is rarely punished,” Gozman said. “But excessive softness can be. So any given official seeks to exhibit great toughness.”
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