Fight to release Russian captain brings diverse activists together

It could have been the twilight years of the Cold War, but it was just last month.

Protesters on one side of the street. Russian diplomats on the other.

"Justice for Nikitin. Freedom for Nikitin."

About 40 demonstrators, including members of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal, chanted those protests outside the Russian Consulate at the corner of Green and Baker streets in San Francisco's posh Pacific Heights.

They called for the release of Aleksandr Nikitin, a political prisoner in St. Petersburg.

The embattled Nikitin, a retired naval captain and a nuclear safety expert, provoked the ire of Russian leaders in 1996 when he reported widespread deterioration of aging Soviet nuclear submarines floating in Murmansk Bay.

If the decommissioned fleet is not attended to, and soon, Nikitin warned in his report, nuclear seepage could destroy the bay, the region and world habitats far beyond.

Russian officials were none too pleased with the report, compiled for a Norwegian environmental group. A Russian prosecutor charged Nikitin with treason in the form of espionage — a conviction punishable by life imprisonment. The accidental dissident, 45, was jailed for 10 months while waiting for judicial review, according to reports by BACJRR.

He was freed only when civil rights groups questioned the legal basis for the charges. Those charges remain. So, Nikitin still lives under city arrest in St. Petersburg, where he endures late-night phone threats, slashed tires, glued locks and stakeouts by the Russian secret police.

Desperate, he appeared at the St. Petersburg affiliate of Jewish Rescue and Renewal seeking help, activist Pnina Levermore told the San Francisco protesters.

While Nikitin is not Jewish, the agency recognized his case as an equally serious violation of human rights unheard of since the days of KGB-style intimidation conducted during the former communist regime.

If a Russian non-Jew could be denied basic democratic freedoms guaranteed by the nation's constitution, so too could the many Jews who remain in former-Soviet territories, explained Levermore, president of BACJRR.

And after all, she added, "His cause is Jewish. Environmental degradation and the denial of human rights are Jewish issues.

"All people have the right to speak freely. We consider the plight of Nikitin to represent the threat to all."

Also at the rally were representatives of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, Amnesty International, the Sierra Club, Pen West and Bellona, the Norwegian foundation that hired Nikitin to compile the controversial report.

Russian emigres held signs calling for Nikitin's release. And a spokeswoman from Mayor Brown's office proclaimed June 25 as Aleksandr Nikitin Day in San Francisco.

"Russian [officials] should be embarrassed," the Sierra Club's Stephen Mills told the crowd. "After six months of investigation, they have not substantiated their charges." The Sierra Club became involved to fight censorship of the public forum for discussing biological threat, Mills said.

Dennis Palmieri from Amnesty International, a human rights group, said his membership is building support for Nikitin in 150 countries.

Several Russian emigres in the crowd became upset with signs held by other protesters calling for "mercy" for Nikitin, as if he were a criminal.

"We disagree with those banners which say `forgiveness,'" emigre Igor Barinshteyn said in Russian as an interpreter friend stood by. The Russian government is the only party in the position of asking for forgiveness, he said.

The interpreter, Edward Drapkin, said the rally was his fourth at the Russian Consulate. The former refusenik recalled previous demonstrations for Andrei Sakharov and fellow refuseniks who were not as lucky as he was.

Ironically, those battles were fought to prevent Nikitin's plight.

At rally's end, as the sun broke through the day's cloudy pall, Levermore and others took a petition signed by the protesters across the street to the consulate. Inside, she presented the document to Vice Consul Kirill Mikhailov.

"These are the people who want to send a strong message to your government to free Nikitin," she told him.

"OK," Mikhailov replied quietly and accepted the paper.

The two-minute meeting at the consulate was the second in a week for Levermore. She had talked at length with Mikhailov, the consul general and other Russian officials several days earlier.

In an interview with the Jewish Bulletin, Levermore described the tone of that meeting as somber. The diplomats stuck to the Moscow party line, maintaining that they were enforcing Russian laws.

Several times during the conversation, Levermore said that one or another of the Russians would bristle at her and ask, "Shall we start a Cold War over this?"

Lobbyists for Jewish Rescue and Renewal are promoting Nikitin's cause on Capitol Hill. Levermore said she hopes the effort reaches Vice President Al Gore, who is slated to visit Moscow on a diplomatic mission this month.

In the meantime, local activists continue to spread the word in human rights circles.

"What we are watching," Levermore said, "is a battle to see who wins — democracy or former KGB-style tactics."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.