Goldman award awaits Russian whistle-blower

Three years after he was first awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, Russian whistle-blower Aleksandr Nikitin will accept the honor.

Nikitin, who spent almost a year in a Russian jail on trumped-up charges of treason and espionage, will be speaking Thursday and Friday, July 13 and 14 in a private ceremony at U.C. Berkeley as one of the recipients of the $125,000 prize.

The award, established by local Jewish philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman in 1990, is given annually to the world's "frontline eco-champions."

Nikitin will also speak Tuesday, July 11 at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco. The event is sponsored by the S.F.-based Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal, an agency instrumental in securing his release from prison.

"Aleksandr Nikitin's case will go a long way toward determining the fate of the former Soviet Union," said Pnina Levermore, executive director of the BACJRR. "It's a decision that will be studied in the future by Russian lawyers and judges as an indication of where the country went."

A former captain of a nuclear submarine fleet in the Russian navy, Nikitin retired in 1994. Two years later, he collaborated with Bellona, a Norwegian environmental group, to detail the hazards of aging Soviet nuclear submarines floating in Murmansk Bay.

The report cited the potential hazards if the unutilized ships were not promptly attended to, stating that seepage from the sub could infest not only the bay, but extend far beyond into the North Sea.

Nikitin was rewarded for his environmental awareness by being sentenced to jail and stripped of his passport. He also was subjected to extensive legal battles.

In July 1996, after Nikitin had already been jailed for four months, his wife, Tatyana Chernova, made a plea for help to the Harold Light Jewish Center for Human Rights in St. Petersburg.

Although Nikitin is not Jewish, the Harold Light Center, which is the BACJRR's Russian-based presence, deals with egregious cases of human-rights violations.

"This case can really be seen as a Jewish issue," Levermore stated, "because any time the rule of law is challenged in Russia, it affects the security of the Jews."

The BACJRR, in conjunction with the Washington, D.C.-based Union of Councils, worked diligently to ensure that Nikitin's plight remained publicized.

According to Levermore, even after those two groups, along with groups such as the Sierra Club and Amnesty International, were successful in winning his release, Nikitin was still hounded by the Russian government.

The FSB , which is "the successor to the KGB in every way imaginable," according to Levermore, tried eight different times to prosecute Nikitin after his release from prison.

After Nikitin was freed from prison, he was placed under "city-arrest" in St. Petersburg, preventing him from claiming the Goldman Environmental Award, which was then a $75,000 prize. His wife, however, did manage to make the trip and accept the award on his behalf.

Citing the recent arrest and subsequent release of Vladimir Goussinsky, a prominent Russian Jewish media mogul, Levermore said the two cases provide bookend testimonials to Russia's future..

Russian President Vladimir Putin "is still determining which direction he'll take the country in," she said. "The dichotomy facing the Supreme Court of Russia is whether they continue the crackdowns or make landmark decisions like acquitting Nikitin.

"The real question is whither Russia?"