MOSCOW -- An environmental activist who has spent years valiantly crusading to discover the truth behind a deadly Soviet-era anthrax accident was badgered so relentlessly and ominously by Russian authorities that he finally broke and agreed to become an informant for them.
In a dramatic public confession yesterday, Sergei Volkov described how he was blackmailed and his family impoverished because of his efforts to expose dark secrets of the Soviet past, in a country where civic activism is often considered tantamount to treason.
"You have to understand, I broke psychologically," he said.
Unrepentant intelligence officers coolly declared yesterday that Volkov might very well be a spy -- but a Swedish one.
Volkov is a mild-mannered man given to long digressions when he talks. He hardly seems like espionage material, but his painstaking investigation of an anthrax outbreak in the city of Sverdlovsk in 1979, where a secret military lab was operating, undeniably riled powerful forces.
"Recruiting Volkov as an agent was not only to get information, but to shut him up, because in this way he would come under their control," said Sergei Grigoryants, an advocate for press freedom.
Even as Volkov was speaking to reporters, President Boris N. Yeltsin was assuring an international gathering of editors at the Kremlin that "Russia has become a full-fledged member of the community of democratic states, a country where the principle of the freedom of the press and information has become established."
Volkov's case puts that principle to the test.
He said he was coerced into cooperating this year and told to find out what he could about foreign correspondents he talked with in Moscow and about participants at a conference on biological warfare in Stockholm, Sweden, that he attended two weeks ago.
His compensation amounted to 200 rubles, or about $37 -- which he placed into an envelope at a news conference yesterday and mailed back to the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB.
His career as an informer was short-lived: By the end of the Stockholm meeting, he had told his Swedish hosts about his work for the spy service. He then laid low in Moscow, surfacing briefly yesterday to tell his story.
The methods used by the security service, as described by Volkov at the news conference and in an article that appeared in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, were classic examples of the way the KGB used to go about its work. That such methods have surfaced again in Russia, seven years after the demise of the Soviet Union, suggests just how entrenched old habits can be.
And the reaction of what is now known as the FSB was reminiscent of the past as well.
A Swedish provocation
In the Krasnodar region, where Volkov lives, a spokesman for the local FSB office said late yesterday that the environmentalist had distorted the facts. Volkov approached the FSB, said Nikolai Panchishkin, not the other way around. Moreover, Panchishkin charged, it was probably a provocation organized by the Swedish intelligence service.
In Stockholm, Annika Soder, the spokeswoman for the Swedish Foreign Ministry, said: "We know very, very little about this." She could neither confirm nor deny any involvement by Swedish intelligence.
Volkov has spent much of the past five years investigating the aftermath of a 1979 accident at a biological weapons laboratory in Sverdlovsk, now renamed Yekaterinburg, in which anthrax was released and hundreds of civilians were killed.
The official death toll stands at 92, but Volkov thinks the number may be closer to 1,000. His interviews with survivors have raised questions about how the anthrax might have been re-engineered in the lab, or perhaps have had another lethal agent
piggy-backed onto it.
Volkov was a resident of the city at the time, but because of his son's poor health, moved to the southern Russian town of Gelendzhik several years ago.
He continued his work on the Sverdlovsk disaster, and in December accompanied a German television crew to the site.
"It was then that my life turned into a complete nightmare," he said.
Volkov was unemployed; as soon as he returned to Gelendzhik his wife was fired. Then the hook was planted.
In January a police officer approached Volkov on the street and asked him as a civilian to witness the search of a man who had been arrested with drugs, as is customary under Russian police procedure. But soon after that, Volkov learned that he was to be interrogated as a material witness in the case. Then two men accosted him, told him they knew he was in a bad way, and that it was a short step from being a witness to being a defendant.
There was one way out, they said: to cooperate in "combating crime."
Volkov was interviewed in Moscow by The Sun in February, and later held a news conference here on the Sverdlovsk incident. When he returned to Gelendzhik, he said yesterday, he found his invalid son collecting empty bottles so that the family might have a few kopecks to live on.
That, he said, is when he broke down. In April he called the men who wanted him to cooperate, learned they were with the Krasnodar region FSB, and soon found himself in their employ, with the code name "Pasechnik."
Spied on German TV crew
They wanted as many details as possible about a German TV crew -- what they had shot film of, whom they had met, what questions they had asked, what kinds of phones they had used.
On May 6, he was taken to a hotel in Gelendzhik where a new agent asked him how much money the Germans had paid him.
When Volkov replied that he had received $1,200 for his research, he was told he could be charged with illegal dealings in hard currency. The alternative was to work for the FSB at the Stockholm meeting, to which he had been invited months earlier.
His handlers wanted him to study the hotel layout, memorize license plate numbers of participants, get to know as many scientists and specialists as he could, and learn who was particularly interested in military issues. And he had to sign a disclaimer saying that he had never had any contact with the FSB (although how that could ever be used against him is not clear, since the FSB kept possession of it).
He was given 200 rubles and told he could have a contract with the FSB depending on the success of his Stockholm mission.
Lev Fyodorov, a chemist also at the meeting, said Volkov seemed particularly nervous.
"Finally, on May 15," Volkov said, "I made up my mind and confessed to my Swedish colleagues."
They suggested that he stay on in Sweden, but he was afraid for his family. "Gelendzhik is a small town. I have no protection there. My family can't survive in this town. I had to come back for them," Volkov said.
When he arrived in Moscow he headed for the Swedish Embassy, where he repeated his tale. He has never called his FSB managers.
Panchishkin, head of the FSB press service in Krasnodar, said he believes that Volkov, whom he described as "weak and impractical," was motivated by money and a desire to increase sales of a book he is writing. Swedish intelligence, he said, recently suffered "some failures" in Russia and Ukraine, and was looking for a way to recoup.
"It was either his initiative or our Swedish colleagues'," said Panchishkin. "But in any case, it became a special act of Swedish intelligence. Now he's working for the money he has got."
Soder, in a telephone interview in Stockholm, confirmed that Volkov had contacted the Swedish Embassy in Moscow. The information he provided, similar to his statements at yesterday's news conference, "will be forwarded to relevant authorities here," she said.
Pub Date: 5/26/98