[№ 21 / 05-1992]
Index on Censorship

The case of two honest Chekists

When empires fall apart, new tyrannies rise from the rubble

It might seem that the events of August 1991 demolished not only the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) but also the 'military wing of the party' which served it for 70 years - the Committee for State Security (KGB).

The ail-Union structures of the committee were abolished within days of the unsuccessful putsch. However, one fact escaped the public's attention: district-level administrations moved almost unchanged into the structure of the Russian KGB. Soon after the putsch, the chairman of the USSR KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, now an inmate in the Matros-skaya prison, took an active part in setting this up.

Perestroika, even if it was conceived in the bowels of the Lubyanka prison, represented a real danger to the KGB. Even among the employees of this institution, there were people who naively believed in the slogan 'openness and democratisation' and in the possibility of reforming the organs of the KGB from within.

The first alarm bells, sounding to the former Chekist (KGB) generals like thunder from a clear sky, began with a letter to the Supreme Soviet signed by 64 members of the Sverdlovsk district KGB administration.* Published in November 1990 in the central press, the letter called for a fundamental reorganisation of the KGB organs which were seen as a threat to the democratic restructuring of society.

The leadership of the Sverdlovsk KGB administration responded with a feeble form letter in the local newspaper. But early in 1991, the administration began to sense the force of the movement for the removal of its members from the ranks of the time-honoured CPSU. The generals became alarmed and understood that the time had come. The straw that broke the camel's back was the publication in Komsomokkaya pravda, the organ of the Communist Youth League, and other journals, of the minutes of a meeting of Sverdlovsk KGB members which included the following: 'Of the total number of People's Deputies, 20% are schizophrenics and 30% are former criminals. How is it possible to combine work in the Cheka with depoliticised men?'

Subsequent events developed swiftly and according to a well-planned scenario. Two corrupt officials were soon exposed in the ranks of the KGB. Naturally, they were among those who had signed the letter. It was said that they had betrayed their position and failed to fulfil their duty.

The military prosecutor's office immediately opened a criminal case against Major Sergei Baklanov and Captain Evgenii Stepanov. Within a few days, prosecutor Stanislav Khudyakov had presided over a meeting in the administration, to disgrace the two. They were then arrested and placed in solitary confinement.

All this took place several months before the August putsch; events then seemed to confirm the innocence of the Chekists who had signed the appeal to the Supreme Soviet. Nevertheless, another four months passed before Captain Stepanov and Major Baklanov were freed from prison with an undertaking that they would not leave the country.

At the beginning of September, Baklanov's wife, Irina, concluded an agreement with the Yekaterinburg attorney Sergei Kotov for the defence of her husband. For three months the Sverdlovsk garrison military prosecutor's office denied Kotov access to the record of Baklanov's interrogation and accusation. They also refused the defence lawyer a meeting with his client.

At this time, Irina Baklanov says, heavy psychological pressure was placed on her and her children. On the day before her first meeting with her husband (the only one in five months), Oleg Yakovlev, the investigator for the Sverdlovsk garrison military prosecutor's office, persistently advised her to persuade Baklanov to confess. When Baklanov refused, his meeting with his wife was cancelled.

In the middle of October, Sergei Baklanov smuggled a press statement from prison. It revealed the real reasons for his arrest:

The situation came to a head in October or November last year, when a group of democratically-inclined officers formed within the USSR KGB administration. They saw in the structure of the State Security Committee a manifest danger for the democratic reforms slowly taking place in our society. We saw that the structures of the Committee for State Security were dangerous for the continued growth of the democratic movement in Russia and the Soviet Union.

Therefore, the decision was taken to make an open appeal to the Supreme Soviet for the structure of the State Security Committee to be radically reorientated, and for the old cadres within the general command, those who had established themselves in the top brass and relentlessly formulated policy to hamper democratic reforms, to be removed.

After the publication of this statement in the press, asserts Baklanov, the 64 officers who had signed the appeal were branded as traitors, not only of the interests of the KGB, but also of the Motherland. The officers were assured their deeds would not go unpunished. Baklanov writes:

Several men were invited to the KGB board, which at that time was headed by Kryuchkov, where this attitude was confirmed. The conclusion was drawn that the entire letter was made up of lies about the Committee, which ostensibly had restructured itself in the spirit of the new reforms. Further, it was concluded that the letter had been written because of the corrupt atmosphere which had developed in the Sverdlovsk administration.

From roughly February to March, a movement to leave the ranks of the Communist Party had started to grow within our administration. Several colleagues did not see the sense in belonging to the Party any more, but it was explained that membership ofthe Party was necessary for service in the KGB.

The minutes of the meeting at which five men left the ranks of the CPSU were published in the newspaper Komso-molskaya pravda, after which the charges were brought literally two weeks later.

Baklanov's statement ended with the affirmation that he had been arrested on political grounds and that he was a prisoner.

Defence lawyer Kotov reached the same conclusion. In the middle of November, the military prosecutor's office was compelled to allow him access to the material on Sergei Baklanov's investigation. Before this, the KGB required the lawyer to sign a pledge in which he was instructed not to divulge the material, 'not to visit foreign embassies, consulates and governments' and 'not to meet nor have contact, personally or through intermediaries, with foreigners. The document also prohibited Sergei Kotov from leaving the country for an unspecified period. On 18 November, the lawyer addressed a petition to the Sverdlovsk garrison military prosecutor's office in which he expressed the conviction that the charges against Baklanov were based on dubious and unreliable evidence and could not be proved in a court of law.

At the same time,' writes Sergei Kotov, 'in the course of Baklanov's interrogation, and also from the material of the investigation, it is evident that items of a very secret nature were touched on; information was set forth which contained state secrets which, if leaked, could not only undermine the international prestige of the government, but also bring about results which are difficult to foresee.

After the virtual break-up of the all-Union structures and the abolition of the Chief Military Prosecutor's Office, the investigators were in an embarrassing position. This probably prompted the Sverdlovsk garrison military prosecutor's office 'rigorously to follow the letter of the law' and exactly six months after their arrest, Yevgenii Stepanov and Sergei Baklanov were released from custody.

However, the situation changed even more dramatically after the signing of the Minsk agreement which created the Commonwealth of Independent States. This virtually abolished all-Union structures on Russian territory. Defence lawyer Kotov directed a statement in relation to these circumstances to Sergei Kovalev, chairman of the USSR Supreme Soviet's Committee on Human Rights, in which he pointed out:

The USSR has annulled its own existence; the only real powers on the territory of the Russian Republic (RSFSR) are the Russian structures. A situation has arisen in which the organs of the military prosecutor's office in the localities have been left without central leadership. The solution consists in the immediate subordination of the organs of the military prosecutor's office to the RSFSR prosecutor, and of the military tribunals to the RSFSR Supreme Court.

In a conversation after his release, Sergei Baklanov said that many honest people serve in the structure of the organs of the KGB, people prepared to work according to democratic principles. But, Baklanov holds, the structure of the State Security Committee was designed from the beginning to be repressive, and is, therefore, incapable of reform. The former Chekist speaks out for the complete break-up of the KGB system and the formation on its technical base of new, non-political structures, engaged only in intelligence and counter-intelligence in the interests of the state, not of any party.

The fate of the two 'honest Chekists' who trusted the call to democracy of their devious generals, many of whom were involved in the attempted coup, remains uncertain. A closed military tribunal - with the press absent from the court room - is pending.

Translated by Charles King