Staunton, March 1 – As part of the effort the Kremlin began in 2012 to close Russia off from the West, the FSB has launched a campaign to arrest and imprison those who have purchased USSR-era topographic maps that the Soviet defense ministry had classified as secret but that have been freely available for sale since 1991.
In Soviet times, maps and especially topographic maps were among the most sensitive products of the military establishment given that its officers acted on the assumption that foreign intelligence services would value them as they laid their plans to plot uprisings within the USSR or to invade the country.
Virtually all maps produced by the Soviet defense ministry were classified secret, including many that had they appeared in other country would not have been restricted in any way. But with the demise of the USSR, these maps were sold freely – there were even special stores that dealt in them – and with the rise of the Internet they became widely available.
On the one hand, Russians and others could purchase them online, either from Russian outlets or foreign ones; and on the other, the digital revolution meant that many of these maps were available in electronic formats which made them easier to acquire and make use of for tourism, searches, or research.
The original classification notation was seldom removed; but it was seldom respected either. Most saw this as a “survival of the Soviet past” that could be safely ignored. And for more than two decades after 1991, they were right to do so. But now the situation has changed, and the FSB has decided to go after the owners of these maps.
The powers that be seem to be motivated by two things: a desire to cut Russia off from the rest of the world by playing up the idea that the country is “a besieged fortress” surrounded by enemies just waiting to invade and a calculation that such arrests will put them in good stead with the powers that be and lead to promotion and other forms of preferment.
Just how far this has gone is highlighted in a remarkable article by Tatyana Voltskaya for the SeverReal portal about the case of one Russian who acquired these maps to help find graves of those lost in Russia’s wars and has now been forced to flee abroad and seek asylum lest he be sent to a Russian prison for four years (severreal.org/a/30459964.html).
Anton Kolomitsyn, an explorer who often helped find the graves of Soviet soldiers and the victims of Stalin’s crimes, admits that he has put together one of the largest private libraries of Soviet topographic maps around, something critical to the exploration of areas where there are few roads or other ways to orient oneself.
He has been honored for his work, but beginning two years ago, the FSB began a case against him because of 50-year-old military topographic maps of the Kola peninsula that were in his possession. First, they asked him simply to give up the maps, which he had no basis to know where in fact classified. Then, they came back and wanted to arrest him and send him to jail for four years.
Kolomitsyn is now living in a refugee camp in the Netherlands and is waiting for a decision on asylum, and he says he is very afraid that the Dutch will send him to Finland rather than grant him asylum in their country. That could represent a real danger for him because there are so many Russians and Russian agents in Finland.
He remains nonplussed by what is happening because in his view, “even if there is something important in these maps, they are all the same available in the West,” making the launching of cases against Russians who have them absurd. But the FSB and the Kremlin have their own reasons for taking such actions.