Grigory Pasko: An Encounter with Sergey Kiriyenko

Enemies of the People Everywhere or My Latest Contacts with Rosatom By Grigory Pasko, journalist In today’s Russia, if you voice your opinion, you can easily find yourself categorized as a “slanderer of the existing power” or as someone who, supposedly, is “inflicting harm on the state”. Both of these epithets were recently bestowed upon me – for having authored an article in an Australian newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald, and for taking part in an alternative summit in Sydney on the eve of the recent big APEC gathering there. After I had been in Sydney just one day, one Russian newspaper already published an article in which I was essentially (and not for the first time) categorized among the enemies of the people, critics of Putin’s power, and those who are supposedly inflicting harm on the Russian state for money. And of course, concerning the fact that I, a citizen of my country and a journalist, just might have my own personal views of life, my own personal opinion, and my own personal assessments of any of the rulers of any country whatsoever, the newspaper maintained a cowardly silence.


Sergey Kiriyenko, Rosatom

Flying home to Moscow from the Australian summit, I unexpectedly bumped into Sergey Kiriyenko, the head of Rosatom, on the plane. I came up to him and told him that I’d like to interview him and to visit the decommissioned nuclear submarine reactor core storage facility on the Saida gulf in the north of Russia, as well as to spend some time at the Angarsk Electrolysis Chemical Complex in Siberia, which Russia recently declared to be an exclusively civilian facility and where it intends to build an international centre for the enrichment of uranium (including Australia’s). “No problem”, Mr. Kiriyenko was suspiciously quick to assure me. I told him that in fact, I had already encountered a problem last year – when I had applied in writing to him with a request to grant me an interview and when I had asked for permission to visit certain Rosatom sites. I told Kiriyenko that his press service had deftly diverted all my requests without them ever getting to him. “But I know nothing at all about you having applied to me”, replied the high-ranking Russian official. “I can easily believe that”, said I. Then, Kiriyenko for some reason asked for my business card. I gave it to him. And off he ran, most likely into the first class cabin, from where a flight attendant had called him. Even then, the thought flickered through my mind that this head of an almighty government agency somehow wasn’t acting the way I imagined he ought to. He should have told me to phone him at such and such a number. Or at the very least, he could have called over his press secretary, Sergey Novikov – I’m sure he was sitting someplace nearby – and given him the appropriate instructions and asked him why applications addressed to him don’t reach his desk. Or something along these lines… But instead, he just took my card and walked off. And never called. Not the next day, not in two days… After several days in Moscow, I picked up the phone and called Kiriyenko’s office myself, and asked at what stage the consideration of my previously faxed application addressed to Kiriyeko was (this is the one where I had asked for an interview and about visiting Saida and Angarsk). I was directed to the press service. To Sergey Novikov. Again. Almost right at the start of our conversation, Mr. Novikov announced that he had, of course, read my article in The Sydney Morning Herald about how Australia shouldn’t sell uranium to Russia. Mr. Novikov appraised my opinion – the opinion of a journalist – as inflicting harm on the Russian state. It seemed like any second he’d be calling me an enemy of the people. But he didn’t. At least, not out loud. He restrained himself. And this is why our entire telephone conversation took place with the bias of Mr. Novikov’s attitude towards my article. Oh, and he also said my article “played into the hands of the global conspiracy” that supposedly is trying to keep Russia from taking its rightful place in the world. I asked what century that expression had entered his vocabulary from. He didn’t reply. Instead, he said that there were no facts in my article. “You mean fresh facts?”, I tried to clarify, adding “And where can these be found, if you and those like you want to classify everything in my country as a state secret, and aren’t letting journalists visit your own agency’s facilities in violation of Russian law?” He left the question hanging, unanswered, clearly understanding it to be rhetorical. Then the conversation turned to the facilities I wanted to visit. My fax to Kiriyenko had contained three requests – to interview Kiriyenko himself, and about the possibility of visiting the Saida gulf and Angarsk. Here is how the press secretary of the head of Rosatom responded to a request from a journalist, without even attempting to find out the point of view of his boss, Kiriyenko: “First of all,” he said, “your interview with Kiriyenko will never be!” In response to this I said that he had, after all, granted an interview to the communist writer-patriot, Alexander Prokhanov. “Prokhanov”, said Novikov, “understands the subject matter.” Okay. Turns out, those who criticize the agency don’t “understand”. By the way, here’s an excerpt from that enlightened interview: “PROKHANOV: Sergey Vladilenovich, the country has languished long about development. Foundering about in the catastrophe of the nineties, dreaming of creation… And here, at last, is President Putin’s missive… What is this? Could it be that long-awaited Development? “KIRIYENKO: Alexander Andreyevich, I am absolutely convinced that this is Development.” (For those who haven’t heard or read it, president Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly in the spring of this year was, as always, devoid of substance but full of lofty-sounding phrases and liberally peppered with cold-war rhetoric). “Second,” underscored Mr. Novikov, “you can go to the Saida gulf, we’re not against it, but this is the territory of the Ministry of Defense, and they will never give you permission.” “Third, in Angarsk, because of security considerations, you will never be shown anything, so there’s no need for you to go there. We’ll tell you everything ourselves here in Moscow, and will show you a video film ourselves – if necessary.” I asked this petty clerk what security requirements he was pontificating about, if he himself had insisted in numerous interviews that Angarsk is an open facility. Novikov’s answer was simple and direct – like the steely glance of a chekist: “It’s open for the IAEA, not for the journalist Pasko.” And there you have it, the whole conversation. There’s your openness of Rosatom and of its Kiriyenkos and Novikovs for you. And here I suddenly understood at last something I had already suspected earlier: Kiriyenko is just a figurehead at Rosatom. He doesn’t decide anything there – not whom to grant an interview to, not whom to allow or not allow to visit some site. One can’t help but get the impression that he himself probably needs to get permission before going someplace or saying something. Obviously he hadn’t obtained permission to speak with me on the plane. Which is why he acted naturally, like an ordinary person, and said what he thought. “No problem”, he said. But he was wrong. There is a problem. And it’s not my problem – I’ve been refused countless times in my journalistic career, after all. No, Kiriyenko is the one with the problem, Kiriyenko and all the other people like him. The whole country, Russia, has a problem when it’s the Novikovs, and not laws, that decide who gets to go where and who is inflicting harm on the country. …And speaking of harm, I think that by refusing to allow an independent journalist to visit an open facility which is getting so much public attention in world today, it was Novikov who inflicted harm on Russia. Because now any person in the world can be sure: the Russians are once again duping everybody, saying one thing while, as always, doing something else. Why bother even dealing with such a country?