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The Mikhail Lennikov Story

lennikov060309.jpgToday a former KGB spy, living in Canada since 1997, has taken refuge inside a church in Vancouver in a desperate move to avoid deportation of himself and his family.  The Canadian authorities are seeking to send Mikhail Lennikov, his wife Irina, and 17-year-old son Dmitri, back to Russia for having engaged in acts of espionage and subversion against democratic governments under the Soviet Union (though Lennikov insists that he was a low level translator).  To wit, a Federal Court rejected pleas from Lennikov’s lawyers to suspend this deportation.

Lennikov has rallied a staggering amount of political support, which may not be surprising for Canada given the country’s traditionally forgiving stance toward refugees.  Over the past six months, the Lennikov case has become a media sensation in Canada, though unfortunately this has very little to do with the family at this point, as the deportation proceedings have become a battleground between the Conservatives and Liberals and a mishmash of cultural politics and memes on Russia.


The Lennikov cause has for the most part been a flag hoisted by the opposition Liberal party, with some 24 members of parliament signing a petition to keep the family in CanadaMore often than not, those supporting Lennikov quickly moved from defending his asylum case to using the occasion as a platform to attack Prime Minister Stephen Harper.  One blogger has suggested that President Harper, who he says displays “paranoia” over all things Russia, is working behind the scenes to push the Lennikov family deportation as a way of discrediting his opponent, the Liberal party leader Michael Ignatieff, whose father was Russian.  (However, anyone familiar with Ignatieff’s writings, which are quite good in my opinion, would understand that he is anything but an apologist for the USSR or the Putinite regime).

On the other side of the aisle, Canada has a very large population of Ukranian emigres, many of them members of the Conservative Party, who throughout the decades under Soviet rule escaped the grasp and persecution of KGB agents like Lennikov.  Some of these people aren’t comfortable having such an individual in their mists, and seem to be encouraging this deportation proceeding. 

To generate sympathy to halt the deportation, Lennikov and his supporters have painted an ominous picture of the punishment and violence that would await them upon return to Russia, arguing that because he retired from the KGB, that he would be made a target of political persecution.  His son, Dmitri, would also be “obligated” for drafting to the Russian military.  A sympathetic segment aired on the CBC last December showed footage of brutal hazings contrasted with the gentle daily life of Lennikov’s son.

Though independent of Lennikov’s case to stay in Canada, this portrayal is misleading in several respects.  The CBC is certainly correct in its description of the brutal hazings which occur inside the Russian military (see HRW), but unless young Dmitri were to become an a youth movement leader like Oleg Kozlovsky, who was illegally and forcefully conscripted to the army, it is more than likely he could easily avoid the draft.  Under Russian law, one need only be a full-time student at a University.  Beyond Russian law, one need only throw a bribe toward the right official – which is why very few middle- or upper-class Russian young men end up having to serve.

Furthermore, the argument that Lennikov would be branded as a “traitor” and subject to political persecution seems to be stretched.  He has no record of engaging in any political activities for or against the current government of Russia, and has never divulged very much information about his former job as a spy (unlike Comrade J and Kalugin, who would indeed be considered as enemies of the state by the siloviki).  Lennikov is not a journalist or dissident or challenger to the status quo in Russia, and his claim that he would face violence from the authorities diminishes the claims of many, many others.

The Canadian judge wasn’t buying it either, finding that claims of persecution in Russia are not well founded, and nor is the separation suffering claim:  “There is no evidence before the court on which I can find that thedistress, depression and anxiety that Dmitri and Irina will suffer, onthe balance of probabilities, will be significantly greater or of adifferent quality than the distress, depression and anxiety everyfamily member experiences with the removal of a husband and father.

From a humanitarian perspective, there is no reason to oppose the Lennikovs’ request to stay living in Canada – even if their bid to stay the deportation proceedings are misleading.  The Canadian government of course has the option of extending compassion to this family and staying the deportation proceedings.  It is also difficult to understand why the court is hanging on so firmly to this legal technicality in this case (is it just bureaucrats making a point over those who lie on visa applications?).  Certainly there is some confusion over what this move means for Canadian-Russian relations, which were already rocky over the Arctic claims and bombers flying off the coast – though the Lennikov stuff pre-dates the expulsion of two Canadian NATO ministers by Russia.  Russia, as far as I know, has completely ignored the case.

Like so many news sensations involving Russians abroad, many people seem to be falling down on either side of the story for the wrong reasons, whether it is to take a shot at Harper, or join in on the mudslinging over the alleged horrors of Russia, past and/or present.  Sure, political persecution and repression of freedoms exists in Russia, though not necessarily for former members of the system.  Sadly, the family is being used as a vehicle for various people’s views on Canadian politics and the Russian government, which makes for a distorted and disappointing misapprehension. 

Evidently, memories of the Cold War and Russia’s KGB past remain fresh in the minds of many who escaped the Soviet Union to take refuge in the free world.  Let’s hope that the family can stay where they want to live, even if the Russia they would theoretically be returning isn’t as hostile to its former spooks as it is to its journalists.

Image: Former KGB employee Mikhail Lennikov, who is scheduled to be deportedto Russia on Wednesday, June 3, 2009, poses for a photograph on TuesdayJune 2, 2009 in the room where he will sleep after taking refuge in theFirst Lutheran Church where he sought refuge in Vancouver, BritishColumbia, Canada. Nearly two dozen MPs are asking the federalgovernment to halt the deportation of a former KGB employee back toRussia. (AP Photo)