The Case of the Explosion on the Underground, March 1979 (52.1)

<<No 52 : 1 March 1979>>

On 8 January 1977 an explosion occurred in a Moscow underground train. The authorities immediately tried to link this act of terrorism with dissident activity (see CCE 44.15). On 31 January 1979 the following report was published:

In the Supreme Court of the USSR.

The Judicial Board for Criminal Cases of the Supreme Court of the USSR has examined in open session the criminal case against the specially dangerous recidivist S. S. Zatikyan and his two accomplices, charged with causing an explosion in January 1977 in a carriage of the Moscow underground, as a consequence of which there were human victims. In the course of the court examination the guilt of the accused was fully proven by witnesses’ testimony, by the report of a commission of experts and by other case materials. Zatikyan and his accomplices were sentenced to the highest measure of punishment — the death penalty. The sentence was carried out.

The three men who were convicted and executed were Stepan Zatikyan, Akop Stepanyan and Zaven Bagdasaryan.

The convicted men

Stepan Zatikyan (b. 1946) finished school with a gold medal and was admitted to the Yerevan Polytechnic Institute. In 1968 fifth-year student Zatikyan was arrested as an active participant of a group publishing the underground newspaper The Beacon (Paros), This was the group out of which grew the National United Party of Armenia — the NUP.

Zatikyan was charged with “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” and sentenced to four years of strict-regime camp. He served his term at first in the Mordovian camps and then in Vladimir Prison, to which he was transferred for protesting against the tyranny of the camp administration (see CCE 25.10 and CCE 27.12).

After he had served his time and been released Zatikyan was placed under administrative surveillance. His most recent job was in a Yerevan electronics factory assembling transformers. He did not take part in civic activity, judging emigration to be the most sensible way out for himself and for other Armenian ex-prisoners.

In 1975 Zatikyan sent a statement to the Supreme Soviet in which he renounced Soviet citizenship and asked to be given the chance to leave for any non-socialist country. He posted his passport together with the statement. Zatikyan did not receive an answer, but his passport was sent to the KGB. Zatikyan was summoned to the KGB but refused to go. His passport was sent to the police, who summoned Zatikyan’s wife. The passport was given back to her.

In September 1977 (a month and a half before his last arrest) Zatikyan was taken to the KGB, who talked to him for about 12 hours, but made no mention of sabotage, explosions or acts of terrorism.

In 1975 Zatikyan married P. Airikyan’s sister. They have two children — a daughter (b. 1976) and a son (b. 1977).

The Chronicle does not have information about the other two condemned men. It knows only that Akop Stepanyan (b. 1949) and Zaven Bagdasaryan (b. 1954?) were related, and that both were workers; Stepanyan worked as a welder in city building maintenance and lived in the same neighbourhood as Zatikyan.

Arrest and investigation

Stepanyan and Bagdasaryan were arrested at the end of October 1977. On 27 October Stepanyan was seen for the last time at home; on 30 October his flat was searched. During the search Zatikyan happened to drop in. It is known that nothing criminal was discovered.

Zatikyan was arrested on November 3. Rumours immediately started circulating that all three were suspected of attempting to cause an explosion at the Kursk Station in Moscow (see CCE 48.8).

At the search of Zatikyan’s home which took place on the day of his arrest, the following items were removed: three switches, three booklet maps of the Moscow underground, three bulbs for a pocket torch, a plan for switching on some kind of electrical circuit, drawn by hand, some small hunting shot, several hunting cartridges, pieces of cardboard with circles cut out, bolts and screws. A few days later a second search was conducted, but nothing was confiscated.

Simultaneously with the arrests of Zatikyan, Stepanyan and Bagdas¬aryan, searches and interrogations of their friends and relatives began. Soon officials started to tell those being interrogated that Zatikyan, Stepanyan and Bagdasaryan were guilty of detonating the explosion in the Moscow underground.

The interrogators showed colour photographs on which were depicted a new yellow leather bag, leather gloves, a fur cap with ear flaps and a dark blue sports jacket. They asked for these articles to be identified as the property of Zatikyan, Stepanyan and Bagdasaryan. They also asked about the attitudes of the accused to the idea of terror, tried to ascertain whether they had attempted to obtain demolition explosives, and asked questions about their views.

None of the witnesses known to the Chronicle identified the objects they were shown or confirmed that the accused had terrorist aspirations. In many instances pressure was put on the witnesses. Thus, Vazgen Karakhanyan was threatened with arrest for being connected, so the investigator alleged, with the printing of leaflets in 1968.

At the beginning of 1978 the brothers Volodya and Mesrop Saratikyan were arrested on the same charge as that with which Karakhanyan had been threatened. At the same time a rumour was spread that they were involved in the explosions case. They were released after four months.

Several prisoners were also interrogated — former camp acquaintances of Zatikyan: Tamoyan [See CCE 48//], Vandakurov and others.

Paruir Airikyan and Shagen Arutyunyan were interrogated (they were brought to Moscow — see CCE 51.8). Arutyunyan was offered a “questionnaire” of 30 points, the answers to which he had to consider in a cell. The questions concerned the case of the underground explosion, the NUP and the Armenian Helsinki Group.

The contents of the “questionnaire” bear witness to the attempts made to connect the explosions with the activities of the National United Party and the Helsinki Group. Arutyunyan was allowed to take the text of the “questionnaire” from Lefortovo to his camp. The Chronicle publishes it in full in the section “Official Documents” (see CCE 52.18).

First reports of the investigation

Beginning in the spring of 1978, some information about the case of Zatikyan, Stepanyan and Bagdasaryan came into circulation through official and semi-official channels. At political education talks it was reported that the persons causing the underground explosion had been arrested and that they had turned out to be Armenian dissidents. Listeners were shown photographs of the accused and told their names. They were told not to circulate the information for a while, since there might be a show-trial of the terrorists which would be publicized by the media.

The allegation that the arrested men were guilty was circulated in Armenia. According to former political prisoner Azat Arshakyan, KGB officials convinced him that Zatikyan, Stepanyan and Bagdasaryan had indeed committed this act of terrorism.

A KGB official informed Bagrat Shakhverdyan of the guilt of Zatikyan and two other Armenians at the time of his transportation from Vladimir Prison into exile.

In September 1978, i.e. four months before the publication of the announcement of the sentence. The Voice of the Motherland, a newspaper published in the USSR for distribution to Russian emigrants, reported:

Among those detained in connection with the explosion on the Moscow underground in 1977 is a character who was sentenced … for carrying out anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda … Western propaganda, fed by the dissidents, pulled out all the stops and this gave the villain an inflated idea of himself.

The result is there for all to see — a criminal admired as a “fighter for rights” has become a recidivist, a murderer of Muscovites.

Although the nature of the “chats”, interrogations and reports described above bears witness to the intention of the authorities to give a “dissident” colouration to the case, this theme was not subsequently developed.

The trial

The Chronicle does not possess a trustworthy report of the trial. There are only a few, not quite compatible reports available, the accuracy of which cannot be verified.

According to these accounts, the trial took place in the building of the USSR Supreme Court, The Military Board of the Supreme Court examined the case. (The newspaper report said that it was the Judicial Board for Criminal Cases — see above.) A Deputy President of the Supreme Court, E. A. Smolentsev, presided.

The names of two of the three defence lawyers (appointed, probably, by the Procuracy) became known before the trial. They were Isaac Isakov and Ashot Matevosyan. It is not known whether they met the accused; they had almost no communication with their relatives and did not even inform them of the date on which the trial would begin. All three accused refused their services and demanded the right to engage defence lawyers from West Germany or Canada. The appointed lawyers behaved passively; they said that the guilt of their defendants was fully proven.

On 7 December 1978, A. Matevosyan was telephoned by the Erevan KGB and informed that the trial would begin the next day and that a plane ticket had been obtained for him. Matevosyan, pleading ill- health, refused to go. They then told him that they would obtain a ticket for his wife as well, so that she could look after him in Moscow. However, on 8 December they were taken off the aeroplane and told that the trial had been postponed. The lawyers left for Moscow on 12 January. (At least one of them was present at the final session of the trial.)

The court hearing probably began on 17 January 1979. By that day many of the Supreme Court’s administrative officials had been sent away to such places as vegetable storehouses; they only returned a week later, for the final day of the trial. All the time the trial was in progress, and even for a few days afterwards, police officers and KGB agents were on duty in and around the building. They inspected offices, and when questioned, answered “The possibility of a diversion is not excluded”.

At about 4 pm on 24 January all personnel in the Supreme Court building were invited to the final session. The courtroom was overfull. Many Armenians — party and legal officials — were present, as were KGB officials.

At the final session the verdict was read. The reading took about an hour. In the verdict it was said that “Pobeda” and “Zarya” clocks, into which special platinum strips had been inserted, provided an explosive mechanism constructed by Zatikyan. Zatikyan’s fingerprints had been found on the clocks. Similar clocks with altered mechanisms and platinum inserts had been found in Zatikyan’s flat. The accused, the court alleged, had bought such clocks in large quantities. A sketch of the explosive mechanism drawn by Zatikyan was also referred to. The explosive mechanism was found in a bag discovered on Kursk Railway Station in Moscow. (Soon after the report of the execution of Zatikyan and his accomplices was published, it was recounted at lectures of the political education network in Moscow that a thief had stolen the sports bag and, finding an explosive mechanism inside, had taken it to the police. He also helped to identify the criminals and was rewarded with an engraved watch. However, there were also other versions; a vigilant retired lieutenant-colonel discovered the explosive mechanism, a policeman on duty … etc.)

Zatikyan, Stepanyan and Bagdasaryan, according to the verdict, intended to cause six explosions, the first a test — somewhere in Armenia, the second — on Kiev Station in Moscow (it did not succeed), two explosions in shops, the explosion in the underground, and, finally, the unsuccessful attempt on Kursk Station. (According to one of the Chronicle‘s informants, one of the many commissions of experts established that a bomb found in a ravine in Armenia was identical to the one discovered in Moscow.)

It was alleged at the trial that during the pre-trial investigation one of the accused had said that they had tried to cause explosions in places with the greatest concentration of people. To a question about the purpose of the explosions, Stepanyan was alleged to have answered at the pre-trial investigation: “That’s just what I don’t want to say.” The following words of Zatikyan were read out: “Hitler killed six million innocent Jews to bind his accomplices to him by their common involvement. We are killing representatives of a people guilty of destroying Armenian culture, and of the approaching extinction of the Armenian people.” It was said that there were undoubtedly more members of the criminal group, but that the accused refused to name their accomplices, did not give statements and did not express repentance.

Zatikyan several times corrected the presiding Judge who read the verdict. According to people present, the corrections related to secondary details and were uttered in “a contemptuous tone”.

Zatikyan and Stepanyan refused to stand for the reading of the verdict.

After the death sentence was passed Stepan Zatikyan shouted, first in Armenian, then in Russian: “I die for a free Armenia!”

Relatives of the accused were not informed that the trial was taking place. On 26 or 27 January 1979 KGB officials visited the wife, brother and sister of Stepan Zatikyan, who lived in different districts of Erevan. They also visited Akop Stepanyan’s mother and sister. (The Chronicle has no information about any meeting with Bagdasaryan’s relatives.) The relatives were told that they were allowed a visit and were invited to go to Moscow. Stepanyan’s mother, not knowing about the death sentence, decided to go “next time”. KGB officials took the relatives to the airport, bought tickets for them, and, on arrival in Moscow, took them immediately to Lefortovo for a meeting. They were warned that it was forbidden to talk about “the case”. Only here did the relatives of the accused discover that the trial had already taken place and that the death sentence had been passed.

Akop Stepanyan said: “We were condemned in ten minutes in an empty hall.”

Stepan Zatikyan: “In the whole 15 months 1 didn’t say a word to them.”

Stepan’s brother appealed to him: “Tell me, brother to brother, have you committed a crime?” Zatikyan answered; “The only thing I feel guilty of is leaving two children in this world. There is no other guilt.”

Zatikyan also said that he had not appealed and that his relatives were also not to appeal — it would be useless.

After the meeting Zatikyan’s relatives tried to do something to save the accused. They were sent to the Procurator. The Procurator told them not to petition for a pardon. Why? Because Zatikyan “does not recognize Soviet authority”.

All the same, the relatives did appeal for a pardon. On their return to Erevan they discovered from the newspapers that the sentence had been carried out.

Sakharov’s letter to Brezhnev

On 30 January 1979, A. D. Sakharov wrote a letter to L. I. Brezhnev, in which he said:

There are strong grounds for fearing that a deliberate frame-up or a judicial mistake is taking place in this case. Zatikyan was not in Moscow at the time of the underground explosion — many witnesses can confirm his alibi. The investigation did not show any interest in clarifying this or other important circumstances. The trial, totally unnecessarily, was closed and secret, and even relatives did not know that it was taking place. Such a trial, in which the principle of openness is totally disregarded, cannot determine the truth.

I appeal to you to stop the death sentence being carried out on all the accused in this case, and to demand a new inquiry from the investigative and court organs.

The letter has a postscript:

I have just found out (2 am, 30th-31st) that TASS has reported the execution of Stepan Zatikyan, Stepanyan and Bagdasaryan. The trial, allegedly, was open. The date of the trial was not stated … My request for an inquiry stands. The hurry over the execution merely strengthens me in my request.

Sakharov did not obtain an official answer; however, on 8 February a letter entitled “Shame on the Defenders of Murderers”, signed by a certain D. V. Tyuzhin, was published in the Moscow evening edition of Izvestiya.

Tyuzhin writes that he was concussed in the explosion, that his brother, in his last year at school, died, and that his wife and ten-year-old daughter were severely wounded. Tyuzhin relates that he was present at the trial (not naming, however, the date of the trial and mentioning only one of the accused — Zatikyan; the other surnames, as in the newspaper report of the sentence, were not given).

The author maintains that

the organizer of the crime, Zatikyan, and his two accomplices were convicted on material evidence, visible to all in the courtroom and identified by the defendants themselves, much other direct evidence and the findings of experts and witnesses to the preparation and execution of the crime. They fully admitted that they had knowingly prepared and carried out the explosion in Moscow. … In the course of the trial a videotape was shown of when the criminals, at the pre-trial investigation, showed how they had acted at the scene of the crime, how they had entered the carriage, how and where they had planted the bag with the bombs, when and at which station they had themselves jumped out of the carriage.

The number of victims of the explosion — 44 people including seven dead — was given for the first time in Tyuzhin’s letter.

And doesn’t real humanism demand that the earth be cleared of such villains?

Tyuzhin’s letter is not, however, just an account of the trial. Tyuzhin attacks those who “try to defend the base villains who planted a bomb in the underground”.

The source of the scandalous information circulated among foreign correspondents, as Western radio stations reported, turns out to be Academician A. Sakharov. It is he who is holding forth about the innocence of those against whom the criminal proceedings were instituted. This is not new for Sakharov … And in the West idle benefactors have been found to argue the severity of the sentence.

I think that it is all the same to them whom they defend, as long as it is under the banner of defending human rights …

An editorial comment was added to Tyuzhin’s letter:

The letter from the Muscovite Dmitry Vladimirovich Tyuzhin is one of many which have been sent to Izvestiya. All the letters are full of anger against the villainous crime of Zatikyan and his accomplices, and completely uphold the USSR Supreme Court’s fair sentence.

The Chronicle possesses copies of two letters sent to Izvestiya, the authors of which, on the contrary, doubt the fairness of the sentence and are indignant about the distortion of Sakharov’s position on the case of the underground explosion.

Josif Daykin, a research worker from Kalinin, writes:

You reported the trial of Zatikyan and his accomplices in the past tense: there was a trial, they were convicted, the death sentence was carried out … The two-year mystery and the report, after the executions, of the trial give grounds for doubting whether justice was done … The article deliberately substitutes the theme of defending murderers for the themes of the necessity of publicity, impartiality and timely information about the court’s decision.

Ivan Kovalyov’s letter, sent to Izvestiya on 14 February, says:

Tyuzhin’s assertion that Sakharov is trying to protect criminals does not, to put it mildly, correspond to reality and, to use his own words, presents “a shameful sight, causing disgust to every honest person”.

Kovalyov was sent an answer:

Izvestiya 28 February 1979

Dear Comrade Kovalyov,

We received your angry letter condemning Sakharov! We share your feelings. We will bring your opinion (and the editors have received many similar letters) to the attention of the Presidium of the USSR Academy of Sciences.

Department of Law and Morals

(The answer took the form of a printed letter, with the surname written in.)

Shortly afterwards blatant harassment of Sakharov began, carried out by alleged relatives of those killed in the underground. These “relatives” somehow got hold of Sakharov’s home address and telephone number (the Moscow City Information Bureau refuses to give these out), burst into his flat, insulted him and threatened violence. They all maintained that they had personally been present at the trial. However, none of them would give his address or place of work or the exact date of the trial. They also threatened Sakharov by phone and in letters with no return address.

In connection with this campaign of hooliganism, Georgy Vladimov, Vladimir Voinovich, Fr. Sergei Zheludkov, Lev Kopelev, Vladimir Kornilov, Raisa Lert and Lydia Chukovskaya wrote to Shchelokov and Andropov, saying:

Academician Sakharov never defended murderers and only petitioned about the openness and fairness of the trial.

Since then, attempts to discredit Academician Sakharov and, in general, the movement to defend the rule of law have continued. In numerous lectures on the political education network it has been said that Sakharov and about 50 other dissidents, wearing jeans and sheepskin coats, stood near the building where the case of the underground explosion was being tried, that they tried to impede the course of justice and shouted malicious anti-Soviet slogans.

On 1 February 1979 the Moscow Helsinki Group’s Document No. 81 was published:

The death sentence — imposed in an unknown place, on an unknown day. in circumstances full of secrecy and mystery — has been carried out on three young people by the Judicial Board of the USSR Supreme Court. The event is without precedent in legal practice, but the surname of only one of those sentenced to death was given; the two others were not even named.

All three were sentenced to death on a charge of causing an explosion on the underground, in which there were human victims, in January 1977. It is impossible to understand why a trial on such a charge had to be held in complete secrecy, without even informing the closest relatives of the accused. After all, the underground explosion aroused general indignation, and convincing proof of the guilt of the accused, if the prosecution has such proofs at its disposal, would contribute to the general condemnation of the criminals responsible.

The absence of publicity and all the circumstances of secrecy gives grounds for doubting that there were valid grounds for the charge and for doubting the objectivity and impartiality of the court. A number of people assert, for example, that S. Zatikyan was not even in Moscow at the time of the explosion.

Can such a trial be called a trial in the generally understood meaning of the word?

In the magazine Poiski (Investigations) No. 5 (February 1979), an editorial article is devoted to the case of the underground explosion;

Rumours are the main source of “information” in our conditions of scarcity of objective information. They affect every aspect of our reality but are especially terrible when we are talking about human life. The absence of lawfulness plus the absence of publicity create a thick atmosphere of lies and uncertainty, a sinister fog which shrouds human minds and souls.

If an explosion, planned in advance, occurs on the underground and causes death and mutilation to children and adults, then this is a base crime which must be tried publicly and openly. But if someone is tried and executed on the quiet, without proof, then this in itself arouses mistrust and doubt. But was there a crime? If there was, who committed it? What were his motives? Who is interested in him? Was justice observed? Or was it destroyed, if only by the secrecy shrouding the trial?