Nicholas Daniloff's Exclusive Story; Thirteen Days in a KGB Prison

This story originally appeared in the October 13, 1986, issue of U.S.News & World Report.

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Once he asked me how this might go in the U.S. I said I didn't know, I had never been through it, but probably we'd use computers to record interrogations. He said, "Yes, yes, we're not quite there yet."

At the end of the interrogations I'd feel not so much fatigue but perhaps depression. I'd feel very burdened. And I had this overwhelming nausea about the whole situation. Later that dissipated a little.

I did not stop being a thinking person during those days. I thought back to the meeting with Misha, who in four years of acquaintance had never given any reason for mistrust. It was clear to me now that he had betrayed me. Had he been a KGB plant from the beginning? Or had he been called aside by the security services and persuaded—or coerced—into cooperating in the frame-up?

I wondered why had I been arrested. The KGB had followed me for nine years in all. If I was a spy, why hadn't they arrested me before? Why did they allow my personal papers and photographs to leave the country a few days before my arrest? Why did they fail to search my apartment? Why didn't they question my friends? Clearly the operation was slapped together in a hurry. After Zakharov was denied bail on August 28, they had to act. KGB agents follow journalists, diplomats and businessmen. They build up files with incriminating evidence so that when the political need arises they can act. Several times I rebuffed such entrapments.

These thoughts churned in my mind. To pass the long hours I read, I paced and I talked with my cellmate. Stanislav Zenin, 44, said he was a physicist at a "post-office-box"—the Russian term for a secret institute. He said he had been under investigation since April 11 for leaving classified documents in an unguarded place. He was pleasant. I assumed he was an informer. How better to compound a suspect's felonies than to force him to cohabit with a secret scientist! Stas's hobby was mathematics. When he wasn't being interrogated he labored for hours on a problem he said had defined solution for 300 years. Then when I was getting out he said he had solved the problem and he asked me to take it out of the prison and get it published in the West. I refused. It was an obvious setup.

In any event, now we were roommates. Our home was a cell with a high window covered with opaque glass. Behind the pane I could make out seven vertical bars and two horizontal ones. The cell measured five paces long, three paces wide. There were three steel cots painted blue, a small table for each prisoner, a washbowl and primitive toilet with a wooden cover just high enough to be uncomfortable. The place was clean, but there was a distinctive smell.

Under prison rules one of us was "on duty" each week and responsible for picking up. Stas told me it was important to wipe dust off the shelves and crossbars on the beds to keep out of trouble. We had to "wash" the floor with a rag twice a week. We had to stand with our hands behind our back whenever anyone came into the cell. There was a prisoner's code that if you had to relieve yourself, you waited until the other fellow finished eating.

They woke us every morning at 6. Then you had to make your bed. You could lie back down and doze until 8, when breakfast came. Lunch was at 1, dinner at 5. Food came to us through the kormushka—the feed window in the center of the solid metal door. Once a day we got a copy of Pravda cut into three pieces so three prisoners could read it simultaneously. A peephole above this window let the guards observe us. Every 15 minutes, night and day, you could hear the scrape of the peephole cover as a guard looked in. At night one light bulb remained on. It was always bright enough to read by. To sleep, we draped handkerchiefs over our eyes.

Breakfast was porridge or oatmeal, or a bowl of tiny noodles. Lunch was soup with a smattering of meat or fat and a bowl of mashed potatoes with fish. I was told the diet was designed for the average Russian. I had trouble getting it down. Although I never felt hungry I lost at least 5 pounds. The occasional delicacy was a herring that we had to bone and skin with our fingers. For dinner it was back to the breakfast routine. I wondered if I would grow physically or mentally weak. The menu, I decided, was calculated to induce passivity. Relatives would bring treats. But nothing like chocolate was permitted: It was regarded as a stimulant. Stas, like many prisoners, kept a box of garlic and onions under his bed to break the monotonous diet.