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.


We were given nothing that might be used for suicide. My belt was taken. My shoelaces were cut in half. At night we had to give the guards our glasses so there would be no chance we could slit our wrists. We had no knives or forks. Our only instruments were two aluminum soupspoons.

Time dragged. But Lefortovo is reputed to have the best library of all the prisons in Moscow. Somebody told me later that it was because many of the volumes were confiscated from intellectuals and scientists who had fallen out of favor during the Stalin era. I ordered several books from the library catalog. The one that I spent some time reading was by Victor Hugo, called The Little Napoleon, published in Russian. But I found that sometimes I would just stare and stare at a page; I couldn't absorb it. I would sit there for 2 or 3 hours holding the book in front of me because I decided I'd rather stare at the pages than get into a conversation with my cellmate. And I found that the more I held the book in front of me, the more it had a tendency to pacify me.

As time went by I began to feel more at home. Lefortovo Prison was built in 1880 in honor of Catherine the Great, Stas said. It's the shape of the letter K, for "Katya." All the paranoia endemic in the political prison focused at the intersection of the lines in the K. There a guard stands watch with a red flag and a white flag signaling down each hallway, regulating traffic so that no prisoner sees any other as he is moved. Guards escorting prisoners snap their fingers loudly as they approach the intersection, warning colleagues to keep their charges out of sight. It's totally effective against conspiracy—even the conspiracy that might be implied by a smile or a wink.

But all of this was dead routine. My heart leaped only when I received visitors—my wife; my son, Caleb; my Editor-in-Chief, Mortimer Zuckerman. They were my lifeline. Through them I learned of the extraordinary reaction on my behalf. Ruth told me that President Reagan had mentioned my case publicly and had written General Secretary Gorbachev that I was not a spy. That cheered me. I told myself something was going to give.

I recognized I wasn't being treated as an ordinary Soviet prisoner. The commandant of Lefortovo, Alexandr Mitrofonovich Petrenko, visited our cell twice daily. He ordered top sheets to go with the bottom ones. Camel-hair blankets replaced the usual thin ones. When medical checks confirmed my chronic hypertension, I got close attention. They decided they were going to measure my blood pressure three times a day, and the doctor was a very human and pleasant character. The nurse came to my cell twice a day, and she was a very nice, decent Russian girl. I was put on a special diet. Doctors said it was for blood pressure, but since it contained added portions of meat and two glasses of milk daily. I judged it was to fatten me up.

The commandant had been with Soviet forces that linked up with U.S. troops at the Elbe at the end of World War II. He said that, of all foreigners, Americans are the closest to Russians because of their outgoing nature, curiosity, openness, sincerity and so forth. So when he asked how many times a day I wanted to walk, I said, "How about two?" And he said, "What about three?" And indeed that day he ordered that my cellmate and I have 3 hours' walk daily. We did this on the roof of the prison. There were cages, side by side, about five paces long, separated by 15-foot-high solid walls and covered on top with chain-link fencing. I'd pace up and down. In the fresh air there was much more physical satisfaction than doing it in your cell.

Even though conditions got better that second week, the interrogations stayed intense. They were always serious business, and at times Sergadeyev rebuked me for not joining him in a joke. "When are you going to smile or tell a joke?" he asked. "Why do you always look at me as if I were pointing a pistol at you?" I replied, "Because you are."

Over and over I repeated that I had been unable to join any branch of the U.S. government after college in 1956 because of my blood pressure. This did no good. Obviously I was a spy because I had delivered to the U.S. Embassy an unsolicited letter, addressed to the American ambassador, that had appeared in my mailbox in 1985. I presumed the letter came from a Father Roman, whom I believed was a KGB agent provocateur. I had answered some of the embassy's questions about what I knew of Father Roman, and then I refused to have anything further to do with the matter. "What should I have done?" I demanded. "Ignore it?" The colonel finally suggested in effect that I simply should have told the father to bug off.