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 spoke with a combined promise and threat. "I know you will return to your country one day," Sergadeyev said. "You will be a hero. You will write a book and make a lot of money—and you will give me hell. But when that will be, nobody knows. I am already an old man, and I am afraid I won't live to read your memoirs."

Listening to such accusations for as long as 4 hours at a session inevitably has an effect. Without friend or legal counsel I felt increasingly vulnerable. I never served in the military. I had no training in how to behave as a prisoner, how to resist interrogation. I was not a lawyer, either, or versed in the niceties of the Russian criminal procedural code. I felt I had nothing to hide, and so I answered questions truthfully. But I resisted talking about third parties and tried to divert attention to blind alleys. With time I felt I was digging my own grave each time I opened my mouth.

During a second visit with Ruth I remarked that an interim step might be the release of Zakharov and me to the custody of our respective ambassadors. I was reflecting what seemed to be a certain symmetry in the two cases. The Soviets had created it. I never favored a direct exchange. It was extremely distasteful that I should be equated with a spy. What I envisioned, as I assessed my situation in my cell, was an interim step that would give diplomats a chance to work out an acceptable resolution for both sides.

As time passed I realized that political wheels were turning. I scanned Pravda anxiously to see if Soviet-American arms meetings were continuing. I never thought I would be sprung quickly. I had only slight inklings that something was up on Friday, September 12. I had expected to be called back for afternoon interrogation—but was not. Instead I was given lots of time in the rooftop exercise cage. Then at 7:30 p.m. I was summoned. No offer of a shave—that would have been a tip-off. When I walked into Room 215, I met an unknown, white-haired official, seated by Colonel Sergadeyev, who told me formally: "Gospodin Daniloff, a political decision was made at 3 this afternoon to release you tonight. We would like you to call the chargé d'affaires at the American Embassy, who will outline the conditions."

Finally all was ready. At Lefortovo and in New York diplomats signed the counterpart assurances. I met Ruth and U.S. Chargé d'Affaires Richard Combs in the prison visitors' room. Moments later I was escorted to a room where I picked up the things that had been taken from me 13 days before. We walked out to the ambassador's limousine at 8:47 p.m. I was free from prison, but I was not yet a free man.

Even at the American Embassy in the comfortable apartment they gave Ruth and me in the north wing, we had to be careful. We had to assume we were watched. These apartments are not secure; they can't be. Anytime, one of the Soviet employees of the embassy can take a key and go in on grounds of fixing the plumbing or something. One time, a Soviet maintenance person was seen coming out of our apartment. We had to assume he bugged it. We took to carrying our most precious documents with us in a handbag everywhere we went. That is something that Soviet dissidents also do.

There was no prohibition on my going out alone, but I only did that once, driving the car to the bureau. I got stuck in traffic and was about half an hour late arriving, and everybody got terribly upset. After that, whenever I'd go out for 5-to-10-kilometer runs along the Moscow River, I'd go with various people in the embassy. I did not have a sense that people were closely watching me, but there were a couple of occasions when we saw a car driving close behind.

The thing about surveillance in Moscow is that they are so well plugged in with informants everywhere that they can check you without really seeming to be hounding you. Twice in this time I remember leaving the bureau and running into a drunk in the courtyard. We had the feeling he was probably informing on my comings and goings.