This story originally appeared in the October 13, 1986, issue of U.S.News & World Report.
It began on a wooded lane in the Lenin Hills of Moscow. There I met my friend Misha from Frunze and gave him copies of some Stephen King novels. He handed me a sealed packet that he said were clippings from Frunze newspapers. We parted, and I began the walk home. Moments later a van stopped, and a half-dozen men rushed out—pinning me, slapping handcuffs on my wrists. I remember them as they approached—grim, intent, as if they expected a fight. I made a split-second decision not to resist in any way. They threw me onto a seat in the enclosed van, two men on each side. A cameraman filmed me from the front as we sped through Moscow. One agent fished in my pocket for my wallet and focused on my press accreditation. "My God," he said, "a foreigner!"
Reason told me the KGB would not send an American correspondent to Siberia—not even with Russian roots, who spoke the language and had friendships with ordinary citizens. I knew, even as they seized me, that I would be a hostage for Gennadi Zakharov, the Soviet employee of the U.N. arrested a week earlier in New York on espionage charges. But reason fades quickly in the face of the KGB.
We came to a stop at a heavily guarded building. A double barrier opened slowly like a sluice gate, and the van eased into a courtyard. I was hustled down a hall to Room 215. KGB Col. Valery Dmitrovich Sergadeyev was waiting—a tall, handsome man in a well-cut suit, about age 60, with black hair combed straight back. "I am the one who ordered your arrest. You are held on suspicion of espionage."
Two anonymous citizens appeared to witness the opening of the envelope I had carried into the prison. "Here we have photos," Sergadeyev announced like an actor saying well-rehearsed lines. The photos looked like amateur snapshots of soldiers and tanks.
"Ah, what have we here?" Sergadeyev intoned, trying to impress the witnesses who stared blankly at the table before them. Out came two maps stamped "Secret." One appeared to be an operational military map from Afghanistan; the other was an area map with code names. Oddly, one name was Shushenskoye, the tiny Siberian village where my great-great-grandfather was exiled as a revolutionary Decembrist in the early 19th century.
Across from me the cameraman was busily recording the scene. I formed an obscene gesture with the middle finger of my right hand and placed it next to the photographs. I hoped this gesture would signal to the West that the whole affair was a fraud.
After 4 hours, Colonel Sergadeyev agreed to let me call my wife. An English-language interpreter sat beside me as I dialed. When my wife Ruth came to the phone, a bright idea struck me. I noticed the number of the phone I was using was taped to its base. "Ruth," I said, "take a pencil and write down what I'm about to tell you. Ready? Three six one dash six five five six. That's where I am."
"Got it." She repeated the numbers.
I glanced at the colonel. He sat expressionless, apparently not realizing I had given out his phone number. The translator continued taking notes to read back at the end of the call. I talked for 40 minutes. I was sure Ruth would know how to use the information. But it would be days before I would get any inkling of the outcry that her frequent media appearances set in motion. I studied the thick stone walls. No reverberations penetrated from outside. I felt hopelessly alone. How was I to know that I wasn't forgotten?
"We will continue." Sergadeyev broke into my train of thought. "Now you will be shown the place where you will spend the night." Two KGB corporals in khaki uniforms appeared and marched me, hands behind my back, to the basement. I was given a cursory medical exam by a woman doctor that revealed that my blood pressure was high and that I had developed a hemorrhoid. I was issued prison underwear—dark-blue boxer shorts and a light-blue tank top—and marched off to the shower room and then to my cell.
Time in Lefortovo was mental torture. Over the next two weeks I would spend 30 hours in interrogation. The colonel never raised his voice or pounded the table. He was never abusive or overtly threatening. He was a pro. He played with my emotions, posing alternatively as a "good cop" and a "bad cop." He controlled all information that reached me. He controlled my food, my exercise, my life. But the time I was freed, he had made me feel guilt where there was none.
He tried to promote a fatherly relationship with me. He would offer me tea or coffee to drink. Once he said, "You don't have to worry that I'm going to poison you." And I said, "I'm sure that you're not." Then he would go through a procedure of brewing coffee. In the Soviet Union they have sort of a filament that you can put in water and bring it to a boil quickly. Then he'd bring out cookies and candy and put them on the table and encourage me to drink and eat and feel at home.
At the same time he was always intimidating because of the situation. The bare brown walls of Room 215, where the interrogations took place, enclosed me. I sat in a straight-back chair with a small cushion. Sergadeyev was behind the T-shaped desk that is typical of Moscow's bureaucratic offices. Behind him was a Soviet emblem. Beside him was a spittoon. He smoked a lot, and then he'd lean over and spit into that spittoon from time to time.
"I am not a spy," I insisted over and over. It did no good.
"What intelligence school did you finish?"
I said I was only a journalist who tried to do his job.
The colonel had studied my character in advance, even saying he knew I was an emotional person. Once he cited a story I had written, saying, "That article you did on the KGB had to have been dictated by your CIA masters. You know too much." I got my information from books and interviews with Soviet citizens who had experience with the KGB. But no matter what I said, there was no way to convince him of my innocence. Gently he would present once more the planted evidence labeling me as an American agent. As brothers in the trade, he argued, we had to face facts. "I know you're a professional spy. I can tell by the calm way in which you conduct yourself." Another time, after Ruth had visited, he said that because she didn't weep and roll on the floor and was very tough with him in answering questions he was convinced we both were spies.
The most chilling moment was when they brought in a general from the Military Justice Service. He was tall and heavyset, overbearing and dour. He stood about 6 feet away and read the terms of the indictment: "Espionage is a serious state crime that carries a heavy penalty all the way up to death." It seemed to annoy him that I just sat there silently. "Doesn't it bother you that we are charging you with this serious crime?"
"Of course, it bothers me." I spoke in a low, calm voice because it was an effort just to speak. My throat was dry. I felt palpitations of the heart, butterflies all over and breathless. I was determined to stay in control of myself because I wanted the opportunity to demonstrate my innocence. But I could never get away from the overall horror of the situation. Over 10 interrogation days I averaged maybe 3 hours in that chair at a session. I'm not sure of times, because you're not allowed to have a watch in your cell. They try to disorient you by preventing you from knowing what time it is. It all proceeded at a snail's pace.
The colonel would write out his questions and my replies in longhand on brown sheets of paper. At the end of every day, under Soviet law, I was required to sign these "protocols." Sometimes I got him to agree to let me modify or improve my answers. Sometimes he formulated my answer better than I had done and made a better defense. Then I would ask myself, "Is he ingratiating himself with me? Or is it that I'm making some headway in convincing him of my innocence?" Once he told me not to worry about the questions, just the answers. I said, "That's not right. Anything I answer will make it look as if I'm acknowledging the guilt implied in your question." And he did, in fact, change the question. I never signed any document that said that I agreed with the charges.
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.
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.
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.
During this time Ruth and I developed what you might call a strategy. We were opposed to a trial being held for the reason that I considered myself innocent, and in the Soviet Union courts don't often acquit somebody who has been charged. So I was not going to cooperate in the trial. My body might be physically present, but I was not going to speak in my defense or answer questions. But at the end I would get my last word, a statement attacking the entire thing as a farce. We talked a lot about our strategy over international telephone lines and other places where we hoped that the ears would pick it up to discourage the KGB from pursuing the idea of a trial.
Since getting back my freedom, since I've come back home I've read a couple of stories leaked out of the State Department to the effect that they had to deal to get me out of prison because I was weakening in prison and perhaps developing the Stockholm syndrome—a sense of bonding with my captors. That's not true. I didn't lose my marbles. I didn't weaken. Right in the beginning I had feelings of despair and helplessness. I said to myself, "My God, what a fool I have been ever to have gotten into Soviet studies and to learn this language and to have been interested in this country!" It was totally conceivable that I was going to be in the pokey a long time; I knew the minimum sentence for espionage was seven years.
I answered the interrogator's questions, and I did not behave obstinately, because I knew that the KGB could make my conditions much worse and might well cut off all my contact with the outside, with Ruth. But I did not develop any bond with Sergadeyev. It was always unpleasant.
It may sound strange, but now that I am out of the Soviet Union there is a great feeling of loss. I've been a journalist now for nearly 30 years, nine of them in the Soviet Union. I have friends there, Soviet citizens, who are as close to me as any friends I have anywhere else in the world. They are ordinary, real people. Some of them are heroic. Being forced to leave there the way I did poses a question as to whether I will ever be able to go back.
I never had any illusions about the KGB or the Soviet system of government. The state's power is limitless and abusive. And yet what happened to me doesn't change my view that the Russian people and the American people must put their relations on a stable basis. We've got to get to know each other better.