During the Cold War, Lefortovo prison in Moscow — where Russian authorities are detaining American citizen Paul Whelan on espionage charges — seemed a frightening place for political dissidents and foreigners accused of espionage. Isolation, intimidation and torture were the Soviet authorities’ tools of the trade.
I know what Lefortovo was like back then, since I was held there when I was arrested in 1986 in a Russian tit-for-tat operation for the arrest in New York of Gennadi Zakharov, a Soviet physicist working for the United Nations. The FBI had ample evidence of Zakharov’s spying activities, including a receipt for $6,000 he had paid for classified jet engine materials. When the Soviets needed a bargaining chip to trade with U.S. intelligence to get Zakharov back, they grabbed me.
Whelan’s family says he is innocent of the espionage charges. He’s being held in solitary confinement. Russian intelligence officials claim they arrested him after he received a USB drive containing the names of people working in a secret facility, but they haven’t released much more information on his case. Many former Western intelligence officers, though, suspect he was arrested so he could be traded for the release of Maria Butina, a Russian national who pleaded guilty to conspiring with a senior Russian official to infiltrate U.S. conservative groups and who has been detained in Washington for five months.
Reports that Whelan’s arrest might have been part of a grand game between intelligence services reminded me of my own ordeal.
In 1986, I was working in Moscow as the bureau chief for U.S. News and World Report. My family and I had lived there for five years. One day, a Russian whom I had known for several years and considered a friend handed me a plastic bag containing photos from Central Asia showing Soviet troops in Afghanistan; in exchange, I gave him several Stephen King novels I had collected for him. I had a standing request for him to bring me photos and newspaper clippings on the Soviet war there. Tucked inside the plastic bag with the photos, though, were wall maps of Soviet deployments marked “secret.”
After we parted, I started to walk home, carrying the bag without opening it. Suddenly a minibus drove up alongside me. Six men jumped out. Several of them surrounded me, pinned my arms behind my back and handcuffed me before shoving me into the van.
In the car, one of the arrest team fished in my pockets and pulled out my wallet and identity papers. “A foreigner!” he exclaimed, as if he did not know whom he had been sent to bring in.
At Lefortovo, I was ushered into an interrogation room, where KGB Col. Valery Sergadeyev was ready to question me. He brought in two witnesses, who sat at a table opposite me. Then he began pulling out the photographs.
He laid them on the table. “What have we here?” he said in a tone of voice that suggested he knew beforehand what was in the package.
A photographer was snapping away. I suspected that the authorities wanted to publish pictures to prove to the world that I was a spy. I put both hands on the table and made two middle-finger salutes. I figured that if the pictures were published, people in the West would realize that this was a setup. The Russians never published the photos.
Then began my first interrogation, which lasted from 1 to 6 p.m. It was obvious that the purpose was to paint me as a spy. At the end of this session, I told the interrogator that the United States and Soviet Union had a consular agreement that provided for embassy contact. He replied, “You may call your embassy now.”
It was a late Saturday afternoon, and I knew that if I called the embassy, I would only get a U.S. Marine guard. So I called my wife instead. I noticed that the colonel’s number was taped to the telephone cradle. When my wife answered, I explained the situation and said, “Write down this number.” She would later share it with all the American correspondents in Moscow.
On my second day in prison, while Sergadeyev smoked nonstop, the grilling began in earnest, between four and six hours a day. Sergadeyev vacillated from hostility to politeness.
“If we were in the United States, how would we be doing these interrogations?” he asked in one of his more pleasant tones after offering me tea and cookies.
“How should I know?” I replied. “I’ve never been arrested before. But one thing is certain: If we were in the United States, you would be using a computer, not a pencil.”
“Ah yes,” he answered. “We in Russia are not there yet.”
I decided to do these sessions in Russian because the interpreter was lousy, and I could explain myself better in Russian. Looking back, that was a mistake. I should have used the interpreter. That would have slowed down the process and given me time to prepare for the next set of questions. Also, I could have blamed the interpreter for making mistakes if I needed to.
I was held for two weeks, while the United States negotiated a deal with the Soviet authorities to free me. I had a Russian cellmate whose job, I am sure, was to report on my behavior and encourage me to cooperate with the investigation against me. He said he was a physicist, a graduate of Moscow University, who had been charged with taking classified documents home from work without permission. I never knew if he was a real prisoner or just a plant. I was not tortured physically, but being held in isolation can be a type of mental torture. You are always on edge; you never know what is going to be thrown at you. My medical issues — hemorrhoids and high blood pressure — were noted and attended to. I would expect the same medical attention is being extended to Whelan.
We were fed three times a day through a small rectangular opening in the solid cell door. The food was bland and often consisted of buckwheat groats, a common dish in Russia. We were observed through a peephole in the door approximately every 15 minutes. The ceiling light was never turned off. At night, we were ordered to keep our hands above the blanket so they could be observed on the quarter-hourly peephole inspections.
During a brief visit last week by U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman and a U.S. consular officer, Whelan reportedly complained of a lack of toiletries and clean underwear. In my case, prison underwear was supplied by the authorities, and I was allowed to shave every four days with a dull razor that had been used by other prisoners. The authorities obviously worried that a suspect might harm himself, and they obliged us to part with belts and shoelaces on being processed.
When I was arrested, President Ronald Reagan charged the Soviet Union with taking a hostage and demanded my immediate release. Both houses of Congress adopted resolutions denouncing my detention. Reagan sent two letters to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev demanding my release. Meanwhile, diplomats including foreign ministers of both sides worked out an agreement over a week, which included a summit meeting in Iceland between Reagan and Gorbachev. Eventually, a complex arrangement emerged by which the Russians agreed to the simultaneous release of Zakharov and me, and they paid a “premium,” presumably to account for the fact that they were trading a convicted spy for an innocent journalist. That “premium” consisted of releasing prominent dissident Yuri Orlov and allowing a dozen others to leave the Soviet Union in secret to seek medical treatment in the West.
In 1987, Soviet diplomats acknowledged to me that I had been a bargaining chip to get Zakharov back. Privately they said they were sorry, but there was never an official apology because the Soviet Union collapsed and was replaced by a successor state, the Russian Federation.
If the same thing has happened to Whelan, maybe they weren’t quite so sorry after all.