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Opinion: Life in a KGB prison — ‘The door slams behind you, and you realize you aren’t going anywhere’

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Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN, twice winner of the Deadline Club Award, is a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, author of “A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen” and blogs at Andelman Unleashed. He formerly was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

One evening in September 1978, I was standing by the telex machine in the Belgrade news bureau of The New York Times, where I was East European bureau chief, when it suddenly sprang to life and a message began clattering across the page from David K. Shipler, my counterpart in the Times bureau in Moscow.

David A. Andelman

“Did you send me a package here in Moscow” read the message to me in what was then Yugoslavia. “No,” I replied, “not at all.” Shipler replied: “I think I’ve just avoided a trip to Lefortovo,” the prison fortress of the KGB.

Someone had anonymously phoned Shipler in the bureau and said he had a package for him “from Andelman in Belgrade. Meet me at the entrance to Gorky Park at 7 p.m.” Since there was no telephone directory in the Soviet Union, only someone with access to that phone number could have reached Shipler, who was immediately suspicious.

The KGB was constantly trying to trail or entrap Western journalists, hoping to find an excuse to take them out of commission — especially those who spoke Russian fluently and could blend in and deal directly with Russian sources.

Eight years later, on August 30, 1986, Nicholas Daniloff, then 51, the veteran Moscow bureau chief of the magazine US News & World Report, was suddenly seized on a street corner and bundled into a car after he received a package from an acquaintance that was laced with secret documents.

Daniloff, who was nearing the end of a five-year posting to Moscow, spoke Russian fluently, a tribute to his family heritage. His grandfather Yuri Danilov was chief of operations at the headquarters of the Russian imperial army during World War I.

Daniloff was detained for 13 days at Lefortovo prison, the main detention facility for the KGB.

Daniloff’s arrest had followed immediately on the arrest in New York of accused Soviet spy Gennadi Zakharov. Taken to Lefortovo, Daniloff was held for 13 days before being released under house arrest. Each man was allowed to return to his country on September 29 in a straight prisoner swap.

I met Daniloff in Frankfurt, where he changed planes, and flew back to Washington with him. Daniloff’s release finally cleared the way for the landmark summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in October 1986.

Daniloff’s circumstances were not dissimilar to those of Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich, also a fluent Russian speaker, who was seized last month on a reporting trip to Yekaterinburg in the eastern Ural Mountains. Gershkovich has had few contacts since then with the outside world.

Gershkovich has been formally charged with espionage, Russian state media reported Friday. The Wall Street Journal has denied the allegations against him, issuing a statement which read, “As we’ve said from the beginning, these charges are categorically false and unjustified and we continue to demand Evan’s immediate release.” The Biden administration is preparing to declare Gershkovich as wrongfully detained in Russia, two US officials have told CNN.

Last week, I talked with Daniloff about those interesting times nearly four decades earlier and life inside Lefortovo.

David A. Andelman: What went through your mind when you suddenly found yourself in the KGB fortress of Lefortovo?

Nicholas Daniloff: I could say that I felt claustrophobic, and I felt like I wanted to get out of there immediately. Of course, there was no chance of that. The door slams, and you have all these thoughts and feelings that run through you, and then you settle down and you realize you’re going to be hanging around that cell for some time.

Andelman: Were you alone in the cell?

Daniloff: Oh, I had a cellmate. … He was in prison because he had mishandled some classified documents, and he was also trying to resolve a mathematical problem that I knew something about.

Andelman: Did you think he was there to spy on you? Or did you think he was a real prisoner?

Daniloff: I think it might be both. You might be a real prisoner, and you might be persuaded that if you were friendly with the interrogators and the people who are holding you, your condition might be eased and who knows you might get out sooner.

Andelman: So, what did the cell look like?

Daniloff: We each had a cot. There was a toilet, really a rather primitive sort of toilet upon which you could sit, or you could stand and pee into it. There certainly was no privacy surrounding it. You were there in full view of your cellmate and as I recall, the rule tended to be that when the other fellow was eating, you avoid going to the toilet. This was sort of in a basement, and there were windows high up on the wall, and cold air would seep in through those windows. I mentioned that at some point, and the prison actually brought some blankets down they gave to me. And that was nice.

In the cell, for sleeping, the light was never turned off. We were told that we had to have our hands in view above the covers. But you know, you just get used to that.

Andelman: Was there any window in the door, to see your guards or anything beyond your cell?

Daniloff: There was a little window in the door. And it was called the “garmoshka,” which is the window through which food was shoved at you three times a day. It just came through the window.

Andelman: What kind of food did they give you?

Daniloff: We had a lot of kasha. That’s buckwheat groats, and since I had a Russian grandmother, I was quite used to buckwheat groats, and I actually more or less enjoyed them. Some people might tell you it was awful, but it was tolerable.

Andelman: Do you think they treated you better, or worse, than some of the other Russian prisoners there because you were an American?

Daniloff: The fact that the United States came to my support was very helpful.

Andelman: Did they ever let you see an American diplomat or any visitor?

Daniloff: I had some visits from my wife. Those visits took place in a reception center, so there was no opportunity for her to see how I was being held.

Andelman: What was the booking process like? Were you fingerprinted? Did they take a mug shot of you?

Daniloff: Oh yes, all of that, at a certain point. Nothing was particularly logical. There was also a medical exam. Having been arrested, I was thrown into a small cubicle with a guard, and I asked, “What the hell are we doing here?” And the guard tried not to speak, but in the end, he said, “We’re waiting.” I said, “OK, waiting for what?” And he said, “Waiting for the doctor.” Eventually a woman doctor showed up. Checked me out. As I recall, I had hemorrhoids at that time, and I complained about the hemorrhoids, and that led to a further examination of the hemorrhoids in a somewhat uncomfortable position.

Andelman: Did they give you some sort of a prison uniform to wear?

Daniloff: I wanted to continue wearing my underclothes. That seemed to have a relationship to my identity. So, I asked for them back. (They were returned.)

Andelman: Did they take you out of that cell very often for interrogation?

Daniloff: Someone from the management would come down and announce that I was needed somewhere else in the building. And when I say I was “needed,” it had to do with an interrogation or a conversation with an interrogator that was coming up. So, I knew what I was heading to.

Andelman: Did that happen every day?

Daniloff: Every day except on weekends. Sundays seemed to be rest days.

Andelman: Do you think things have changed a whole lot since then?

Daniloff: I’m inclined to think no, mainly because that’s the way they always did it. They don’t necessarily have any great desire to engage in some kind of new technique.

Andelman: Before you were actually taken, did you ever get a sense that they were watching you very closely, following you before you were arrested?

Daniloff: When you worked in Moscow in those days, you always assumed that somebody was looking over your shoulder. That did not mean that you knew in real time that somebody was looking over your shoulder, but you had the sense that they were quite aware of what you were doing or not doing. My attitude was I’m going out because that’s part of the profession that I am engaged in, and you know what comes with that.

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Andelman: Have you been back since then? Were (you) nervous about going back into the jaws of the beast?

Daniloff: I have been back. It was when perestroika was in the process of revealing itself. There were some meetings I had with a deputy Soviet foreign minister at a place in New York — Chautauqua — and that facilitated the process.

Andelman: So, to close the circle, what did it feel like when the doors slammed behind you?

Daniloff: Claustrophobia. I mean the door slams behind you, and you realize you aren’t going anywhere. You would like that door to open, but it won’t.

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