This is what it’s like to be arrested in Moscow as an American spy

Nicholas Daniloff, far right, celebrates with his family and President Ronald Reagan after his release from being detained in Russia. (Photo by Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

American businessman Paul Whelan has been detained in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo prison on espionage charges since Dec. 28. Nicholas Daniloff, the retired director of Northeastern’s journalism program, can relate to Whelan’s plight.

In 1986, when Daniloff was an American journalist based in Moscow, he was held in the same prison for two weeks under false charges that he had been spying on the Soviet Union. His case created an international uproar.

“I would assume that he’s going through hell,” Daniloff said of Whelan, who has been in solitary confinement. “I would assume he is essentially frightened and not knowing what is going to come next. If you’re sitting in a cell, particularly in solitary confinement, you have no idea—at least at first—what is going to be thrown at you. If you are clean and pure, you have to be very determined to assert your innocence.”

Daniloff has given numerous interviews to compare their parallel incidents since the news of Whelan’s arrest broke last week. In each case, the detention of the American followed the arrest of a prominent Soviet or Russian in the United States. Daniloff notices, however, “a great difference” between the responses of presidents Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan, who in 1986 was waging the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

“Ronald Reagan, who had his problems with Moscow, very quickly stated that I was taken hostage, and he demanded my release,” Daniloff said. “The United States Senate and House of Representatives both passed resolutions demanding my release.”

The strongest White House declaration on Whelan’s behalf has come from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said: “If the detention is not appropriate, we will demand his immediate return.”

“The statement by Pompeo was good,” Daniloff said. “But essentially the administration has been silent on the Whelan case. In one sense it is not surprising, because the United States is going through a major inward look at itself, having to deal with southern border issues of the wall. So much news is going on today that Whelan’s case has a hard time breaking in.”

Three decades ago, Daniloff was bureau chief for U.S. News and World Report in Moscow when he met on a wooded lane in the Lenin Hills with a longtime source. Shortly after receiving a package of photos showing Soviet troops in Afghanistan, Daniloff was arrested by a half-dozen men, handcuffed, and driven in a mini-bus to the prison, where he was confronted with the contents of the package: Soviet military maps marked “secret.”

You can never really be sure how you’re going to respond, unless you’re in the military and you’ve been given training in what to do as a prisoner. I’m interested in what happens to Whelan because, after all, he is an ex-Marine. I wonder how tough a guy he is.

Nicholas Daniloff, former director of the School of Journalism

In the current case, Whelan has been accused of possessing a USB drive containing information on workers at a secret Russian facility. Whelan holds four passports (to the United States, Canada, Britain, and Ireland) and has been active in Russian social media, which likely drew the attention of Russian intelligence, according to Daniloff. Whelan, a global security chief for an auto-parts supplier in Michigan, was in Moscow to attend the wedding of a fellow ex-Marine at the time of his arrest. His family insists that he is not a spy.

Daniloff wonders how Whelan is enduring the isolation and interrogations. As a foreign correspondent, Daniloff had long braced for the possibility of being set up as a pawn in the Cold War.

“You can never really be sure how you’re going to respond, unless you’re in the military and you’ve been given training in what to do as a prisoner,” Daniloff said. “I’m interested in what happens to Whelan because, after all, he is an ex-Marine. I wonder how tough a guy he is.”

Daniloff was interrogated every day by Valery Sergadeyev, a colonel in the KGB. He drew strength from prison visits by his wife, Ruth, who told him of the international response she had incited by speaking out on his behalf. His interrogator also let Daniloff know that the West was angered by the incarceration of an American journalist.

One year after his release, Soviet diplomats admitted to Daniloff that he had been arrested in order to force an eventual exchange of prisoners with Gennadi Zakharov, a Soviet physicist who had been arrested for spying on the United States.

In the case of Whelan, however, Daniloff questions whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will be seeking more than a simple exchange revolving around Russian-born Maria Butina, who last year pleaded guilty to conspiracy as an illegal foreign agent.

“It may not be a one-on-one exchange that the Russians have in mind,” Daniloff said. “There are two or three Russians in American custody today that Putin might well like to rescue.”

After his release, Daniloff turned down a White House assignment from U.S. News and World Report in order to write a book, Two Lives, One Russia. He joined the Northeastern faculty in 1989, and served as director of the journalism program from 1992 to 1999. He retired in 2014.

Daniloff said he suffered no lingering anxiety because his incarceration was relatively brief. He returned several times to Russia, beginning with a trip to visit friends in Makhachkala, Dagestan, in the midst of the Chechnyan war.

“It was an interesting experience,” Daniloff recalled. “I was going specifically to a place that the Moscow authorities were discouraging anybody from going to. I remember that I didn’t register with the police within three days. There was some trouble over that.”

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