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Physicist Valentin Danilov: how I survived life behind bars

31 January 2013 

Zoya Svetova

Zoya Svetova: The 64-year-old physicist, Professor Valentin Danilov, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison for alleged treason and has now been released on parole, tells Zoya Svetova about his life behind bars and what needs to change in the Russian penal system. The last time I met with Valentin Danilov was in 2004, right after the Supreme Court's ruling overturning the innocent verdict in his case. Danilov was preparing to travel to Krasnoyarsk for a new trial. He said that he was once again hoping for acquittal: he was been defending by academics who were convinced of his innocence. He was smoking a pipe and beaming with optimism. Today, 8 years on, Danilov has been in two strict regime colonies, had a stay in the prison hospital due to heart problems, no longer smokes but is just as optimistic as ever, and - incredibly - hasn’t lost his faith in the Russian justice system.

A 'tick-box' spy

- Why did you not leave when the Supreme Court reversed the innocent verdict? It was clear to many people that you were going to be sent to prison and for a long time.

I couldn't leave. My reputation would have suffered. While I was in prison during the investigation a lot of people contributed to my bails and signed letters in my defence, including the academic Vitaly Ginsburg, Yuri Ryzhov, Edward Kruglyakov and many others. If I had left it would have been seen as my running away.

- Who was behind your conviction?

That remains a mystery to me; I have been trying and failing to solve it these 12 years, since the opening of the criminal case.

- There is the theory that you concluded the contract with the Chinese and either stole a march on the FSB or didn't share the information with the top brass, as they are always in direct control of similar operations.

First of all, I concluded the contract on behalf of Krasnoyarsk Technical University. We were to manufacture an everyday vacuum bench and sell a computer programme which could be used to model the influence of space environment factors on objects.

One of the investigators said to me: "If your contract had been for $50-60,000 we wouldn't have paid any attention to it." There is a financial threshold after which the system kicks into action. I concluded a contract for $360,000 and immediately ran into problems.

And as far as sharing the information with someone, there were not propositions made on that account. This whole thing could have been stopped with a single call to the rector to say that the contract must not be fulfilled, stop. No problem.

The contract itself wasn't very interesting. What was interesting was the long-term cooperation which would have provided the institute with funding, because in 1993 state funding was non-existent.

- Then why did they still put you in prison? Would cooperation with China have given the institute an opportunity to work?

Yes. I told the investigator: "China didn't get anything out of this. The institute and the laboratory didn't receive any money either, we didn't conduct any research. Russia also lost in this. But who won? Who are you working for, Lieutenant Colonel?" I asked him.

- And what did he say?

Well, what could he say? After the investigation had ended, I said to him: "Later, when you're thinking back on your career, I doubt you'll be proud to remember your work on this case." At that point he couldn't keep it up, he said, "You know, you're probably right."

This is why I find this case incredible: who was it necessary for?

- Do you agree with the assessment by human rights defenders, that you were a victim of "spy mania"?

Human rights defenders take a lot of similar espionage cases, compare them and come to a conclusion that there some sort of subdivision between them which, to be frank, has to show their work. In general, this criminal case was very strange. Utterly absurd.

When I read Kafka's The Trial I understood that everything that had happened to me was straight out of a Kafka story.

I agree with the theory that I was put in prison in order to tick a box somewhere.

- 13 years to tick a box?

Yes. But if you live in Russia, you have to be prepared for this kind of thing. You can't live in Russia and be afraid of going to prison.

Jurors with clearance

- In your application to the European Court you said that the guilty verdict was handed down by an unlawful composition of jury members and that the guilty verdict should be overturned. Why was the make-up of the jury unlawful?

It came to light that several jurors had clearance to state secrets. Do you think they were independent from the FSB?

- No. It's also surprising that people with this kind of clearance randomly ended up in the jury in a case related to state secrets. How many were there in the jury?

I don't remember exactly. Under the law, if you have well-founded doubts about the independence of even one juror, then the entire jury is illegitimate.

The defence spoke about this in court.

But no one listened to us during the trial or at the cassation appeal at the Supreme Court.

Life behind bars

- What was the hardest thing about life in prison?

The first months were the toughest. Given that a scientist's reputation is his most important asset, the charges and arrest came as a serious blow to me.

But when my lawyer brought me a letter from the American Physical Society and I found out that they had sent a letter to President Putin saying that they were prepared to present several volumes of scientific literature confirming that I had not divulged any state secrets and that there were no secrets involved whatsoever, that's when I felt my spirits rise.

I knew that I didn't have to worry about my reputation. In prison people perish mainly due to stress. In a stressful situation they turn on themselves, which is why support is so important.

It's important to hear that you aren't the first or the last to be in prison, and that a lot of reputable people have spent time behind bars. And that the sentence isn't for ever, everything ends eventually.

- What were conditions like for you?

Whatever they say, there is reform taking place in Russia's prisons. The conditions for prisoners are improving. I can explain it by looking at the improvement in financial standing of people across Russian, and seeing this as a knock-on effect of that. There is a saying: if you want to get to know a country quickly, visit two places in it - a cemetery and a prison.

In the past ten years revolutionary changes have taken places in the prison system: where prisoners previously would take turns sleeping, I've come to find that this is no longer done.

- Who were your fellow prisoners?

They were just people, although perhaps slightly special, given that I was in a strict regime camp where those convicted of serious and especially grave crimes served their sentence.

As a rule, the worst crimes are committed by people with psychiatric disorders or in the heat of passion. In real life you would avoid people like that, but in the colony they're all concentrated in one place.

By talking to them I learned that I needed to be very careful to watch how I spoke.

On the outside, for example, if you use harsh words you'll be forgiven, but in prison this doesn't happen.

- You mean you can't swear, for example?

Yes, that is best avoided. Another thing: words have immediate consequences. If you insult someone and he doesn't react to it in the right way, his position in the prison changed right away. Instantly.

On the outside you can call people whatever you want, but in prison you have to be very careful.

- What were most people currently in the colony convicted of?

Probably about a third of the people I was in with were convicted under the so-called political article, Article 228 – selling and trafficking drugs.

- Why is it political?

Because a person doesn't have to commit a crime to be imprisoned under this article. It's like the fable: you are guilty of wanting to eat me. Drug enforcement agencies meet their quotas by locking these people up.

- Do you believe that the majority of people convicted for drugs offences are innocent?

They are guilty, but as Henri Reznik says: "There is a law higher than the law, which is fairness, higher than fairness - mercy, and higher than mercy - love."

Under the law they were rightly convicted. Yes, they sold drugs.

But the sentence and punishment for this offence is unjust.

- Why?

Punishment under this article needs to be differentiated. There are people, of course, for who drugs is a business. But there are also people who use drugs themselves and as drugs cost so much, they sell drugs to others in order to buy them for themselves: he sells three doses and keeps the fourth one for himself as a reward.

This isn't gain, it's an illness. They don't pose any danger for society.

They should be sent to somewhere in Evenkia. We have lots of places where there are practically no people. The Kuril Islands are empty, so is Sakhalin and Kamchatka.

Let them potter about in a vegetable garden and live with their family; there's no one to sell drugs to there except for the bears.

- You met drug dealers in prison?

One or two at most.

"Reds" and "Blacks"

- How were you treated by the other prisoners?

They practically always treated me with respect. The convicts have a very good visual memory. My case was discussed on television.

So, for example, a prisoner might look at me and recall that he's seen me before, but can't remember where. And he'll say: "Here, were you in the other zone?" I say: "No." "Well, were have I seen you, then?"

I say: "Probably on the television." "Ah! Right! Danilov the physicist."

- In Krasnoyarsk Region where you served your sentence, were there "red" zones?

It is generally believed that in Krasnoyarsk Region the administration controls life in the zones. But this doesn't mean that prisoners do not govern themselves to an extent. "Black" zone, "red" zone...

I didn't go into it in much depth, but I know that in practically every colony there are prisoners who are in charge of organising life in the zone. If any problems arise, they deal with them.

I never approached the administration to deal with any of my problems. It's not the done thing.

- What changes could be made to the prison system?

The current system is just a penitentiary institution. Simply a place where convicts are held: they take in 20 people, they served their time there and 20 people are released.

Everything they say about educating and reforming prisoners is an illusion: there's no money earmarked for it. Labour is the best form of education. What do you need for this kind of work? You need modern tools, technologies and raw materials. You need to manage this process.

- Do you believe that we need to bring back the Gulag for prisoners to work?

Not at all. The zone has two parts - the living area and the production area. Who wants prisoners to be socialised, meaning that they work, that they have a qualification etc.? The Governor. Why? As a rule, the ones who suffer are the inhabitants of the region to which the prisoner is indebted. He serves his time and then comes the second part of his sentence - paying his claim.

But he doesn't pay if he isn't working. Therefore the governor should provide him with work. He can organise orders to the colony.

Get local businessmen involved, get them interested. Everyone benefits: the colony, the businessmen, the governor and the convicts.

- So the governor should support local colonies?

He should organise the process of prisoner reform. He doesn't need recidivists. When a convict gets out of prison he says: give me work. Where will he get it? But if a businessman has already invested money in him and trained him, then when the convict is released the businessman will take him on.

- The European Court will rule on your application in the near future. And perhaps the Supreme Court will decide to review the case. Will you agree to it? Igor Sutyagin, for example, refused, stating that he did not believer in the fairness of the Russian justice system.

I have dealt with six professional judges. Judge Valentin Baranovsky of Krasnoyarsk Regional Court refused to review my criminal case due to fundamental violations of procedural law. Judge Svetlana Berestova released me on my own recognizance not to leave after being held for 19 months.

Three judges from the regional court upheld Berestova's ruling. Finally, Judge Evgeny Repin released me on parole.

So I have prepared for me case to be reviewed. Perhaps I'll be lucky with the judge I get.

But it seems to me that there is some flaw in our legislation. Look: a verdict is given on a case and then an application is submitted to the European Court in Strasbourg.

They decide that the defendant's right to a fair trial was violated. The Supreme Court sends the case for a new hearing under new circumstances. And the same thing happens again: the court, the violations, the application to Strasbourg and on and on for eternity?

This vicious circle has to be stopped somewhere. Obviously, it a person's right to a fair trial has been violated and this is confirmed by a ruling in Strasbourg, then the trial should be brought to an end.

It's like this in the USA: if the accused is not informed of his rights when he is arrested, the prosecution does not go ahead.

But what faction in the State Duma would come out with a legislative initiative like this?

Source: The New Times