Freed physicist Danilov on life in the prison colony and his return to science 03/4/2013, 22:02
Krasnoyarsk physicist Valentin Danilov was released on parole in November 2012. He had been sentenced to 14 years in prison for spying for China despite protests from the scientific community, including Nobel Prize winner Vitaly Ginzburg and Eduard Kruglyakov, Head of the Russian Academy of Sciences Pseudoscience Commission. The academics insisted that the data the scientist was accused of transmitting had been declassified many years earlier, contains no state secrets, and was even published in publicly-available sources. Danilov spent nearly a decade in detention. He told Sib.fm’s correspondent why it is important to know what life is like in a Russian prison, electronic dice for backgammon and how to make money in the clink.
The editors would like to thank art club NII KuDA and its manager Sergei Korostelyov for helping to organise the interview
What do you think has changed the most over the last ten years?
You can see that people are free now. Before, it was easy to pick out a Soviet person in the West — he was like a man wrapped in cotton wool, but now he’s free. Chubais (politician responsible for privatisation in 1990s Russia) gets a lot of stick, but he gave people flats. Flats became property, a commodity that you can get money for. That gave people freedom. You can sell your flat and go abroad — that’s freedom, the barriers are disappearing.
How did your family cope during this period?
It was harder for them of course. I knew how they were living, I could imagine, but they didn’t know what conditions I was living in. Any uncertainty, of course, makes it more difficult.
That’s why I think that people should know as much as possible about prison.
When a person gets into custody, which as my experience shows isn’t all that difficult, neither he nor his family should experience stress. Stress makes you lose your health and maybe even your life.
Well, it was hard financially too, of course. After all, it was always accepted in Russia that the man provides the main income. The political party Union of Rightist Forces helped me and my family a lot — both morally and financially. It is a pity that it doesn’t exist any more.
8,5% of votes were cast for the Union of Rightist Forces in the 1999 elections
Did you feel supported in general?
Not half! It’s hard to overestimate it. I was even surprised, to tell the truth, because I’d always annoyed a lot of people around me due to my character traits. But many people expressed their support and actively reacted to the situation in one way or another. I was pleasantly surprised.
Were you supported by people you didn’t expect to?
Of course, it was just amazing. That’s why I think we have a lot of good people in this country.
Why did they get involved then? Because people are good or because everyone in science understood that they could be in your shoes?
I think it was just some kind of noble impulse. Every person has hidden character traits, and certain events can bring them to the surface. I feel that my case contributed to an outpouring of the noble qualities that are inside every human.
You say that getting sent to prison is terribly stressful, primarily because of uncertainty. So what do we need to know?
The Road to Hell is Chris Rea’s tenth studio album, released in 1989
I still remember being driven into prison in the police van. A song was playing — «This is the road to hell». Not in my imagination, quite literally. It was a popular song back then. But in fact, life doesn’t end, be yourself. It’s a very small world, someone who knows you will always turn up.
There were really friends of yours in the camp?
No, but when you go into the cell, they already know everything about you. An information system has formed there. Before you enter the cell, everyone already knows what your criminal case was, who you are, what you are, where you’re from and what your strengths and weaknesses are. So when I went in, they said: «Professor? We’ve heard about you. Tell us what really happened.» I was surprised by how much they knew about my criminal case and its details.
It is clear that our prison system does not really reform anyone, nor does it put them on the straight and narrow. What helped you to stay yourself morally and intellectually?
Vladimir Lenin wrote more than 30 theoretical works in prison and exile
Of course, when I got to prison, I knew almost nothing about it. I acted spontaneously and adapted to the circumstances. It turned out that was the right thing to do. You always have to be yourself, no matter where you are. Don’t try to come across as something that you aren’t. Your behaviour affects the way people treat you. Of course, there are some things that are specific to prison, but from the beginning I made it clear that I wasn’t going to try to occupy any sort of niche or position myself as a criminal. I am a scientist, but am obliged to live by the laws of this place and have to somehow make an intellectual contribution. For example, I helped prisoners write complaints to press for fairer sentences. I studied criminal law and served as a lawyer on a voluntary basis.
I read a lot, as much as that was possible — more than in the previous 30 years. Before, I just didn’t have the time to read.
I was astonished when I read Kafka’s «The Trail». It seems that the judicial system hasn’t changed one bit.
I have to say that I slept like a baby in prison. If you have a clear conscience and nothing is gnawing away at it, then you will hold onto your health and everything else. It’s right to live true to your conscience.
Once the sentence took legal effect, I realised that I wouldn’t be set free any time soon and need to try to stay healthy. First of all I gave up smoking, although I’d been a smoker for over 30 years. As soon as I got to the colony, I made an effort to do sport. I played table tennis for 8 years. Took part in competitions in spite of my advanced age, by prisoners’ standards. They were always surprised when they lost to me. Chess isn’t popular in prison, so I was forced to learn how to play backgammon. There was one Azerbaijani who made a living playing the game; he could throw the dice in any combination. I told him that as soon as I get out, I’ll make some electronic dice. Random numbers will come up, and then we’ll play.
Persian astrologers used backgammon to predict the fates of their lords
And he says: «Professor, what have I done wrong? This is how I survive. I’ll need six and one, and they’ll give me three and two.» One of my ideas was to produce backgammon sets in the colony with electronic instead of normal dice. But everything was held back by the fact that any item associated with electronics is taboo in prison. Cartridge shells aren’t as frightening as calculators, mobile phones and their accessories. I should have found a partner outside the prison, but it didn’t work out.
It seems like you didn’t make things easy for the prison leadership.
Yes, I probably caused a certain inconvenience by being active, trying to engage in sports activities and find a job. Not a whole lot came off, but that’s not to say absolutely nothing. I dare say I’ve figured out how the work of prisoners should be organised on site. For that to happen, this system has to be sorted out. Now there’s yet another scandal in the Federal Service for the Execution of Sentences (public money was misappropriated by buying food for prisoners from state-controlled enterprises at prices higher than market rates).The 85 enterprises have been checked and now they’re finding out what’s going on, how these companies work, and what their prices and wages are like. But in fact, the whole problem is that, as ever, inappropriate demands are being made of the punishment system. The system is financed for only two purposes: so this contingent doesn’t escape from enclosed boundaries and so that they don’t cripple and kill each other. No money is allocated for production or rehabilitation, and you’re not supposed to ask for it.
Every colony consists of two parts — the residential and industrial zones, which are completely separate. People who work with prisoners are not required to deal with production and shouldn’t be. It’s not their function or job. Promoting production is another matter. Businessmen should work there. But how can you entice a businessman into a prison?
It’s an illusion that a con’s labour is cheap. It costs as much as the product he produces. His output will only be of high quality if he is trained and given good raw materials and technology.
But jailbirds do have one advantage — they’re always sober. That I can guarantee.
It’s quickly suppressed in the rare cases that they’re not. They’re sober, disciplined, don’t get sick, have bags of time and are usually strong.
The statutory standard for an inmate’s living space is 2 square metres per person
That’s all very well, but they’re still surrounded by armed men and a fence with barbed wire. When you take something valuable in there, you don’t know whether you’ll come back out with it. Once, a businessman wanted to transport prisoners into the forest to cut down and dry out trees, but then he just disappeared. God knows where he went. That’s why we need some guarantees.
So, there’s a business, there are people who can manage the prisoners, but we need a third party to give guarantees — the regional authorities and the governor.
What has the governor got to gain from it? Why does he need prisoners to work?
A sentence usually consists of two parts: the first is the term of imprisonment, the second — a fine or compensation for victims. The first part of the sentence is executed beautifully, but where will he get the money from to pay compensation? There’s no work. After all, the victims are residents of the region, taxpayers who contribute to the regional budget among other things. They could say, «Governor, maybe you could do something to make prisoners work and give back the money they owe us? We need them to give us something to live on now, not in ten years’ time when they get out.»
If the governor placed an order with a businessman who could use the prisoners, we’d get the following chain reaction: he places the order, the employer hires a convict, who then brings in lot of money because the employer provides equipment and raw materials, and the prisoner begins to pay off his debt. Then when he gets released, the businessman who has invested money in him and trained him will give him a job hands down. The problem of integration into society after release is solved.
Have you discussed this with anyone?
I’m trying to make contacts with the regional Public Oversight Commissions for human rights observance in detention centres, which are affiliated with the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation. I had such contacts in Krasnoyarsk and hope to continue in Novosibirsk.
All my projects end up being large-scale.
Generally, it’s better to think big. There are times when it’s easier to do something for everyone than just for yourself.
The first Gorodki World Championships were held in St. Petersburg in 2001
What else did you do for everyone in the colony?
The idea struck me that gorodki (a Russian folk sport: the aim of the game is to knock out groups of skittles arranged in various patterns by throwing a bat at them) would be a good game for us. It turns out there’s even an International Gorodki Association. I knew that plastic pins are sold in shops. Plastic pins in Siberia, where there’s nothing but forests?! That’s not environmentally friendly!
I asked my daughter and she downloaded the rules and patterns for gorodki off the internet for me. In fact, the prison had just bought a Chinese lathe. You stick a block of wood in and a cylinder comes out of the other side. I had bats made out of birch and persuaded the deputy for educational work to hold gorodki championships. I convinced him that it’s the only sport in which a prisoner in prison can meet the Master of Sports standard: to knock out 15 patterns with 20 sticks. You take a video camera, measure the distance. If he knocks them all down, that’s it. He’s a Master of Sports. He can get a real sporting ranking.
Has anything from your pre-prison workings been implemented over the last 8 years?
1,2 square kilometres are occupied by Neurath Power Station in Germany — the world’s largest
I feel like I was standing at a station waiting for a train, then went away for eight years. I’ve come back, and the train still hasn’t arrived. My colleague Vadim Slavin and I found that the shortcomings of the heating system using combined heat and power plants can be eliminated, thereby reducing fuel consumption by half, according to our estimates. If by half, then it would be as if the heating period in Siberia were four months long instead of eight. Like in Europe. But they have a hot summer — they need air conditioners and we don’t. We did all the appraisals, even got a patent. The funny thing is that everyone knows everything, but nothing is being done. It’s just amazing. You get the impression that we’re making things hard for ourselves on purpose.
Are you planning to return to science? Or are you going to work on implementing your new ideas?
There’s a saying: if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. As for science... Another saying: it’s good to have a hobby, especially one you can make a living with. Science is my hobby. So of course I’d like to continue with that. I have ideas, beautiful ideas connected with space, but it’s not time for them yet.
A lot of scientists left the country in the 90s. I’m sure you had offers too. Do you regret not leaving?
Why didn’t I leave back then? First of all, I like the people here. There’s a saying: don’t choose a house, choose a neighbour. The most interesting thing in this life is the luxury of communication with people, and there are a lot of interesting people here.
A lot of people really did leave at that time, but I always had some of my own thoughts and ideas that I wanted to realise. The less I was paid, the more ideas I had, for some reason.
If you go away somewhere, they already have their own programmes there. You have to fit in and work with someone else’s ideas. For me the most important thing here is freedom. You have to pay for everything in this world, sometimes quite a lot.