American Paul Whelan, a former Marine and later head of security at the auto parts firm BorgWarner, was arrested in 2016 when he flew to Russia for the wedding of his former colleague. The Russian authorities accused him of espionage and confiscated his flash drive with the names of cadets at the Golitsyn Border Institute of the FSB (no explanation was offered as to why a spy would need the names of the cadets), and then a Russian court sentenced him to 16 years in prison. Whelan himself claims he was framed, and the flash drive had been given to him by an acquaintance who told him the photographs were from his dacha. Through his lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, Whelan answered The Insider's questions and spoke about his arrest, conditions of detention and plans for after his release.
Q: Did you manage to adapt to the Russian penal colony?
A: I am calm about Russian prisons; I'm already used to being here. Only the food in Mordovia is worse than in Lefortovo - the quality of the products is inferior. And there is another nuance: when I was in Lefortovo, they thought that I was a “flight risk,” so here I have to wear a badge with a red stripe. A stricter regime has been prescribed for me. The fact that two Americans, a Chinese and a Croat, are serving time along with me also makes my life in the colony easier. I can speak English with them. But the rest of the prisoners keep their distance from me, probably because of the severity of my punishment. But they themselves are not of interest to me. The most important thing here is to make sure no one snoops on you.
Q: It is a known fact that you are a former US soldier; where did you serve, what did you do after leaving the service? What is your family like?
A: I graduated from a military school in the United States, then I took American citizenship <Whelan was born in Canada - The Insider>. Then I served in the military police and participated in hostilities in Iraq. I went there twice, was shell-shocked, received the rank of staff sergeant and left the service. I quickly found something to do next - I got a job as head of security at BorgWarner. I had a lot of business trips there. As for my family, it is small - my parents live in Canada, my grandfather is from Ireland, my brother and sister now live in the USA. My parents are cattle breeders. My dog lives with them now. I don't have my own family yet – I think it's too early for that.
Q: You often came to Russia as a tourist, why? You were even registered on VKontakte and you had many Russian friends, how did you get to know them?
A: I love Russia, I like to study its history and culture, visit holy places. For the last 10 years I have been coming here 2 or 3 times a year, travelling to different cities. For example, I was in Sergiev Posad, Perm, St. Petersburg. Every time I came to Russia, I met new people on the Internet, so I started a page on VKontakte. Most of my friends were servicemen. It's because I have a lot in common with them, similar interests. Some of them worked in the Ministry of Emergency Situations, some in the Ministry of Defense. Now, unfortunately, I'm not allowed to receive letters. I can only call my parents on the phone once a week. I hear news about friends from a US Embassy employee – he tells me about them when he comes to visit. This way I stay up to date with all the events.
Q: How unexpected was your arrest at the Metropol Hotel? Do you remember the day you were detained, December 28, 2018?
A: The day before that, a friend came to me from St. Petersburg. We talked, went out for a drink of whiskey - in general, we had fun as friends. He promised to give me a flash drive with photographs that had been taken at his dacha. He worked as a border guard and served in Crimea. I was somewhat surprised when he came to my room at the Metropol Hotel the next day. He brought with him a bottle of whiskey and a thumb drive with photographs. Our meeting was brief, I quickly took the flash drive and went to shave. But when I finished my business, FSB officers knocked on my door. They detained me, conducted a search and found the thumb drive my friend had brought. Later, mulling over those events, I came to the conclusion that he gave me whiskey on purpose so that I would be in a state of light alcoholic intoxication when they came to detain me.
Q: What did you think when you were detained and arrested?
A: To be honest, I'm still shocked. On the very first day of my detention, they told me not to worry, because they would exchange me. The consul from the US embassy also visits me and he says there's only one way out for me - to get a sentence and then ask for expulsion from the country in order to serve the sentence in the United States. If such a procedure does take place, I suspect I will be exchanged for Yaroshenko, who is now in the United States. <Pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko is serving 20 years in prison on charges of smuggling a large batch of cocaine - The Insider>. I recently wrote an open letter in which I asked Presidents Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden to discuss the detention of their citizens in foreign prisons.
Q: At the time you were detained, you hardly spoke Russian at all; how did you cope with the situation? Do you understand and speak Russian now?
A: When I was detained, I knew how to speak simple words in Russian and maintain a conversation. But the FSB officers were ready for my arrest and quickly brought in an interpreter. The FSIN officers also understood I was a US citizen, so they put me in a cell with a man who knew English well. He translated everything. But over time, I began to understand Russian better, and now I even speak a little Mordovian.
Q: Did you find the conditions of detention in the Moscow pre-trial detention centers difficult for you?
A: I’m a soldier, so my perception of prison is completely different from that of ordinary people. I reacted calmly to the conditions of detention both in Lefortovo and in the Mordovian penal colony. For me, serving time is not a problem, because I take everything with humor. I am more confused by the lack of understanding and the troglodyte level of the FSIN system itself: for example, here you cannot listen to the radio normally, read the latest press, or do normal work. All the work here is just rough. For example, in Lefortovo, everyone had only an hour for an outdoor walk, whereas in any American prison, for example, you can easily walk outdoors after lunch.
Q: What's your everyday routine in the colony?
A: The daily routine at the colony is simple: getting up at 6 am and exercising. In the morning I try to sing the anthems of the four countries. I work first shift from 8 am to 4 pm (the colony specializes in sewing clothes – ed.). In the evening I have free time, which I try to spend wisely: I read books in Russian and English, I browse magazines. On weekends I go to church, then I drink tea with cookies, we are allowed to do so. There is a lot of work in the colony, and it's for the best – it drives away other thoughts, so it's good when you are busy all the time. We live in barracks, in rooms of 20 people. But everyone is respectful, no harassment.
Q: Have you had any health issues?
A: When I was still in jail, before being sent to the colony, I had an operation to remove a hernia. And they did it very well, I thanked the Moscow doctors. But then my shoulder joint began to hurt, it became inflamed.
Q: What will you do first thing after release?
A: I will visit my parents in Canada, and my dog. I miss my homeland and its nature, the pastures. Then I'll go to the USA to see my brother. First of all, I want to see my family. And then I’ll write a book about my adventures, and of course, we’ll shoot a film. You know, a script is already being written based on my story. I have been negotiating with American film directors.
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