Interview: Igor Sutyagin Discusses ‘Spy Swap,’ Life In England


Former Russian nuclear researcher Igor Sutyagin was among the four prisoners accused of spying for the West who were exchanged on July 9 for 10 suspected Russian spies in U.S. custody. The exchange, which took place at Vienna’s airport, was the biggest “spy swap” between the two countries since the Cold War.

Sutyagin spoke with RFE/RL’s Russian Service correspondent Natalya Golitsyna in London about his trial, imprisonment, and the exchange, as well as his new life in England.

RFE/RL: Since you ended up in the company of those spies during the exchange, some people have naturally started doubting your innocence. Was Igor Sutyagin a spy?

Igor Sutyagin: Of course I wasn’t. I was never a spy. The first thing in my mind — probably because I worked for my country — was doing and thinking for my country. Although, naturally, when they begin accusing me of working for money…. They criticize me for earning money. Well, that was hard. Let those criticize me who never took a kopeck.

But of course I was never a spy. And even during my trial the prosecutor accused me of defending Russia’s interests before the foreigners. That is, he acknowledged that I defended Russia’s interests before the foreigners. What kind of spy is it who works for his own country rather than for another? I think there must be another name for that.

RFE/RL: What actually happened?

Sutyagin: The deal was that the entire company that I worked for gave advice on where to invest in Russia. I tried to create a positive image of my country, trying to prove that it was possible and necessary to invest there. I didn’t have any responsibility for the money after it was invested, but I tried my best to convince the English that there was no reason not to invest.

But the English now accuse me, because they turned out to be smarter. They were interested in what they called “political risks,” using the euphemism that later stood for the case of [former Yukos owner Mikhail] Khodorkovsky and all the rest. They were very concerned about the situation and the possibility of losing their investment. But I was trying to prove that there was nothing to fear.

RFE/RL: And in doing that you whitewashed the situation?

Sutyagin: I didn’t whitewash the situation. I simply arranged the facts in a way that illustrated the idea that the processes going on were no obstacle to cooperation in Russia. And that, incidentally, is a very important detail.

You see, people are always talking about a transfer of information. But there was no transfer of information. The stuff that we are talking about wasn’t an end in itself — it was just an illustration of the processes that are going on in Russia. The firm’s task was to expose the development tendencies in our country — the risks — and to base conclusions about those risks on some sort of factual material. That is the information that I am always being accused of providing and it was just a type of illustration, not the goal of our work.

RFE/RL: Do you think that someone wanted to isolate you, put you in prison?

Sutyagin: I wouldn’t say that. At a certain point I definitely thought they wanted me in prison. Or rather, to keep me in prison — they simply did not want to let me out. To a large extent I think this was because many people who were involved in the case came to see clearly what they were involved in about half a year after the first investigation.

I asked the investigator directly: “You understand that what you are charging me with is complete nonsense?” And he didn’t think for a second, but said immediately: “Of course.”

After the initial charges were filed, I asked the investigator directly (at a moment when his supervisor wasn’t there): “You understand that what you are charging me with is complete nonsense?” And he didn’t think for a second, but said immediately: “Of course, I understand. But I also understand how long you will be in prison. And if I let you out today, then tomorrow one of us will be in your place, and we don’t want to be in prison. So you will remain, not us.”

I think that the Kaluga chekisty who were working on my case understood this perfectly clearly; they knew perfectly what we were talking about.

‘This Is Payback For You’

RFE/RL: What were the conditions of your imprisonment?

Sutyagin: If you are speaking about the last prison near Kholmogory, the conditions weren’t so bad. You see, the administrations of practically all the camps where I was held — and there were four altogether — always felt a certain pressure related to my presence. It was never quite clear what they should do with me or how they should act.

They understood that, in principle, considering my level of education, I was capable of writing (at least theoretically) some rather convincing documents, complaints. This is something prison administrators really don’t like.

For this reason, they did their best to isolate me. In my last prison, this was done very cleverly. They put me in a section that instead of having 110-130 prisoners, had just 11. It was in a closed area that was cut off from the main part of the prison. I was given work that also isolated me from everything. And what is more comfortable — 130 men in a dorm or 11 in one room?

RFE/RL: And were you sewing mittens or doing something more creative?

Sutyagin: I didn’t sew anything in my first prison because I was sitting in solitary confinement. Then the prosecutor of the Republic of Udmurtia quickly established that under the law there was no justification for me being in that prison.

And so I was sent to another, in the city of Sarapul, in a monastery that had been a monastery for just one year — since it was turned into a prison in 1918. There I was assigned to work — also very cleverly isolating me from everyone — in a club. I worked in the club where we published a newspaper and wrote books. In short, we worked actively for the educational section of the prison.

After 54 weeks at Sarapul, I was transferred to Arkhangelsk, where I worked making spindles for cables. You take these big bobbins and wind wire around them and they are called spindles for cables. All I did for this work was to haul the wood. I was forbidden from doing any more serious work at that time. The head of operations at the prison told me then, “This is payback for you.”

But people didn’t really expend a lot of effort trying to make my life uncomfortable. Once the same head of operations told me: “Did you know that every month they call us from the FSB [Federal Security Service] and ask how Sutyagin is doing? I can’t just tell them you are fine. So that is why it’s bad for you.”

But that was just relatively bad. I worked and they paid me fine. For the work I was doing — as if to make up for the general injustice — they paid me twice as much as they paid prisoners in the machine shop or at other jobs. And I was just hauling wood. Of course, weighing just 68 kilograms myself, that was pretty hard work, but it wasn’t that bad. I coped.

‘They Want To Release You’

RFE/RL: You understand that many people have taken your request for a pardon as an admission of guilt….

Sutyagin: That isn’t really correct. They started asking me to apply for a pardon in early 2005. At that time people from the prosecutor’s office came to the prison in Sarapul — the chekisty never spoke to me directly.

They came and told me straight out: “You know,” they pointed up into the sky, “there are people up there who really don’t want to see Sutyagin sitting in prison. And there is only one way to solve that. They can’t say that they made a mistake — they’ll never do that. But they need to get you out because they are just losing from this situation. They want to let you out without losing face and the way to do that is to pardon you. They’ll pardon you and you can leave. All the negative stuff they are facing now will end, and you have to help them.”

That is the sort of pardon request they asked me to file in 2005 in Sarapul, and in 2006 and in early 2007 in Archangelsk. And, finally, in 2010 they again asked me to do this — they really needed me to. When I said “no” precisely because they were demanding that I write about my guilt, you should have seen how they instantly became confused and nervous. That is, this time this was really, really necessary — and not just for me.

RFE/RL: Who is this “they”?

Sutyagin: It was two Russians who never told me their names, but I understood they were generals, and three Americans, who came to see me in Lefortovo.

RFE/RL: They were in uniform?

Sutyagin: Of course not. Chekist generals, as I understand, rarely wear uniforms. At least, I remember being very surprised once when I saw a chekist working on my case in a uniform.

English Experiences

RFE/RL: Why do you think you ended up in England?

Sutyagin: I really don’t know. I can’t say for sure. To be honest, I don’t even want to guess. I can say that I’m glad I’m in England and not somewhere even farther from home. After all, this is closer, a lot closer, and I’m glad of that.

RFE/RL: When you arrived in England, did someone meet you?

Sutyagin: A helicopter. No one met me here. You see, the plane that came in from Vienna landed at a British air base and later I was told it was Brize Norton. That was reasonable enough: How could I have been dumped off in Heathrow without a British visa? What would I have said? So it was natural that I’d come through some place that was less demanding in terms of passport control.

We were loaded into a small helicopter. Our bags and things were put into a car and we took off. As far as I understand, we were met by a correspondent from some British television company who was hiding with a camera somewhere outside the base. I was told that he filed a report about the plane that landed and then took off again. Two British airmen by hand dragged a stairway to the Boeing 767 that brought us in from Vienna. It was really big and I could see through the window that they were having a hard time. It was big and awkward. But there was no one else there. No one met us.

RFE/RL: The Russian authorities say you worked for Britain’s MI6 or, say, for the U.S. secret services. When you arrived in England, were you questioned by anyone from the secret services? Did they try somehow to contact you?

Sutyagin: Not really. They didn’t really question me. One guy showed up two or three times and we had short conversations. He was mostly interested what our representatives in Moscow were saying about the terms of the exchange. Of course, he could have found out about this from the Americans, who were present through the whole thing.

I was told in Moscow that an agreement on the exchange of “ours for ours” had already been concluded by the presidents and had been prepared by the special services — the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service [SVR] and, I suppose, the CIA in the United States. It would make sense to suppose that the man who was talking to me worked for a parallel British organization.

I also spoke with a psychiatrist who established that I didn’t need any counseling. I was examined by a doctor who also expressed surprise at my good condition, which was better than he expected.

I was mostly left on my own, which was good because it gave me a chance to pull myself together a bit. I listened to the Classic FM classical-music radio station all the time. I went for long walks. I asked to be taken to a forest and I was. I understood that there wasn’t a forest anywhere nearby, so they took me somewhere in a car. I walked around in the forest, which was very nice. I was in touch with my friends, and I spent a week with them because they had some sort of urgent business to attend to. I remember it was a Monday and I was going to go and see them, but I ended up leaving only on Friday.

RFE/RL: What passport do you have?

Sutyagin: Russian. I have two passports, as I should. One domestic Russian passport that they gave me in Kholmogory and a Russian foreign passport. A normal red one.

RFE/RL: They gave it to you when you were leaving?

Sutyagin: The English gave it to me because they had to put the visa in it. I was given a six-month visa. The stamps are there, I looked. An exit stamp from passport and customs control at Domodedovo — they went to the trouble of stamping that I left Russia. Which is good, because there would be fewer questions than there would be if I tried to enter Russia without having left it.

RFE/RL: And you have a stamp that you entered England?

Sutyagin: I have a visa, yes.

RFE/RL: I don’t mean a visa. When you enter here, you should also get a stamp.

Sutyagin: To be honest, I didn’t really look that carefully. As far as I understand, they are supposed to stamp your visa and I didn’t have a visa at the moment that I entered. So, most likely, there isn’t such a stamp. But the visa is a business visa, not a tourist visa.

RFE/RL: When you first arrived in England you didn’t talk to anyone, I mean journalists. There was a rumor, naturally, that you were being debriefed….

Sutyagin: I’m actually afraid to answer these questions. People, especially in our country, react to them…. I think that a lot of journalists in Russia seem to have lost their sense of humor. So I answer distantly and cautiously.

There is a journalist named Zoya Svetova, who constantly followed my case for the whole time I was in custody, who followed the fate of my family and was in constant contact with them and wrote many articles. And there were other journalists, of course, but she was right there for many years. She came to Archangelsk when I was there and constantly tried to get an interview with me. She was rejected repeatedly and kept coming. She came to the court in Vysokogory when I was denied parole and she stayed there and wrote about everything, keeping up the pressure for me.

And so I decided that first of all I would tell everything to Zoya Svetova. At the time, she was on vacation and so I just waited for her to return. So, you see, all the talk that I was hiding from journalists is absolutely untrue. It all stemmed from the fact that I wanted to talk to her first, and only to her. After that I simply wanted to talk to those media outlets that supported me back then. It was all obvious: Zoya Svetova, “Novaya gazeta.” Radio Svoboda [RFE/RL’s Russian Service], Ekho Moskvy — and then the others.

As far as debriefings go…. You know, I have spoken about this several times and I’m afraid that people have lost their sense of humor. I said that there were, of course, debriefings, even two or three a day. But there were only two questions. They constantly asked me the same questions. First, “Tell us, is there something special you’d like to eat?” That was the first question, which they asked me constantly. I really wanted some “pelmeni,” but I was sure they wouldn’t be able to get any real pelmeni. So I always answered, “No, I don’t want anything, I’m fine.”

The second question that they asked me over and over was: “We are going to the store now. Do you want anything?” The first thing I asked for was that they buy me a CD of “Phantom Of The Opera.” I really enjoyed listening to it. So, you can see the British aren’t as good at debriefings as the FSB. Their debriefings were a lot more intense.

Prison Visits

RFE/RL: Did you have any contact with the outside world when you were in prison?

Sutyagin: According to the laws on imprisonment, I had the right to meet with my family. Under the conditions that I was held in most of the time, I was allowed three meetings a year of about 69-70 hours of so-called extended visits (in prison, three days is 69 hours, sometimes less). Plus three short visits about four hours each.

The first time they came to me for an extended visit was in January 2005, I think. That makes sense, because it was in November 2004 that I was finally sent to the prison. And you have to apply for a visit and stand in line. That is, the process takes not less than two months. And, consequently, as soon as the chance arose, they came to me. But beginning in 2006, when I was in Archangelsk, they started coming even for the short visits. My relatives came all that way to talk to me for three or four hours, even though it took them more than a full day each way to travel there.

After a certain time, I was allowed to talk to people by telephone. In Sarapul, I was able to call home regularly, I think about once every two weeks, to my parents and my wife. During my first year in Archangelsk I was constantly deprived of the chance to telephone, although by law I should have been able to. Under the law, I had the right to six 15-minute phone calls home each year. But for the first year, I was denied this right entirely.

Then I was transferred to strict confinement where I was allowed only one visit a year and no telephone privileges. But after 16 months of this, I was again transferred to ordinary conditions and things in the prison were quite different. I was able to call quite easily.

This was possible first of all because most of the ordinary convicts had forbidden mobile phones. I absolutely refused to use them, but there was practically no one lining up to use the prison telephones. At one point, only three prisoners out of 1,200 or more applied to call home. When the prison administrators saw me again coming to their telephones, they joked, “Why don’t you call from your mobile phone?”

The only restriction was that I could only call on “my” day — on the day that was assigned to my unit, which was once a week. When I was sent to Kholmogory, things became a little easier. The prison there was smaller and there were still some banned mobile phones. So there were a few more prisoners wanting to use the prison phones, but they didn’t have assigned days. So whenever I had the chance, I went and called. The problem was getting a telephone card.

Inklings Of A Swap

RFE/RL: When and how did you hear about the so-called Russian spies in America?

Sutyagin: I heard about them from my fellow prisoners in the sixth unit — our little unit of 11 men — who, unlike me, watched television and read “Novaya gazeta.” That issue wasn’t shown to me. But they read it and told me about it.

It is interesting in prison that nothing really happens there, so whenever anything does, it sets off a lot of discussions. As the prison administration told me, in Arkhangelsk Oblast there was only one spy — me — so whenever anything happened in the world of espionage, everyone ran to tell me about it. It was interesting to talk about. The news came sometime around [June 27] and I heard about it maybe two or three days later. But I didn’t connect it with myself in any way. It was interesting, but what did it matter to me?

RFE/RL: And when did you first hear that you would be exchanged?

Sutyagin: On July 6 in the office of the head of Lefortovo. They told me that an agreement had been reached.

RFE/RL: And how did you feel? Free?

Sutyagin: Not at all. To be honest, I had guessed a couple hours earlier that something like that would happen, based on what was going on around me.

RFE/RL: What was that?

Sutyagin: Instead of taking me for fingerprinting, they photographed me. Then instead of prison clothes, they gave me a shirt and even asked me what size. And they gave me a blue-striped tie that was even tied for me. They gave them to me and then took my picture.

You see, back in Kholmogory I was really busy working. They were expecting a new inspector making his second inspection at any moment. After the first one, he really scared the administration. So we were working really hard and the administration was doing everything to avoid any criticism. To be honest, I didn’t have a minute to shave, since I wasn’t getting back to my room until about 2:30 in the morning.

So it turned out that I hadn’t shaved for a couple of days when they came to take me from Kholmogory on July 5. They took me to Lefortovo and stood me in front of a camera all unshaven. In Lefortovo they take everything away from you, including razors, of course. And I couldn’t get it back just so that I could shave, no matter how I asked. The rule was, once you shave, you give it back to the controller. But I wasn’t even allowed to shave.

So they photographed me all unshaven. Then I got dressed again in prison clothes. And the pair who photographed me were looking at the picture on the computer. One said, “Maybe we should remove the stubble?” And the other said, “No, no need to remove anything. For them, the more natural, the better.”

When they were taking my picture, they asked me to turn my head slightly. The Americans have a rule that when you take a picture for a visa, your right ear has to be showing. So I thought then that they were photographing me for an American visa.

Earlier I had seen that they were bringing to Lefortovo people convicted under Article 275 [state treason]. I saw bags with this written and the name of one person I’d heard of before. At first I thought that finally something good has happened in the country and they were reviewing cases under Article 275. Then I put it all together — the suitcases, the number of people, Article 275, the information about the arrests of our countrymen in America, the completely strange photograph. It was clear to me that it wasn’t a review of cases but an ordinary exchange.

After that, my mood got a lot worse. I went back to Cell No. 68 in a foul mood. I kept asking, “What are you bastards up to?” I was sure they wanted to trade me for those illegals. And after two or three hours they took me to the office of the head of Lefortovo and there were some Americans there and I understood that I was not mistaken. Then they started speaking and it was clear I was not mistaken.

RFE/RL: Did the Americans introduce themselves?

Sutyagin: They said their names. But I don’t remember them. Just first names. No last names. Just first names. I remember that one of them was from the Justice Department. Since they were talking with our generals, I assumed they was relatively high-ranking themselves.

RFE/RL: And your other “colleagues”?

Sutyagin: I would call them “comrades in good fortune.” Or in misfortune.

RFE/RL: The ones you were exchanged with — do you speak with them?

Sutyagin: I don’t really feel the urge to. The main thing is that I don’t even know where they are. How am I supposed to contact them? And we only met in the airplane. It was only right before takeoff that I realized there would be four of us. When I was figuring it out myself, I assumed that if there were 11 people arrested in the States, there would be 11 of us. When I told my relatives, when I met them, I imagined the exchange would be even — say, 10 for 10 or 11 for 11.

From that there was gossip that I had been shown a list but that I had supposedly forgotten about it because it wasn’t good to name the names that were on it. I guess people who write detective stories say such things, but they have never really been anywhere near real law enforcement or judicial matters. There, no one tells you anything. They hardly tell you anything about your own fate, and nothing about the fate of others. So, naturally, I had no such information.

Family Waiting For Passports

RFE/RL: Were you allowed to see your family before you left Russia?

Sutyagin: Yes, before I left Russia, I was given that chance. I had said that I wanted to talk to them before I made the decision on what to do, but they didn’t let me. After everything was done and both sides — the Americans and the Russians — could breathe easier, then they let me meet with everyone. Everyone came to me except for my father, since he’d had two heart attacks and a 40-degree fever, so he couldn’t come to Moscow. But I met and spoke with everyone else. Yes.

RFE/RL: Have your relatives been able to visit you in Britain?

Sutyagin: Not yet, because they are getting their passports. And it seems that for some reason the time frame for getting a foreign passport has suddenly been increased compared to what they were told when they submitted their documents. God willing, that is just a simple bureaucratic hang-up. At first they were told it would take 28 days. Then they were suddenly told it would be five weeks. And after that, something else might come up.

For now, I don’t know. I’m sitting and waiting, counting on the fact that everything will be as we agreed. But in prison there is a saying that anyone who believes the administration — we call them all the militsia — doesn’t respect oneself. It is my experience that they haven’t kept their word even one time. Not once in 11 years.

RFE/RL: But now we are talking about the British, who have to issue a visa.

Sutyagin: They’ll give a visa probably. But you have to put a visa in a passport. Delays in one lead to delays in the other. So far, I don’t know.

A New Life

RFE/RL: As I understand it, you were in England before you went to prison. What are your impressions now that you are staying a while?

Sutyagin: I can’t say that I am staying a while. To be honest, I’d really like to get on a plane. Even my relatives told me in Lefortovo: “Don’t you jump right back on a plane. Look around and see what is happening and why.” But I’m very sad that I am not where I want to be now. But maybe I’ll get over it.

But I can say that while I was walking the streets of London — not in the very center — I found myself thinking that something about this city is more humane and it is more pleasant to walk here than in Moscow. Because the narrow little lanes and even the not-so-pretty corners seems a little more human than the broad prospects of Moscow. Of course, that too is good and pretty and fine, but it creates a different feeling.

The main difference with Moscow is that London isn’t too tall. I haven’t seen any huge buildings that make you feel like a piece of sand. Here you are on the right scale with the city. And there is a lot of green space — much more than remains in Moscow.

RFE/RL: You mentioned that you have the right to work here. Are you working now?

Sutyagin: Not yet. But you could call what I’m doing work. I am writing letters to all the people who supported me and who wrote letters to me. I am in contact with my relatives. I call home every day and talk to them for more than an hour. I give interviews. I have to write texts and correct them. All that takes a lot of time and effort. I can say that I’m not sitting around. But I’m not working at a particular office at something I can put on my resume, no.

RFE/RL: Will you try to find work to support yourself?

Sutyagin: Not yet since first I really need to look around and understand and decide for myself the main question — where will I look for work? Naturally, I still would like to work in Russia, which would be better for my family. But I need to work where I can really help my family, at least in the same way that I did 11 years ago when I was able to support my family and the family of my parents and help my brother. Of course, I’d like to be well-off enough to help people and not just kill time at work getting a few pennies that aren’t even enough to feed myself. This is important too.

RFE/RL: Do you think you’ll be allowed to return to Russia?

Sutyagin: I don’t know yet. I need to figure that out, find out. There is a great saying: The art of not being wrong lies in the ability to make the weakest possible statements. So I’m not saying what I believe or don’t believe. I simply don’t know. I need to see, to try, to look around and figure things out.

RFE/RL: Would you say that you have fallen far behind professionally?

Sutyagin: I have definitely fallen far behind in the sense of following the latest information and knowing and following the latest events from the inside. In this regard, undoubtedly, I have fallen behind a lot.

But on the other hand I know from my life before prison that once I had the ability to very quickly soak up information and to take up subjects that were completely new to me. I tried as much as possible — and this is one thing that saved me in prison — to not rest, to not let my brain rot. I tried to read newspapers, to watch the news to read analytical and historical material. That is, to not lose the habit of working with information. I really hope that I have not lost that completely. I picked up English surprisingly quickly and not too badly.

RFE/RL: In one interview you said that you taught English in prison.

Sutyagin: I managed to teach the norms of Oxford pronunciation, but I didn’t get around to grammar and that sort of thing. And the people I was teaching were too lazy to work on their vocabularies. So it wasn’t really very deep study.

RFE/RL: Who were you teaching?

Sutyagin: Don’t tell anyone, but it was the head of security at the prison.

RFE/RL: Let’s hope that comes in handy for him.

Sutyagin: Yes. I’ll invite him for a visit.

RFE/RL: Can’t the British firms who were involved in getting you into prison in the first place help you find work and means to support yourself now that you are here?

Sutyagin: I’d like to correct you right away. The company that was involved in getting me into prison was not British but Russian. It is located in Moscow, on the former Dzerzhinsky Square. The representatives of that company, after six months of working on my case, knew perfectly well the essence of the matter. And if they didn’t let me free, then whose fault is it that I spent 11 years in prison? It has nothing to do with the British.

Second, I’d like to return to the question of whether I was a spy. To be honest, working with the British was really just a pure bonus for me. It paid well, several times more than my basic work, to which I devoted my soul and my heart and my health and my time. I also invested my own money in order to do that work. And this was a bonus. If someone pays you to load a truck, are you going to search and find out who it is? You could, of course, but why? What is the point? There is no point.


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *