America's happiest immigrant Prisoner in Moscow: Vil S. Mirzayanov blew the whistle on Russian chemical weapons and paid a price: police harassment and a Kafkaesque trial. Now he's ecstatic about his new life in New Jersey.

Sun Journal

November 09, 1995|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN STAFF

PRINCETON, N.J. — TC / PRINCETON, N.J. -- The gray jail-house pallor is gone. His cheeks have filled out.

Not so long ago there was nothing to eat but rancid fish soup in a metal bowl shoved into the cell that he shared with 56 other prisoners. Now there is cappuccino at any of several off-campus cafes, and a Nordic Track to help keep the pounds off.

Is it any wonder that Vil Sultanovich Mirzayanov is, at the age of 60, America's happiest immigrant?

He's a scientist with a history that by rights should allow him simply to savor the comforts of suburban, academic America after the drama and sheer pressure of the last several years. He had his great moment of personal courage when he was in the hands of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB. He ought to relax.

But, driven by a need to be heard and understood, he has gone to Washington time and again to lobby and to testify before Senate committees that are considering the wisdom of ratifying a treaty that would do away with chemical weapons.

Dr. Mirzayanov has a certain standing to speak on the subject: he devoted nearly all his professional life to the development of ever more powerful and toxic chemicals for the benefit of the Soviet arsenal.

In 1991 he turned against his former bosses, eventually going public with allegations that they were hiding the true nature of their still very potent program. He wound up in jail and stood trial for divulging state secrets, until world pressure caused the authorities to drop the case against him.

Dr. Mirzayanov thought he was striking a blow against chemical weapons and the programs that create them.

Dismayed by conservatives

But now he finds, to his dismay, that his allegations are being used by American conservatives to argue against ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention -- pointing to his experience as an example of underhandedness and dishonesty by the Russian government.

He, too, at one point had been concerned that the treaty -- which both Russia and the United States signed in January 1994, but which neither has ratified -- would provide a cover for continuing Russian research into substances that weren't specifically forbidden.

"I was afraid these people would use the convention to continue their work," he says. "But then I thought -- if there isn't a convention, then what will there be?

And the question of further secret research isn't the only issue, he said. The danger posed by current stocks of conventional chemical weapons, particularly at a time when security at the storage sites is haphazard and open to bribery, may be reason enough to go ahead with the treaty.

Dr. Mirzayanov believes that the rest of the world is waiting to see what Washington does about the treaty, and that, as a welcomed immigrant here with a unique understanding of the problem, he has a unique obligation to push for ratification.

"If it hadn't been for the help of the United States -- of the Senate, of American scientists -- I'd be sitting in jail," he says. "Now, my debt is to do what I can."

Russia's case against Dr. Mirzayanov was dropped in March 1994, and he made his first visit to the United States in February. A month later he came back to America, admitted under a law that eases the immigration of scientists from the former Soviet Union.

Work permit approved

He has already won approval for a residence and work permit, and expects to have several academic job offers to choose from when he receives it.

For now, he is staying with a well-to-do benefactor here in Princeton, and working every day at the university's chemistry library.

He's still in a state of delighted shock.

"Look at America," he says. "You don't need a passport just to go to the library. Please, come in. Can you imagine the troubles I went through to go to the Lenin Library? Passports, photos, clearances. In Russia, every official you run into treats you like a criminal.

"In Princeton, the library is open weekends, nights. You can even walk in with a bag. This is a fairy tale here. And there are three times as many journals.

"And I thought, my God, how good Russian scientists must be, to do all they have done under such horrible conditions!"

And there's the mall in Cherry Hill. New Jersey Devils hockey games at the Meadowlands. The Metropolitan Opera.

It's a long way from the autonomous republic of Bashkortostan, a near-feudal fiefdom on the European side of the Ural Mountains, where the young Vil Mirzayanov grew up.

Dr. Mirzayanov is a Tatar whose family lived among Bashkirs -- two Turkic ethnic groups, both conquered centuries ago by the Russians, that have never gotten along very well.

For all its clumsiness, the Soviet system wasn't altogether bad at plucking talent out of the provinces, and as a young man Dr. Mirzayanov moved to Moscow, where he studied and practiced chemistry and met his wife, Nuria, a Tatar poet.

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