Paul Whelan says he thought his 2018 spying arrest was 'a prank'

Marine serving 16 years in Russia for spying reveals what life is like inside Gulag where PRISONERS run things, he’s woken every two hours and gets to shower just twice a week

  • Paul Whelan recalled for ABC that when agents from Russia’s FSB intelligence service burst into his hotel room in December 2018, he thought it was a prank
  • Whelan was detained just minutes after he was given a flash drive by a friend that allegedly contained a list of ‘secret’ employees of a Russia agency
  • He was later charged and found guilty of spying for the US back in June, in a closed trial which U.S. diplomats said was unfair and opaque
  • The 50-year-old, who pleaded not guilty, said he was set up in a sting and had thought the flash drive given to him simply contained vacation photos
  • After spending 18-months in pre-trial detention, Whelan now lives in a barracks at Correctional Colony-17, a decaying former Gulag camp built in WWII
  • ‘It’s pretty grim. Quite dilapidated,’ Whelan said. ‘There’s probably like 50 to 60 of us in the building. So we kind of live on top of each other’
  • Whelan said he doesn’t think he’ll be in prison much longer, saying he’s optimistic that US officials will be able to secure his release soon 

Paul Whelan, the US Marine veteran serving a 16 year sentence in a former Gulag camp in Russia, has spoken out extensively for the first time since he was arrested and accused of being a spy nearly two years ago.

Whelan recalled for ABC News that when agents from Russia’s FSB intelligence service burst into his room at the Metropol Hotel, near the Kremlin, in December 2018, he said he believed it was all a prank.

‘I wasn’t sure if it was real. I didn’t know if friends of mine would have set up a gag or not,’ he told the network from a prison camp in central Russia. ‘It obviously became, you know, quite real.’

Whelan was detained just minutes after he was handed a flash drive by a friend that allegedly contained a list of ‘secret’ employees of a Russia agency.

He was charged and then later found guilty of spying for the US back in June, in a closed trial which US diplomats have called unfair and opaque. 

After spending 18-months in pre-trial detention, Whelan now lives in a barracks at Correctional Colony-17, a decaying former Gulag camp that was originally built to hold prisoners in World War II.

‘It’s pretty grim. Quite dilapidated,’ Whelan told ABC. ‘There’s probably like 50 to 60 of us in the building. So we kind of live on top of each other.’

Paul Whelan (shown in court, Feb. 2019), the former US Marine serving a 16 year sentence in a former Gulag camp in Russia, has spoken out extensively for the first time since he was arrested and accused of being a spy nearly two years ago

After spending 18-months in pre-trial detention, Whelan now lives in a barracks at Correctional Colony-17 (above), a decaying former Gulag camp that was originally built to hold prisoners in World War II

The Gulag was a system of forced labor camps established during Joseph Stalin’s long reign as dictator of the Soviet Union, from 1920s until just after his death in 1953.

While Correctional Colony-17 has since been repurposed as a prison camp, Whelan says the conditions inside are still grueling and prisoners are still subjected to forced labor. 

Whelan said he is not separated from the other inmates, some of whom are convicted rapists and murderers. Instead, the men sleep in rows of bunk beds. 

Prisoners also share just four toilets and there’s no hot water except for when they’re taken for a shower twice a week.

Guards are also not posted within the barracks and the inmates essentially run things themselves, Whelan said.

Prisoners are woken up at 6am every day, where they partake in a 15-minute exercise routine, before embarking on eight hours of labor, making clothes in a workshop.

At night, having been reportedly placed on a so-called escape watch list, Whelan is woken up by guards every two hours. 

Despite his predicament, Whelan insists that overall he’s been treated reasonably well and formed a close bond with his cellmates.

‘They’ve actually been quite welcoming,’ Whelan told ABC. ‘Everybody works together as a team, so there is kind of a bit of a brotherhood.’

‘They all laughed when I got here,’ he continued. ‘Everybody knows that it’s complete crap, and they laugh and say, “Well, yeah, this is what the FSB does. It’s obviously political.”‘


The 50-year-old (shown right during his time in the Marines), who pleaded not guilty, said he was set up in a sting and had thought the flash drive given to him by his friend simply contained vacation photos and nothing more

Whelan was detained by Vladimir Putin’s secret services just minutes after he was given a flash drive by a friend that allegedly contained a list of ‘secret’ employees of a Russia agency

Whelan, an avid traveller who also has British, Irish and Canadian citizenship, has long said he is not a spy but a tourist who was set up by the Federal Security Service (FSB) as the Kremlin sought leverage with Washington. 

A native of Michigan, Whelan left the Marines after being discharged in 2008 for bad conduct, following a larceny conviction. At the time of his arrest in Russia, he was working as a global security executive for BorgWarner, an auto parts supplier.

A self-described ‘Russophile’, Whelan had visited the country several times in the decade before his arrest, on account of his fascination with Russia’s culture and language.

He had been visiting the country for a friend’s wedding in December 2018 when he was arrested in his room at the five-star Metropol Hotel.

A self-described ‘Russophile’, Whelan had visited the country several times over the last decade, saying he is fascinated by Russia’s culture and language

‘The whole thing was just like you see it on TV. You know, with the black masks. You had a guy videotaping it,’ Whelan said.

He said that moments before agents burst through the door, a longtime Russian friend, Ilya Yatsenko, handed him a flash drive.

Whelan first met Yatsenko online in 2007. In the years that followed, he stayed with Yatsenko’s family several times and even once brought his parents to Russia to meet him.

According to Russian media reports, Yatsenko was working as an FSB officer. However, Whelan said he believes that isn’t true and said his friend had been working as a border control agent.

‘The people that stamp passports at the airport. … He’s not an FSB officer,’ Whelan said.

Whelan said that on the day of his arrest, Yetsenko had invited himself over to his hotel and said he wanted to drop off a flash drive that contained photos and videos from his trip.

The 50-year-old said he’s unsure why Yatsenko would be involved in the plot to arrest him.

‘The only motive I can think of is trying to get promoted, you know, more money, a better apartment,’ he told ABC.

‘We’re obviously not friends anymore,’ he said with a laugh, according to the network.

Whelan was handed the flashdrive by Ilya Yatsenko (left). The 50-year-old said he’s unsure why Yatsenko would be involved in the plot to arrest him

Pictures from the sentencing showed Whelan standing in a glass box, holding a sign that read ‘Sham Trial! Meatball Surgery! No Human Rights! Paul’s Life Matters! Decisive Action from POTUS and PMs needed!’

After his arrest, Whelan was taken to a former KGB prison, Moscow’s Lefortovo jail, where he spent 18 months under near-constant interrogation as FSB officers tried to force him into a confession.

‘They kept saying, “You know, Russia doesn’t keep spies – you’ll be pardoned,”’ Whelan said, adding that often such interrogations would take place in the middle of the night.

‘And of course, I said, “No.” I said, “I’m not going to plead guilty to anything. I haven’t done anything.”’

A native of Michigan, Whelan left the Marines after being discharged in 2008 for bad conduct, following a larceny conviction

Whelan was accused by the FSB of being a brigadier general for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.

While at first his interrogators seemed to genuinely believe he was a spy, Whelan said that over time they ‘started to lighten up’.

‘I think that was because they realized I wasn’t who at first they were saying I was. As they were going through the motions, they figured out it wasn’t true, but the higher-level people were saying it was,’ he said.

After his conviction in June, Whelan said the judge invited him back to his chambers where he told him he knew the case was false but not to worry because he’d be released quickly.

‘He was friendly,’ Whelan said of the judge. ‘He actually told me on the day that I was sentenced that I would be sent home fairly quickly, that the Russian government had agreed to send me home. And it would be up to the two governments to work that out.’

Pictures from the sentencing showed Whelan standing in a glass box, holding a sign that read ‘Sham Trial! Meatball Surgery! No Human Rights! Paul’s Life Matters! Decisive Action from POTUS and PMs needed!’

Speaking briefly to reporters at the time, he said: ‘Russia thought they caught James Bond on a spy mission, in reality they abducted Mr Bean on holiday.’  

Paul Whelan holds a message as he stands inside a defendants’ cage before a hearing to decide to extend his detention at the Lefortovo Court in Moscow, on May 25, 2020

Russia has denied the charges are fabricated, but a number of officials have repeatedly touted the idea of an exchange. 

US officials say they believe Russia seized Whelan to later use as a bargaining chip to secure the release of two Russians imprisoned in the United States.

Viktor Bout, an arms dealer jailed for 25 years on terrorism charges, and Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot sentenced to 20 years for drug smuggling, are believed to be the two prisoner’s Moscow is seeking to free.

Whelan said his interrogators immediately mentioned both of the men to him, asked if he knew who they were, and also reportedly made it clear they were seeking a trade.

He said he’s unsure why he was specifically targeted by the Russian government, but said it may be linked to his work for BorgWarner and its business with KamAZ, a truck manufacturer part-owned by Russian conglomerate, Rostec, which was sanctioned by the US.

Despite Russian officials seemingly being open to a swap, Whelan’s family say no negotiations for his release have yet begun.

Whelan, however, says he’s remaining optimistic.

‘I don’t think I’ll be here that long – the governments will work it out quickly,’ Whelan said. 

‘I think it’s a bit of an embarrassment for the Russian government because they’ve by now figured out that they’ve made a mistake. Like I said, you know, Mr. Bean being abducted on holiday. I don’t think this is a situation they want going longer than it needs to.’

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