KRASNOYARSK, Russia (Reuters) - Grey, pale and thin, Valentin Danilov has changed more than the country that jailed him in 2004 for selling state secrets to China.
The 66-year-old Russian physicist, whose face is now criss-crossed with deep wrinkles, could not be blamed for suffering from “deja vu” when he was released on Saturday from a Siberian penal colony on spying charges he says were politically motivated.
President Vladimir Putin, now 60, is back in the Kremlin for a third term, corruption is rife, the unreformed economy is creaking under the weight of its dependence on energy exports, and opponents are still being imprisoned.
Danilov, whose case human rights activists cite as evidence that Putin uses Russia’s weak courts to persecute his enemies, sees little hope of rapid change.
“Nothing has changed,” Danilov said in an interview, putting some of the blame on Russia’s 142 million people.
“The authorities do not descend on us from the moon. They are the choice of the nation. So the authorities reflect the state of the nation,” he told Reuters a few hours after his release from the high-fenced penal colony.
News of one major change did reach him during his last year in the colony in a grimy industrial area outside the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, 6,500 km (4,000 miles) east of Moscow - reports that people had taken to the streets to protest.
Demonstrations against Putin in Moscow and other big cities began a year ago, caused by anger over allegations of fraud in a parliamentary election won by the Kremlin leader’s party, but they have largely lost momentum and the opposition is divided.
Reflecting on the possibility of free and fair elections, and the possibility of political upheaval, Danilov said: “The nation is not yet ready.”
Dressed formally in a red tie and grey jacket, Danilov was speaking in an apartment in the city where he was born and jailed, and which was once part of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s network of Gulag prison camps.
A researcher at Krasnoyarsk State University, he was first arrested in 2001. He admitted selling information about satellite technology to a Chinese company but he, other scientists and human rights activists said the information had already been available from public sources.
An initial decision to acquit him was overturned and he was sentenced to 14 years in prison in a second trial. A Krasnoyarsk court granted him parole earlier this month, citing good behavior and poor health.
Asked how he felt about finally stepping outside the prison walls, he said “there were no feelings”, but added that he had no regrets and that he regarded himself as a political prisoner.
At the time of Danilov’s trial, Putin’s opponents said the president was clamping down on academics who had contacts with foreign countries. They say his release showed that the Kremlin no longer regarded the physicist as a threat.
Opposition members see similarities between what happened to Danilov and the pressure being put on them now in Moscow.
Citing legal cases such as the sentencing of members of the Pussy Riot punk band over an anti-Putin protest in a Russian Orthodox Church, they say the Kremlin is using the legal system to smother dissent.
Putin denies this but several opposition leaders face criminal charges and the parliament has adopted a slew of laws over the last half year which opponents say could be applied against them.
These include tightening checks on lobby and campaign groups that have foreign funding, forcing them to register as “foreign agents”, and broadening the definition of treason.
“As for President Putin, I guess everybody would be the same as him in his place. The court makes the tsar,” Danilov said, avoiding direct criticism of the president but condemning the circle around him.
“The problem is not one of law but of how the judging is done.”
He read widely about Russia’s legal system during his time in prison, and said the judiciary was still open to political manipulation.
After nearly a decade behind bars, including in colonies populated by murderers, Danilov’s brown eyes are still penetrating and his wits sharp. He deflects questions about his health but is not a broken man.
He does not want to look back, refusing to go into detail about his life in prison or his health.
“It’s like serving in the army, only that a man in the army has fewer rights. By taking the military oath, a soldier gives up some of his rights. While in prison, the prisoner can at least call in a lawyer and make complaints about abuse of rights,” he said.
Among people he admires, he listed several Putin critics - opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov and human rights campaigner Lyudmila Alexeyeva.
He praised the entry into politics of Mikhail Prokhorov, a rich tycoon who challenged Putin in the March presidential election while denying accusations of being a “Kremlin stooge”.
Beyond retirement age, and worn down by his years in prison, Danilov signals that a new fight with the state or taking on a role in opposition is the last thing on his mind.
He wants to go back to work soon to try out ideas he developed while he had time on his hands in jail. He also says he is ready to play an advisory role on how to reform Russia’s outdated penal system.
He aims to rebuild his strength and family ties with his daughter, granddaughter and wife of 41 years who lives in Novosibirsk, also in Siberia.
Danilov said he had no plans to flee Russia or deal with space research again. He plans to keep in touch with people he met behind bars, including a man sentenced for murder whom he helped to obtain higher education.
Putting a positive spin on his years in jail, he said: ”They say that to get to know a country well, one must visit its cemeteries and prison. I used to visit cemeteries often and now I’ve been to prison too.
“So you can really believe me when I say I know perfectly fine now what Russia is,” he said.
He paused for a moment and, smiling, switched to English to quote the title of a Shakespeare play: “All’s well that ends well.”
Writing by Gabriela Baczynska and Timothy Heritage; editing by Andrew Roche