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.
He was recruited to work at a top-secret chemical weapons laboratory, in a nondescript gray building on the Highway of the Enthusiasts, in a particularly toxic, industrial section of Moscow.
He was there 26 years, enjoying the access to scarce goods that working in a secret military installation offered, before he gradually found himself turning against the entire system.
After he had been through the grinder -- in and out of prison, stripped of his job, hauled into a closed courtroom to be tried on charges that neither he nor his lawyer were allowed to examine because the charges were themselves state secrets -- he said he would devote the rest of his life to fighting against the development and production of chemical weapons.
But after a first look at the United States, he decided without much hesitation that he could work more effectively here than there.
"It was obvious I would have no chance to work there," he says, and therefore no income, either. "I had no place in Russia. My safety wasn't assured. There were bad games going on with chemical weapons."
When he moved here he brought his son, Iskandar, who is now 15 and a 10th-grader at Princeton High School. "He's adapted well. He's already an American boy." And, yes, maybe the math (( instruction isn't as good as he was getting in his Moscow school, "but he understands that it's a different system."
"Here," says Dr. Mirzayanov, "if you want to study math seriously, you can -- but nobody's forcing you."
When he gets his residency permit and has a job, he says, he hopes to bring Nuria and their 8-year-old son, Sultan, over as well.
America may not be the easiest place for a Tatar poet, he conceded with a shrug, "but there are Tatars here, and, after all, America is the land of opportunity."
In the past few weeks the rich ironies of his new life have been driven home. The man who first insisted that charges be brought against him, Gen. Anatoly Kuntsevich, who was his former boss, is now himself the target of an investigation by the state security police. There are allegations that General Kuntsevich was involved in a plot to smuggle chemical weapons components to the Middle East.
Two weeks ago, he called Dr. Mirzayanov here in Princeton. General Kuntsevich wanted some advice: Would Dr. Mirzayanov's Moscow lawyer be willing to defend him?
"Well, of course that's a professional decision for him to make," Dr. Mirzayanov says.
"But haven't times changed?"