Recollections of a Cold War Pawn

In 1986, Nicholas Daniloff became the focus of world attention after he was jailed by the KGB.

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Nicholas Daniloff knows what it's like to be a pawn of superpower rivalry, but his long career in journalism and academe—with a deep specialty on Russia—extends well before and after his infamous arrest by Soviet authorities on Aug. 30, 1986, while serving as U.S. News's Moscow correspondent. The allegation of spying was trumped up—something later verified by none other than Mikhail Gorbachev. But Daniloff's arrest and detention by the KGB for 13 days became a frightening lesson in the risks a journalist can face when unaccountable power is wielded by a totalitarian state's security forces. Daniloff was later traded, in effect, for the release of an alleged Soviet spy picked up in New York. But Daniloff's case, as it turned out, also became part of the historic pivoting of U.S.-Soviet relations from outright hostility to something milder and less menacing, as the later détente orchestrated by Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan showed.

Now a professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Massachusetts, Daniloff has just written his memoirs, Of Spies and Spokesmen: My Life as a Cold War Correspondent. Excerpts of an interview with Daniloff by Senior Writer Thomas Omestad:

On the circumstances of his arrest


I met [an acquaintance] Misha Luzin in Frunze (now Bishkek) in 1982 with my colleague Jim Gallagher of the Chicago Tribune. Misha visited me regularly in Moscow, keeping me informed of popular attitudes toward the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. I wanted to meet him before ending my five-year assignment in Moscow to give him some Stephen King books that he asked for. I asked him to bring me clippings from Central Asian newspapers that would illustrate how Gorby's glasnost policy was being implemented in the boondocks. We met and took a walk by the Moscow River during which we handed over what we had brought for each other. Then he left in a hurry, saying he was late for some appointment. As I walked home alone, a van pulled up beside me; six men jumped out, accosted me, handcuffed me, and bundled me into the van. We drove at high speed to Lefortovo Prison. Time in a KGB prison


At Lefortovo Prison I was interrogated about six hours a day for two weeks. There was no physical manhandling. However, to be questioned by a hostile interrogator, with no defense attorney, to be unable to communicate with the outside world is duress, and duress can be called "mental torture." I had a cellmate, Stas Zenin, who I thought was a real prisoner working with the authorities to soften me up. My interrogator, Colonel Sergadeyev, was a man of about 60 who played the role alternately of "good cop/bad cop." On balance, he was intimidating. When not worrying about what charge Sergadeyev would hurl at me next, I read books in Russian about the Decembrist uprising of 1825, which my wife, Ruth, brought to me. Your thoughts in prison


I worried I would be sent to some labor colony in Siberia for 10 years where it would be hard to survive. Incarceration made me acutely aware that my physical survival lay in the hands of others. More immediately, I worried about the new attacks I could expect from the colonel and how to defend against them. A person who thought less, worried less, would survive better. One of the worst parts of imprisonment was waiting endlessly for the unknown which would happen next. Ruth kept my imprisonment on the front pages of newspapers around the world by giving nonstop interviews. The U.S. Embassy had urged her to keep quiet so they could resolve the issue quietly. She did not buy that approach. Essentially, she was extremely instrumental in keeping up the pressure on the Soviet side to make a deal for my release (and the release of [alleged Soviet spy] Gennadi Zakharov from imprisonment in New York). I am eternally grateful to her for her wisdom and strength in this crisis. She also brought food and books to me in prison and kept me informed of the reactions in Washington. How the magazine responded


The magazine retained former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to act as our defense attorney. This angered the colonel, who said that Americans know nothing about Soviet law. I got great support from Mortimer Zuckerman and all the staff of the magazine.