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.
On your Russian heritage
My great-great grandfather Lt. Alexander F. Frolov was a member of the Southern Society, which conspired to overthrow Czar Nicholas I in December 1825 on the first day of his reign. My maternal grandfather was Gen. Yuri N. Danilov, one of the two leading experts on strategy during Russia's participation in World War I. My grandmother, his wife, wanted to pass on this Russian heritage to me by teaching me Russian and recounting Russian history. She succeeded ably despite the disapproval of my father, her son.
Your coverage in those days
U.S.News & World Report wanted in-depth descriptions of the following subjects from Moscow and maintained a one-man bureau for more than a decade: U.S.-Soviet relations, inside Kremlin politics, the ordinary life of Russians, the privileges of the Russian elite, shortcomings in Soviet technology, the operations of the KGB. In the mid-1980s, the U.S.-Soviet relationship was at a low. The American side felt there was no strong, capable leader on the Soviet side (both Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko were ill and died in office). When Gorbachev came to power, Reagan was impressed by his vitality and was willing to enter into negotiations. Both sides were talking about a presidential summit in the fall of 1985, to follow up on the 1985 "fireside" summit. Simultaneously, Reagan was appalled at the level of Soviet spying in the United States. For that reason, the Reagan administration was happy to arrest Zakharov, a Soviet physicist employed by the United Nations Secretariat. They were well informed on his spying efforts. When the KGB arrested me in retaliation, Gorbachev and company regarded the campaign on my behalf as a hostile effort by American hard-liners to upset or cancel the projected summit. In 1993, Gorbachev said at a public meeting at Harvard that my arrest was "a retaliatory action" and wished me well on future visits to Russia.
Your visit to the White House after your release
Our meeting with Reagan in early October 1986 also included Nancy Reagan, Vice President George H. W. Bush, White House spokesman Larry Speakes, Rozanne Ridgeway from the State Department, Zuckerman, David Gergen, and my wife and children. Reagan told a few jokes (his Alzheimer's was beginning to show), but Nancy Reagan was the powerhouse who conducted the meeting. She wanted to know all about life in Russia. I don't recall anyone else asking any questions. They left it to her.
On the celebrity status that befell you
There were two sides to de facto celebrity status. It was exhilarating to have people listen to my views about Russia and take me seriously. To be invited to give paid talks. To be recognized on the streets. But publicity—which included some hostile suggestions (you must be a spy since the Russians said so...)—often came at unexpected and unwanted moments. I prefer to work hard and be recognized once in a while [as opposed] to high public recognition, momentary adulation.
After you left the magazine
I worked on a book, Two Lives; One Russia, which compared and contrasted my arrest to the arrest of my great-great grandfather in 1826. In 1989 I joined Northeastern University as a tenure-track assistant professor. I served as director of the School of Journalism, 1992-1999. I survived all the academic scrutiny and became an associate, then a full professor. I teach courses in news writing, foreign reporting, ethics and journalism for undergrads and grad students. I wrote a book with my wife about a Chechen surgeon under fire, The Oath, published in 2003. I have been active in helping the Chechens achieve greater autonomy within the Russian Federation. I have been back to Russia three or four times since my arrest.
On the Russia of today
Russia went through a period of chaos humiliation under President Boris Yeltsin. It is now getting rich on oil at $114 a barrel. It's no wonder that President Vladimir Putin has been throwing his weight around and that Soviet-style dirty tricks have begun to re-emerge: Witness the murders of Alexander Litvinenko in London and Chechen leader Zemlikhan Yandarbiev in the Arab Emirates. Or the pressures the Kremlin is putting on British Petroleum and the British Council in Russia these days. Or Putin's harsh comments on U.S. plans to emplace missile warning radars in Poland and the Czech Republic; beckoning Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO. I think we are headed into a period of difficult relations with Moscow that I call "Cold Peace" but not a new cold war with Russia.
My thought is: If you want to be a good observer of foreign affairs, you need to study history and languages, especially the history of Russia. Russia is an immense, complicated country. My arrest demonstrated a natural tendency in the Kremlin to solve certain problems by force (the United States does that, too, from time to time). I was expelled from Moscow and left "more in sorrow than in anger." My Russian heritage certainly enriched my life and that of my family, and I am glad of that. Immigrant families, I think, make a mistake by totally abandoning their original culture.
Why write the book?
When I started as a cub reporter, I began "saving string." I collected my published articles, I kept a diary—especially when I was covering the U.S. Senate and House—I collected documents. I didn't want to lose such ephemera, which constituted my life's work. Also, I wanted to pass on some interesting tales (and possibly advice) to my university students. I wrote Of Spies and Spokesmen with one eye on my students at Northeastern University.