This story originally appeared in the October 13, 1986, issue of U.S.News & World Report.
It began on a wooded lane in the Lenin Hills of Moscow. There I met my friend Misha from Frunze and gave him copies of some Stephen King novels. He handed me a sealed packet that he said were clippings from Frunze newspapers. We parted, and I began the walk home. Moments later a van stopped, and a half-dozen men rushed out—pinning me, slapping handcuffs on my wrists. I remember them as they approached—grim, intent, as if they expected a fight. I made a split-second decision not to resist in any way. They threw me onto a seat in the enclosed van, two men on each side. A cameraman filmed me from the front as we sped through Moscow. One agent fished in my pocket for my wallet and focused on my press accreditation. "My God," he said, "a foreigner!"
Reason told me the KGB would not send an American correspondent to Siberia—not even with Russian roots, who spoke the language and had friendships with ordinary citizens. I knew, even as they seized me, that I would be a hostage for Gennadi Zakharov, the Soviet employee of the U.N. arrested a week earlier in New York on espionage charges. But reason fades quickly in the face of the KGB.
We came to a stop at a heavily guarded building. A double barrier opened slowly like a sluice gate, and the van eased into a courtyard. I was hustled down a hall to Room 215. KGB Col. Valery Dmitrovich Sergadeyev was waiting—a tall, handsome man in a well-cut suit, about age 60, with black hair combed straight back. "I am the one who ordered your arrest. You are held on suspicion of espionage."
Two anonymous citizens appeared to witness the opening of the envelope I had carried into the prison. "Here we have photos," Sergadeyev announced like an actor saying well-rehearsed lines. The photos looked like amateur snapshots of soldiers and tanks.
"Ah, what have we here?" Sergadeyev intoned, trying to impress the witnesses who stared blankly at the table before them. Out came two maps stamped "Secret." One appeared to be an operational military map from Afghanistan; the other was an area map with code names. Oddly, one name was Shushenskoye, the tiny Siberian village where my great-great-grandfather was exiled as a revolutionary Decembrist in the early 19th century.
Across from me the cameraman was busily recording the scene. I formed an obscene gesture with the middle finger of my right hand and placed it next to the photographs. I hoped this gesture would signal to the West that the whole affair was a fraud.
After 4 hours, Colonel Sergadeyev agreed to let me call my wife. An English-language interpreter sat beside me as I dialed. When my wife Ruth came to the phone, a bright idea struck me. I noticed the number of the phone I was using was taped to its base. "Ruth," I said, "take a pencil and write down what I'm about to tell you. Ready? Three six one dash six five five six. That's where I am."
"Got it." She repeated the numbers.
I glanced at the colonel. He sat expressionless, apparently not realizing I had given out his phone number. The translator continued taking notes to read back at the end of the call. I talked for 40 minutes. I was sure Ruth would know how to use the information. But it would be days before I would get any inkling of the outcry that her frequent media appearances set in motion. I studied the thick stone walls. No reverberations penetrated from outside. I felt hopelessly alone. How was I to know that I wasn't forgotten?
"We will continue." Sergadeyev broke into my train of thought. "Now you will be shown the place where you will spend the night." Two KGB corporals in khaki uniforms appeared and marched me, hands behind my back, to the basement. I was given a cursory medical exam by a woman doctor that revealed that my blood pressure was high and that I had developed a hemorrhoid. I was issued prison underwear—dark-blue boxer shorts and a light-blue tank top—and marched off to the shower room and then to my cell.
Time in Lefortovo was mental torture. Over the next two weeks I would spend 30 hours in interrogation. The colonel never raised his voice or pounded the table. He was never abusive or overtly threatening. He was a pro. He played with my emotions, posing alternatively as a "good cop" and a "bad cop." He controlled all information that reached me. He controlled my food, my exercise, my life. But the time I was freed, he had made me feel guilt where there was none.
He tried to promote a fatherly relationship with me. He would offer me tea or coffee to drink. Once he said, "You don't have to worry that I'm going to poison you." And I said, "I'm sure that you're not." Then he would go through a procedure of brewing coffee. In the Soviet Union they have sort of a filament that you can put in water and bring it to a boil quickly. Then he'd bring out cookies and candy and put them on the table and encourage me to drink and eat and feel at home.