From the Soviet Union to Putin’s Russia, American Journalists Have Navigated Clampdowns

From the Soviet Union to Putin’s Russia

Arrest of reporter Evan Gershkovich is a sign of fraying ties between the Russian government and foreign correspondents

Four weeks after Russia’s arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, Moscow has taken aim at other American reporters working in the country, the latest sign of how once-collegial ties between the Russian government and foreign correspondents have frayed under Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The U.S. denial of visas to two Russian journalists seeking to cover last week’s United Nations meeting in New York prompted Moscow to threaten retaliation against American reporters. Citing privacy concerns, a State Department spokeswoman said the agency couldn’t comment on individual visa applications. The Russian Foreign Ministry warned that “such sabotage, aimed at preventing normal journalistic work, will not remain unanswered.”

During Russia’s heyday of press freedom in the 1990s, foreign journalists would meet regularly and often informally with Russian politicians and officials. That era has ended, thanks to mounting distrust and tightening restrictions on journalists. The breakdown in the relationship reflects Mr. Putin’s grip over the domestic press, and shows how a more security-minded government is constraining what is printed and broadcast beyond Russia’s borders, say veteran journalists who have worked there.

“The country now is run by the security services,” said Jill Dougherty, who served as CNN’s Moscow bureau chief from 1997 to 2005. “They do not want any foreign journalists really knowing what’s going on in Russia.”

In March, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, Russia’s main security and intelligence agency, detained Mr. Gershkovich while he was on a reporting trip. He is being held on a charge of espionage that the Journal and the U.S. government vehemently deny. The U.S. has designated Mr. Gershkovich as wrongfully detained.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Since the late-Soviet period, the Kremlin has maintained a mercurial relationship with the foreign press. Foreign correspondents were required to notify the Soviet Foreign Ministry before traveling outside Moscow. Their phone lines were tapped, and they were routinely tailed by the Committee for State Security, or KGB, the main security agency in the latter half of the Soviet Union, according to several people who worked as journalists in the Soviet Union.

“They had everything wired,” said Andy Nagorski, who worked in Newsweek’s Soviet bureau in the 1980s. “You knew you were being monitored.” In 1982, the Foreign Ministry expelled Mr. Nagorski for what it called “impermissible methods of journalistic activity.” Mr. Nagorski and Newsweek denied the allegation.

In 1986, Soviet authorities arrested another American journalist, Nicholas Daniloff, on espionage charges, and traded him for a Soviet employee of the United Nations Secretariat. Mr. Daniloff’s wife, Ruth, told the Journal in an April interview that she feared that the KGB had entrapped her husband.

Mr. Daniloff’s deportation ironically coincided with an opening for journalists working in Russia. Beginning in 1985, Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policy freed domestic and foreign reporters from restrictions that had bound them for decades and encouraged citizens to speak their minds.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin supported a flourishing of the press after the Soviet Union fell in 1991. New, independent television networks, led by NTV, and radio stations, chiefly Echo of Moscow, sprang up to investigate once-taboo topics, such as government corruption and military overreach.

The freewheeling environment swept up foreign correspondents, as Russia opened itself to greater public scrutiny. Western reporters even gained access to Soviet intelligence archives.

“It felt like you’d walked into some vast museum that the guards had all left,” said Otto Pohl, who worked in Russia in the 1990s as a photojournalist for the New York Times.

In 1993, Mr. Pohl was caught amid the violent uproar of Russia’s constitutional crisis and shot in the chest. Months later, emerging from treatment, he discovered that there were no costs for his medical care.

“My medical expenses were paid by the Russian government,” Mr. Pohl said. “I don’t know if that would happen these days.”

Throughout the 1990s, Western correspondents enjoyed ready access to Russian ministry officials and members of the Duma, the country’s lower house of parliament.

“They were incredibly anxious to talk to foreign reporters,” said Beth Knobel, a producer in the Moscow bureau of CBS News from 1997 to 2006. “You could talk to someone with the Kremlin press service, have a give and take.”

In 1999, the owners of the Journal, Financial Times and the English-language Moscow Times partnered to found Vedomosti, a Russian-language business newspaper, an independent voice that sometimes criticized the Kremlin.

But as government power loosened, crime rates rose, posing a new threat to journalists in Russia. Some Russian journalists fell victim to violence, and several were murdered, but being a foreign correspondent in Russia allowed one to “swagger with a certain invincibility,” said Mr. Pohl, the photojournalist.

After Mr. Putin’s ascension to power in 2000, he sought to harness the press and sideline critical voices. In a signal event, a division of Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas-export monopoly, seized control of the NTV network in 2001 and eliminated independent broadcasts in favor of approved government programming.

Mr. Putin brought all national TV networks under government authority, giving the Kremlin editorial control over a vast domestic audience. Politicians aligned with Mr. Putin appeared on state TV to amplify the Kremlin’s increasingly anti-Western line.

“That drove suspicion in Russia of foreign journalists,” said Ms. Knobel, the television producer. “There was a palpable change in the administration’s view of foreign reporters.”

In 2004, Paul Klebnikov, the American editor of the Russian edition of Forbes, was gunned down on a Moscow street. The motive behind his murder wasn’t clear. Three Chechen men were tried for the crime and acquitted.

When Mr. Putin announced his candidacy for a third term as Russia’s president in 2011, sparking street protests in Moscow and beyond, along with heightened scrutiny of foreign journalists who were covering them, the Foreign Ministry summoned Simon Shuster, Time magazine’s local correspondent.

“A ministry official had a stack of my articles printed out,” Mr. Shuster said. “He would lay his hand on the stack and say, ‘We’re watching you. You’re on the radar.’ ”

During interviews, Russian officials began openly referring to American journalists as CIA officers, according to several foreign journalists, highlighting the growing government skepticism of their work. “Independent journalists don’t exist as a category,” said Mr. Shuster, who now writes for Time in New York. “So what are we, if we’re not that?”

Mr. Shuster ultimately lost professional access to Russia in 2015, as did an American journalist with VICE News, Simon Ostrovsky, when the Foreign Ministry denied their press-visa applications.

The previous year, the Duma had limited the size of the stake that any foreign concern could hold in a Russian media company. Journal owner Dow Jones and its partners in the Vedomosti newspaper sold their stakes in it.

Last year, after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Duma criminalized the dissemination of “unreliable information” and the “discrediting” of the Russian military, vague definitions that gave authorities more tools to silence reporters. Five Russian journalists were charged under the statute, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In December, CPJ listed 19 journalists in Russian jails, the highest number since the group began keeping such records in 1992. Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s coordinator for Europe and Central Asia, said that Russia’s seizure of a Western correspondent was “just a matter of time.”

On March 29, Russian authorities detained Mr. Gershkovich, the Journal reporter, at a steakhouse in Yekaterinburg, nearly 900 miles east of Moscow. On April 18, he appeared in a holding cell in a Moscow court, which denied his appeal for bail.

Write to Brett Forrest at