An American journalist who was expelled from the Soviet Union explains why the arrest of a Wall Street Journal reporter in Moscow bodes ill for relations with the Kremlin.
The news that another American had been arrested and jailed in Russia may have reminded many Americans of the recent release of WNBA superstar Brittney Griner, who was freed in a prisoner exchange last December after 10 months in Russian prisons on drug charges.
But to people like Andrew Nagorski who has been observing Moscow for decades, the arrest and charges leveled at Griner are very different from the arrest and charges now pending against Evan Gershkovich, a Moscow-based correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.
There are two key distinctions: Gershkovich is a journalist. And he has been charged with espionage.
While Americans like Griner occasionally run afoul of Russian authorities, it’s been decades since an American journalist has been arrested in Russia and held on spying charges. That doesn’t happen by accident, Nagorski told me in an interview. Russia is sending a message, both to other journalists and to the West.
Nagorski is a former Newsweek correspondent and editor who had his own run-in with the authorities in Moscow. In 1982, after living and working in the then-Soviet Union for a little more than a year, Nagorski was expelled on trumped-up charges. It was clear that the Kremlin didn’t like his work, but also, that they wanted to express their irritation with the U.S. government at a time of high tension.
Nagorski told me that there are some similarities between then and now, including that U.S.-Russian relations have been worsening, particularly since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. During such times of tension, journalists often become targets of harassment, or pawns in high-stakes standoffs between the West and authoritarian regimes.
“Journalism is always at the heart of these confrontations, as they were during the Soviet regime in the past or the Russian regime today,” Nagorski told me. “Truthful reporting is absolutely anathema to the Kremlin.”
Another reason journalists get charged with espionage? There are a lot of similarities between what a journalist does and what a spy does. Go to new places. Meet new people. Ask a lot of questions. Observe and take notes on what you see.
“I’m sure they know that Gershkovich is not a spy,” Nagorski told me. Instead, he said, the real goal is to intimidate other journalists, both Russian and foreign: “The less real reporting there is out of Russia, the freer the Putin regime feels to operate the way it does inside Russia.”
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Maura Reynolds: Evan Gershkovich is a journalist. What is the relevance of the fact that the Russian government has arrested and charged an American journalist with espionage?
Andrew Nagorski: Whenever a western journalist is targeted in Russia, it’s immediately more than just picking up an American citizen, or British citizen, or whoever it is, because at a minimum it’s sending a message not just to his or her publication, but to all of the western journalists trying to cover Russia, just how dangerous the situation is. And when you throw in a spy charge immediately, you’re immediately making this a major event. You’re putting this journalist in a terrible position. He’s at their mercy right now. It’s one of these things where you know it’s not going to be resolved very quickly.
Reynolds: American WNBA star Brittney Griner was released from a Russian jail just a couple of months ago. How is this case similar?
Nagorski: It has occurred to me that since they were so quick with the spying charges, that they could have somebody in mind who’s in American detention, someone might have been spying for the Russians and they might want to use Gershkovich as a pawn in an exchange. That happens, and it’s happened in the past. But it seems less likely in this case. With Brittney Griner, they found an excuse in saying she had illegal substances. Whatever the case, she was a target of convenience, a high-profile target of convenience. When these high-profile cases happen, where it’s a celebrity as Brittney Griner was, or a journalist, the Kremlin can choose to escalate, to use the incident in a time of tensions in U.S.-Russian relations.
And we certainly had these tensions growing for a long time. They’ve gone up and down over the years, but now it’s particularly at a high peak.
When it’s a journalist, it’s almost always meant as intimidation for reporting. They hate the fact that there is actual reporting still going on in Russia about the war in Ukraine, about the signs of discontent in Russia itself, about the price that the Russians are paying, and anything that goes against the official propaganda. In each [detention] case it’s a personal ordeal. But this one is a much broader political event.
Journalism is always at the heart of these confrontations, as they were during the Soviet regime in the past or the Russian regime today. Truthful reporting is absolutely an anathema to the Kremlin.
Reynolds: You were expelled for the journalism that you conducted in the Soviet Union. What happened in your case and how is it similar or different to what’s happening to Gershkovich?
Nagorski: Any journalist going to Moscow in those days knew that they might be targeted. I went in knowing that if I touched on certain stories, this could spark some anger or reprisals. But in my case, and in most journalist cases in those days, you felt that the worst that might happen is you get expelled.
The Kremlin sent very clear signals that they were unhappy with my reporting. They interrogated some of my Russian sources, and when they did they said, “We’ll deal with Nagorski soon,” knowing that [threat] would come back to me. They slashed my tires on one occasion. And in those days when things like that happened, you knew it was directed from the top.
In my case, I ignored those signals and kept reporting, for instance, in Tajikistan and Central Asia on young Muslims who were opposed to the Soviet war in Afghanistan. I got lots of signals that they were upset with that. I ignored those signals for more than my first year in Moscow, and by month 14, they expelled me.
I was called into the Foreign Ministry and expelled. I asked for the reason. They said “impermissible methods of journalistic activities.” And I said, “What does that mean?” And then they reeled off a series of really nonsensical charges. They accused me of impersonating a Russian journalist in Vologda, a northern Russian city. I speak Russian, but I’m very clearly a foreigner and have the accent and mistakes to show for it. They claimed that in Tajikistan, I had tried to incite young Muslims to oppose the draft. The evidence for that was that when some young Muslims asked me, “Is it true that in America you’ve abolished the draft?” I said, “yes.” So that was “incitement.” So these charges were so silly. They were mere pretext. They were aiming this at me because they didn’t like my reporting at Newsweek and at the same time [this was] telling other reporters: “Watch yourselves. This can happen to you, too.”
When I was called into the Foreign Ministry I braced myself, thinking, “What if they threw out espionage as a charge?” Because they could always do that, and that’s much harder to fight as a journalist. How do you say I wasn’t spying? You were asking questions. You were looking around. I remember once in Dushanbe, in Tajikistan, I was walking down the street and I looked up and there was a truck with an SS-20 missile just going down the street. If they had stopped me, they could have said, “Oh, yes, he’s doing military intelligence.”
As a journalist, how you handle this harassment and how quickly it escalates is very important. Sometimes in the past, when the Soviets were unhappy with a correspondent, the U.S. side tried to negotiate something before the expulsion became official. But as soon as I [was] leaving the Foreign Ministry, [the Soviet news service] TASS immediately put out the news bulletin saying I was being expelled, so there was no going back. With these kinds of cases, if they want to leave wiggle room, there is wiggle room. Once they put spying on the table, there’s no wiggle room.
Reynolds: So you see the fact that Gershkovich was immediately charged with espionage as a sign that the Kremlin is escalating this very rapidly?
Nagorski: Yes. And again, it can be escalating rapidly if they have an exchange in mind. But I have no idea whether that’s the case. It may be that by escalating the charge to espionage right away, that makes all the remaining correspondents much more vulnerable. I have great admiration for the correspondents who are still working in Russia under these conditions and trying to report honestly, because there is no way to ensure your own safety in this situation.
Reynolds: I believe the last American correspondent to be charged with espionage was Nicholas Daniloff in 1986. You knew him. Tell me about his case.
Nagorski: Nick Daniloff was a reporter for U.S. News and World Report in the early 1980s. We actually arrived in Moscow about the same time, I think, in 1981. And we talked fairly often. When I was expelled, Nick came over and asked me, did his name come up when they were grilling me? He had Russian heritage, I believe his grandfather had been in Russia, had actually been on the White Russian [anti-communist] side in the civil war. So he knew he was vulnerable.
Daniloff was an easy target in the sense that he spoke Russian well, moved about really well. In his case, it was clear that they targeted him. It was not a great time for U.S.-Russian relations, but it wasn’t the worst time. But the FBI had picked up a KGB agent in New York who the Russians really wanted to get back. That agent was accused of spying and pretty clearly was a spy. So they said, “Let’s pick Nick Daniloff, because he speaks Russian, moves about, he’s been here a while. We can level espionage on him.” And again, how is Nick supposed to defend himself, aside from saying, “I’m not a spy?”
One of the worst things about a spying case is that people who are outsiders, casual readers may think “Oh, well, maybe there’s something there.” Even if there’s really nothing there, as long as you put the charge out there, it’s a very nasty thing to deal with.
Reynolds: The Russian and the Soviet governments have a process that they call accrediting journalists. It’s not something that we do in the United States, but in order to live and work as a foreign correspondent in Moscow, Daniloff and now Evan Gershkovich were accredited by the Russian Foreign Ministry. In other words, they were in Russia with permission to operate as journalists. Why does the Russian government have this system and still then harass or arrest a journalist for doing their job?
Nagorski: They’ve always had that system. I had my Russian press card from the Foreign Ministry press department. We all had to go through that system to get a visa to get into Russia. As a journalist, you had to apply through that system. So they knew that Nick Daniloff was not a spy. I’m sure they know that Gershkovich is not a spy.
They want control and they want to monitor things. And then they want to be able to use any one of the journalists as an example, as a pawn. It sends a signal that the less real reporting there is out of Russia, the freer the Putin regime feels to operate the way it does inside Russia. The worst clampdown of course is on the Russian press, but a number of foreign journalists are still there, still working and producing pretty good stories.
The foreign ministry spokesman immediately said, “We’re not cracking down on journalists. Legitimate journalists can continue to do their work.” But immediately the implication is that Gershkovich was not a legitimate journalist, or not working legitimately. You can throw that out against anybody any time.
They want to have it both ways. They want to say, “We’re allowing journalists to work,” but then picking and choosing when to use the tools, the bluntest tools when they want to.
Reynolds: I believe Gershkovich’s parents were Soviet emigres and he grew up speaking Russian. How do Russian and Soviet authorities look at journalists who are native Russian speakers and have a Russian background?
Nagorski: Russian authorities, particularly during the Cold War, but even now, always preferred western journalists who did not speak Russian. They were much more easily controlled. In the Cold War days, you had translators that had to be government approved, which of course meant they were effectively working for the KGB directly or indirectly. On the other hand, a journalist who’s fluent in Russian can hear things, pick up on things that a non-Russian speaker or a poor Russian speaker won’t pick up on. So as far as the Russian government was concerned, whether it was then or now, the less Russian or the more limited someone was in terms of their Russian speaking ability, the better for them.
Reynolds: You’re an astute observer of Russian and Soviet history. I think nabbing foreigners, trading them for spies — to a lot of people that sounds like we’re back in a Cold War. Do you see this as a resumption of a Cold War-style of relations between Russia and the United States, or is something else going on?
Nagorski: There was a period in the nineties, late eighties, where it seemed like things were changing. For journalists it certainly was changing. I was expelled in 1982. I was not allowed back in until 1989. There was a tit-for-tat process when I was expelled where the State Department expelled the senior Izvestia correspondent in Washington. And then in 1989, he wanted to go back to the States on a visit and they negotiated to let me back in.
But there was in that period of transition in Russia after the coup, the failed putsch and so forth in 1991. There were journalists who had much more leeway. You could wander around, you could interview almost everybody. Russians felt much freer to talk on the record about all sorts of things that they never talked on the record before. And so there was some hope there.
In the Putin era, when there have been more and more assassinations of public figures including journalists, Russian journalists in particular, it begs credibility, it stretches every idea of rational thought, to think that this arrest is not ordered from the top. This is not some isolated FSB intelligence operation in Ekaterinburg. It was decided that they were going to get an American correspondent and that they were going to get this American correspondent.
Reynolds: The Russian government has been passing new laws restricting the operation of journalists, both foreign and domestic, inside Russia. What does that say about Putin’s regime? What is the relationship between journalism, whether conducted by foreigners or Russians, and an authoritarian regime like the one that Putin has built?
Nagorski: Putin and his regime are incredibly insecure. Even during that period before the invasion of Ukraine, when there were these polls showing that he has this huge support, I always distrusted those polls. First of all, if you’re being asked as a Russian by anybody, even if you’re told it’s going to be anonymous, “Do you support this regime or do you not?” Well, you think — “Am I stupid or am I not? I will tell them I support it.” At the same time, like in any kind of Orwellian regime, they want to maintain the pretense that they are democratic, that they have hope that there is freedom of speech. Everything has an opposite meaning. If they simply wanted to say, “We’re dictators and we’re not making any pretense,” they could say, “All of the Western journalists get out of Russia right now.” They could do it tomorrow.
They want the pretense and they want to benefit from it. But they don’t want them reporting the truth in any broader sense of the term. They don’t want them digging into the corruption of the regime, the disillusionment of the regime, the fact that people are tremendously tired of Putin. Even people who count themselves as supporters and are totally brainwashed by the nonstop propaganda, there’s a part of them that is always aware that this regime does not have the confidence to actually allow people to think for themselves, to get opposing ideas and to hear opposing ideas. And every totalitarian regime in history has known that.