Evan Gershkovich, a journalist for The Wall Street Journal, was arrested and accused of spying and espionage in Russia recently. He and his editors “vehemently deny” the charges and say he was “wrongfully detained.” But he is being held in a prison near Moscow facing a trial and possibly a long sentence – although he may be swapped for Russians being held in this country.
In 1984 (well-chosen year, as Orwell would have agreed) when I was on assignment for The Seattle Times in the Soviet Union, I could also have been arrested and detained. I wasn’t spying or committing espionage, but I did break a few rules that might have landed me in a Russian prison. Here’s the back story.
Early that year, a Seattle Times editor, Alex Macleod, asked if I wanted to go cross-country skiing in the U.S.S.R. and write a story for the Travel section. It took me about five seconds to say yes. I had done some cross-country skiing and had always been interested in the Soviet Union.
The trip, he explained, was being organized by the Citizen Exchange Council, which took groups of professionals – teachers, doctors, social workers, etc. – to Russia to foster friendship through “people to people” visits. This was their first group of skiers.
I was not a news reporter for The Times, but a member of the editorial board, where I wrote editorials, a weekly column, and was editor of the Sunday “Issues” opinion section. I had spent time in Eastern Europe, including East Germany, and had some knowledge of the Soviet system.
So although the main purpose of the trip was to write a travel story, I also wanted to do some articles about life in the Soviet Union. The year 1984 was an apt time to visit, since the U.S.S.R. was definitely an Orwellian country with a totalitarian government that oppressed its own citizens. Ronald Reagan called it an “evil empire,” for which he was widely criticized — although he was right. Many Americans wanted to make nice with the Russians and try to get along. Seattle had an especially active number of people who supported friendly relations. That was fine and well-intentioned, but I wanted to see the place for myself.
In preparation, I wrote a column (“Skiing into the heart of Russia,” March 15, 1984) asking for advice and suggestions from Times readers on what I should look for in my first trip to the Soviet Union. I got a lot of letters and phone calls, and a friend who ran the Center for Civil Society International (formerly the World Without War Council), gave me some names and contacts.
Within a month, I was on a plane to meet other members of the skiing group. We were a diverse mix of ages and backgrounds from around the U.S. Our co-leaders were Tony Clark, who ran the Blueberry Hill Inn, a cross-country venue in Vermont, and Jay West, a professor of Soviet studies at Trinity College in Connecticut. West spoke fluent Russian and had been there numerous times.
When we arrived in Moscow on an Aeroflot flight from Helsinki, we were assigned a permanent guide from Intourist, the Soviet bureau that escorted all foreign visitors. We had been told their guides were all connected to the KGB, assigned to keep an eye on us and report on any suspicious activities. But as a young and somewhat irreverent journalist, I figured I didn’t have to follow all their rules. Besides, I was there mainly as a cross-country skier, not a critical pundit, so I thought I had a layer of impunity. In retrospect, I could have been “rightfully detained.” Here are some of the actions that could have gotten me in trouble:
Smuggled Gifts. A young Russian woman I knew here in Seattle, Elena, and her husband Igor, who was Jewish, had emigrated to the U.S. from Russia several years before. At that time some Jews were allowed to emigrate, although that policy had been dropped. Almost no Jews — or any other Russians — were allowed to travel unless they were high up in the government, the Communist Party, or the KGB.
Elena asked if I would be willing to visit her parents in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), whom she had not seen since she left the country — and thought she might never see again. She wanted me to take some small gifts to them. She gave me their address in Leningrad, but they didn’t have a phone so we couldn’t speak in advance. She told me to just find their apartment and knock on the door. She said they’d be home, because after she emigrated her father had been fired from his job as a university professor and made to work as a menial laborer. “If you can’t teach your own daughter, you can’t teach other students,” he was told.
Elena gave me a gold necklace for her mother and an expensive wristwatch for her father. I knew that Soviet policy forbade foreign visitors from taking valuable gifts into the country. The authorities would go through your suitcases on arrival and demand that you list all items of value on a customs declaration. If you didn’t have them when you left, you could suffer consequences.
I decided to take a chance and smuggle the items in. I wore the gold chain under a turtleneck sweater and put the watch on my wrist as if it were my own. At the Helsinki Airport when we were awaiting our Aeroflot flight to Moscow, I got a little nervous but didn’t want to leave the two items behind.
When we arrived in Moscow, the airport security officials rifled through our suitcases, as well as the cross-country ski bags that we all had checked. They seemed amused that we were there to ski, and the inspections were fairly perfunctory. No one asked about my watch or saw the gold chain around my neck. When our group went to Leningrad on the last stop of our journey, I met Elena’s parents and they were delighted with the gifts.
Visiting Refuseniks. Through various contacts, I had the names of some Jewish “refuseniks,” the term for those who had applied to leave the Soviet Union and emigrate to Israel or America but had been denied by Soviet authorities. During our group’s stay in Moscow, a colleague and I contacted a man who said he would love to meet with us. He told us to take the Moscow subway to the last stop on one line and he would be there. When we asked how we would know him, he said: “Don’t worry. I’ll recognize you.” Americans in Russia at that time were always recognizable by our clothes and shoes. Someone else told me: “Americans are always smiling. Russians never smile in public.” When we got off the subway, a young man walked past us and whispered: “Follow me, but stay well behind.” He took a circuitous route and we ended up at his apartment where we met his wife, brother, sister-in-law, and mother, plus children.
We had an hours-long meeting over dinner, talking about the injustices of the Soviet system. After they had applied to emigrate, they suffered discrimination at their jobs and criticism from their co-workers and neighbors. While we were talking, there was a knock on their door and they all tensed. But it was a couple of their friends, including Benjamin Bogolmolny, who was at that time in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most patient” refusenik in the U.S.S.R. They all described in detail how refuseniks were treated as second-class citizens.
Roaming on a Soviet Train. We took a train north from Moscow – first 12 hours to Petrozavodsk and then another 24 hours to Murmansk. When we boarded, our group was given four-person compartments with reasonably comfortable seats that made into beds. Hot tea was available in a large samovar and there was a dining car for meals. Before our departure, I took a walk down the entire length of the train and went through several crowded cars with people sitting on hard wooden benches or on the floors, including many women, children and infants. Some had cardboard boxes for suitcases. Others were eating sausage, bread or cucumbers from paper bags.
They regarded me with curiosity. One man offered to trade me his worn coat for my nice ski parka. After I went back to the car where our group had seats, the train conductors locked the doors into the other cars and none of our group was allowed to walk through them. Jay West explained that I had violated a rule: foreigners in “first class” were not supposed to see the “third-class” cars. We also were sternly warned not to take any photographs in or around the train stations, or our cameras and film might be confiscated and destroyed.
Meeting with Dissident Students. In Petrozavodsk, a large city north of Moscow where we stopped to ski for a couple of days, we toured a school and met some students. A few of them talked to us at length, saying they wanted to practice their English. We agreed to meet in a park that evening and talk more. When we did, they cautiously looked around to make sure we weren’t being watched by other students who were members of Komsomol, the Communist youth cadre whose job was to keep an eye on their fellow students. We went to an apartment and spent an evening getting to know these young people, who were highly critical of the Soviet system although they had few ways of resisting it. I wrote about them in another story: “Two Soviet Students Worlds Apart” (April 29, 1984)
Photographing Murmansk Harbor. One highlight of our trip was a visit to Murmansk, a city north of the Arctic Circle and site of the annual “Festival of the North,” then celebrating its 50th year. It featured competition in several winter sports, including a huge cross-country marathon ski race with hundreds of participants. The whole city was focused on the festival, and some of the top skiers on the Soviet national team and other European countries were there.
Our group of recreational skiers were the only Americans present, and we were quickly identified as not serious competitors. But we wanted to participate and some of our group even entered the 60-kilometer race, while others skied shorter segments along with many Russian citizens. In the days before the big race, we practiced by skiing on trails above the city. Our Intourist guide also skied, but he couldn’t keep up with us. We left him behind and from the high hills above Murmansk, we took some photographs of the harbor far below. Although we had been warned not to do that, we bridled at such rules. Granted, there was a large Soviet navy base in Murmansk, but it was several miles away and couldn’t possibly be seen from our vantage point. Our photos were just of the cargo port of Murmansk.
Still, when we left the Soviet Union I hid all of my film rolls in my dirty laundry, fearing my photos might be confiscated. (They weren’t.) Our flight from Murmansk to Leningrad was delayed, and we were told it was because the authorities waited until after dark so we couldn’t take any photos out of the windows. On that unforgettable Aeroflot flight, we sat on the runway for several hours, with no food or beverages served. We were all starved. A Russian man pulled a large dried fish out of his bag and ripped off a chunk, then passed the fish around so everyone on the plane could have a few bites. When it got back to his seat it was just a skeleton. Even the head and eyeballs had been eaten. I’ll never complain about airline service again.
Along with my three-part series of stories in the Issues section, I wrote a travel story called “Russian Lessons” (April 29, 1984) summing up what I had learned about the Soviet Union. My stories were picked up by the Los Angeles Times syndicate and ran in a few other newspapers nationwide. They also were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize by then-Times Executive Editor Jim King. I later started a regular feature in the Sunday Issues section called “Lifeline Letters,” where Times readers were encouraged to write letters to the Kremlin on behalf of Refuseniks and other political prisoners around the world, with the help of Amnesty International. We were among the few newspapers in the country to undertake such a project, and were told it helped keep some prisoners alive.
There was a postscript. June 1990, in my final assignment for The Seattle Times, I visited the Soviet Union again in a trip sponsored by the National Conference of Editorial Writers. We began in Berlin and visited all of the East Bloc capital cities – East Berlin, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, Bucharest, Tallinn, and Moscow. Mikhail Gorbachev had become leader of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall had started to come down. It was an exciting time to be there and witness the fall of communism. “Glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika” (restructuring) were the new policies and hope was in the air.
Two of our group in Moscow met with Gennady Gerasimov, Gorbachev’s chief press spokesman, who was clearly unsettled by the drastic changes in the Soviet Union. We also met with a group of officials, one of whom identified himself as the new press person for the KGB. I asked him if we might be able to tour Lubyanka Prison, the notorious site near Red Square where thousands of political prisoners had been held, tortured, or murdered since the Stalin days. He looked at me with icy eyes for a long moment and replied: “Maybe someday.” If I asked that question today, with Vladimir Putin in charge, I might still be there.