It had all the makings of a history-altering international incident.
“RUSSIAN DIPLOMAT IS STRANGELY SHOT,” read the headline on the front page of The Washington Post on April 5, 1917. Then came an even more breathless sub-headline: “Wounded in Baltimore Club, German Spy Is Suspected.”
What followed were seven remarkable paragraphs that, if adjusted for the decade, would have made for a compelling subplot on the TV show, “The Americans,” or fodder for the tortured investigation by the House Intelligence Committee into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
A century ago, the world was in turmoil. Germany and Russia had for three years been in a war that America intended to enter, as the lead story in that day’s two-cent Post indicated. By a vote of 82-6, the Senate had voted to join the fight, and the House was expected to do the same. Just weeks earlier, Czar Nicholas II had abdicated the Russian throne, adding to the chaos.
And now a Russian diplomat had been shot in the chest on American soil, just 45 miles outside the nation’s capital.
“Suffering from a dangerous gunshot wound in his chest about which he remains stubbornly silent, Michael Porzakovsky, a member of the Russian diplomatic service, is in a critical condition in the Church Home and Infirmary,” the story began, seeming to suggest that the badly injured man should have already explained to the world how he’d been wounded. (The author also misspelled his last name, which was Borzakovsky.)
“He was shot about 4 o’clock this morning in his bedroom at the Baltimore Country Club,” the story continued. “Two theories are entertained regarding the affair, which the members of the Baltimore Country Club have done their best to shroud in mystery.”
His friends alleged he’d accidentally shot himself while removing a “service revolver from his clothing.”
But investigators were skeptical: “They are tracking down the clues which lead them believe he was the victim of a shot from a German spy, bent on assassination.”
Adding to the intrigue: Borzakovsky had just arrived in the United States, “his mission here was of the utmost delicacy.” and “he was returning from the Russian embassy at Washington with an important message for the new government in his home land.”
A New York Times story, which reported that he’d been carrying a “large sum of money,” promoted the cloak-and-dagger theory, too.
The police, the Times story said, “believe that interests here inimical both to the Russian and the United States Governments regarded it as extremely dangerous for Borzakovsky to return to Russia, and resorted to desperate means to prevent him from getting there.”
Beneath another headline — “Had Mysterious Bundle” — the Times reported he had first sailed into San Francisco “on an unexplained mission” while carrying a “red, sealed bundle, closely guarded by two Russian detectives,” giving “an air of mystery to the Russian agent’s trip.”
The story would have had a big day on Twitter.
But in the days that followed, the Russian embassy at last responded to the media reports: Fake News.
Well, sort of. The Russians insisted that Borzakovsky had, in fact, accidentally shot himself, but would recover. No assassination attempt. No German spy. The response, the Post reported, “appears to lift the mystery.”
The Times offered this account:
“Mr. Borzakovsky said he had been partly undressed; that some whim prompted him to examine his service revolver, the gift of a friend; that quite unaccountably it had exploded.”
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