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Moscow hadn’t accused a U.S. reporter of spying since the Cold War — until this week

Nicholas Daniloff, an American reporter, after his release from Soviet detention in 1986. (Cynthia Johnson/Getty Images)
6 min

Nicholas Daniloff, Moscow bureau chief for U.S. News and World Report, was preparing to leave the Soviet Union and had just met with a friend in the park when a half-dozen men in plain clothes jumped from a van and put him in handcuffs.

The men were agents of the KGB, the country’s powerful security agency, and had accused Daniloff of spying. He would spend 13 days in a KGB prison and eventually return to the United States.

Daniloff’s arrest, in 1986, took place at the tail end of the Cold War. Since then, Moscow has refrained from arresting U.S. journalists and accusing them of espionage — that is, until this week.

On Wednesday, Russia’s Federal Security Service — or FSB, a successor to the Soviet-era KGB — arrested Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and accused him of “spying for the American government.” The Wall Street Journal vehemently denied the charge, as did the White House. Gershkovich denied the accusation before a Moscow court on Thursday.

Wall Street Journal reporter arrested in Russia by security service

It was the first time in 36 years that Moscow had formally accused a U.S. journalist of being a spy. For Russia experts and press freedom advocates, the arrest of an accredited foreign journalist on seemingly far-fetched espionage charges was an unwelcome echo of the Soviet Union’s tactics.

“We are seeing a return to Cold War methods,” said Calder Walton, a historian of espionage at Harvard University and author of the forthcoming book “Spies: The Epic Intelligence War between East and West.” “The Russian government under [Vladimir] Putin is undoubtedly aware of the Daniloff case and seems to be treading that same path.”

Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist who tracks his country’s security services, said that since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2023, it has used harsher tactics against foreigners and locals alike.

“It’s a reflection of a more significant shift: evoking a threat of espionage and treason is the tool to intimidate and mobilize the society,” he said.

Since the mid-1970s, the CIA has officially prohibited the recruitment of agents from U.S. news organizations. Some analysts say the seizure of Gershkovich is designed to give Moscow leverage in a potential prisoner swap with the United States.

In 1986, Daniloff was detained just days after the arrest of Gennadi Zakharov, an employee of the Soviet Union’s mission to the United Nations in New York. After less than two weeks of diplomatic negotiations, Zakharov was released into the care of the Russian Embassy in Washington, and a similar deal was made for Daniloff. Each returned to his home country.

“They, of all people, should know I was not a spy,” Daniloff wrote later of the KGB in “Two Lives, One Russia,” a book that included an account of his arrest. As a foreign correspondent, he was under constant surveillance. Daniloff assumed the security service knew more about him than anyone.

After his release, Daniloff would go on to become director of Northeastern University’s School of Journalism. Now 88, he is retired. He did not respond to requests for comment.

During the Cold War, it was not unheard of for Moscow to go after U.S. journalists with espionage charges. It was an unsophisticated strategy but had twin uses: buying bargaining chips for diplomatic talks and scaring other journalists into compliance. At the time, there were more foreign correspondents around — and a profusion of spies.

Such Cold War machinations might seem like a thing of the past. In many ways, they are. Gershkovich is 31. He was born five years after Daniloff was arrested, as the Soviet Union collapsed.

Who is the Wall Street Journal reporter arrested in Russia?

A decade before Daniloff was arrested, George Krimsky of the Associated Press, Alfred Friendly Jr. of Newsweek and Christopher S. Wren of the New York Times were all accused of working for the CIA by Literaturnaya Gazeta, the weekly of the Union of Soviet Writers.

Krimsky was expelled from the Soviet Union the following year, in 1977. The Washington Post editorial board wrote at the time: “He was accused of currency violations and espionage; actually he was kicked out for his effective coverage of the Soviet dissident movement.”

That same year, Robert C. Toth, Moscow correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, was detained for several days in Lefortovo Prison. He was accused, among other things, of being a spy. Toth was ultimately released without having been charged.

Journalists haven’t had it easy in post-Soviet Russia. Foreign correspondents have on rare occasions been expelled. One U.S. journalist in the country was murdered in an apparent contract killing. But the Kremlin did not call them spies.

Ivan Pavlov, a prominent Russian defense attorney, told the Associated Press this week that Russia, with the case against Gershkovich, broke an “unwritten rule not to touch accredited foreign journalists.”

Both Daniloff and Gershkovich share Russian ancestry and a firm grasp of the language, according to accounts from colleagues. Gershkovich had been reporting in Yekaterinburg when plainclothes security agents seized him at a restaurant, according to local media reports.

Russian state media outlets reported that he is to be held at the Lefortovo pretrial detention center until May 29. It is the same facility used by the KGB to interrogate Toth in 1977 and where Daniloff was taken in 1986.

The arrest of Gershkovich comes amid the diplomatic fallout over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Over more than a year of war, Western governments have made efforts to break up Moscow’s international spy networks abroad. The U.S. Justice Department last week unveiled an indictment against an alleged Russian spy who attended graduate school in the United States under a false Brazilian identity.

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In December, Russia exchanged WNBA star Brittney Griner for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Griner had been detained on marijuana possession charges. She spent 10 months in the Russian penal system.

According to Daniloff’s book, he knew from the start that his arrest was related to the case of Zakharov in the United States. He had been following the news on BBC radio in his Moscow apartment.

Daniloff would go on to criticize the Soviet government and his own for their handling of the affair. But he wrote that his 13 days in Soviet detention had not soured him on his surroundings.

“The Soviet people are generous and talented,” he wrote. They “deserve a more responsive government than the one they have.”


An earlier version of this article said Nicholas Daniloff was detained on Sept. 2, 1986. He was detained on Aug. 30 of that year. The article has been corrected.