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The K.G.B. and Me

The New York Times, March 6, 1988


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I'VE NEVER MET VIKTOR M. CHEBRIKOV, the head of the K.G.B., but after living in Moscow for two and a half years I can't help feeling we're well acquainted. Every time I see his somber visage in newspapers and on television I think about the dozens of times the K.G.B. has intruded in my life.

Chebrikov is a beefy man with a square face set off by thick-framed glasses. He is not the kind of fellow you'd want to confront in a dark alley, or, for that matter, at a Politburo meeting. Charged with surveillance of the public and private lives of foreign reporters and the points at which those lives intersect with Russian society, he and his minions represent a form of reality therapy for me whenever I start to think that the repressive nature of society in the Soviet Union is really changing.

Each time I spot a K.G.B. car tailing me across Moscow, or hear an ominous click on the telephone that suggests the presence of unseen recording devices, I also wonder about Chebrikov's boss, the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Is this menacing game a part of the system that he has yet to control, or do the brazen activities of the K.G.B. tell more about the real Gorbachev than a dozen of his dazzling television appearances? I suspect the answer is a bit of both.


I LEARNED THE HARD WAY THAT MY of-fice and home phones are tapped. Instead of calling from a pay phone, as I had been advised to do, when I arrived in Moscow in 1985 with my wife and colleague, Felicity Barringer, I made an appointment with a Russian on The Times bureau line. When we met, I saw we were being followed. Later the Russian told me he had been visited by plainclothes agents who asked whether he had been in touch with any foreigners.

As for the curious phone rings and uncompleted calls I experience after any absence from Moscow, I could be mistaken in thinking they signify the reactivation of an electronic eavesdropping device. But the very fact I'm not sure seems to fit the K.G.B.'s aims. The more it can make me wonder about its presence, and the more it can instill in me concern that I may be exposing Russian friends to Government retaliation, the easier the agency's job becomes.


MAKING REPORTERS NERVOUS SOMETIMES seems the primary goal of K.G.B. surveillance. There was the morning, for example, that I had an appointment to interview Roald Z. Sagdeyev, the director of the Soviet Space Research Institute.

The interview was no secret - there had been a number of phone calls, even a letter outlining questions I planned to ask. As I waited in our office car to pick up one of The Times bureau's translators, I noticed that a tan Zhiguli had stopped a block behind. The make, the color and the number of occupants, three men, fit the signature of a K.G.B. tail.


After the interview, the tan car reappeared and followed us, sometimes ducking into sidestreets, only to dart back a few seconds later. I was bewildered. Why such close surveillance after an openly arranged meeting? The mystery deepened when I let the translator out at a metro stop. As I pulled away, the K.G.B. car screeched to a stop by the curb and one of the men jumped out and ran off, apparently in pursuit of the translator.

When I later asked the translator if anyone had stopped him, his answer was ''No.'' I still don't know whether he was being discreet or whether the K.G.B. man had lost him in the crowd.


WESTERN REPORTERS HAVE ALWAYS been wary of entrapment, but the fear increased sharply when Nicholas S. Daniloff of U. S. News & World Report was seized by the K.G.B. in 1986, accused of being a spy. Some of the fear has abated, but I still think twice before meeting with Russians I don't know well. And I wonder about some of the Russians I count as friends. Squeezed by the K.G.B., will one of them someday set me up?

There's a particular friend I worry about. In almost any other society, I would welcome his friendship and benefit from his insights about his homeland and countrymen. But there's something slightly amiss - he's too eager to talk, a bit too nervous. I fight against the instinct to give in to the paranoia the K.G.B. cultivates, but each time we meet I wonder if this will be the time he thrusts some classified papers or photos into my hands and a gang of agents arrests me.


Last summer, in an experience that seemed lifted from the pages of a bad thriller, I found myself apparently being followed during a train journey in the Soviet Far East. On the outbound train, a Soviet Army officer happened to be in my compartment. He happened to be quite friendly, and quite curious about my work.

He also happened to be going to the same destination, staying at the same hotel, on the same floor.

Whatever doubts I still had about his role disappeared when he turned up for the train ride back to Khabarovsk, again in the same car. He may have been a genuine soldier -but his job was not a mystery.

When confronted with complaints from American correspondents about K.G.B. surveillance, Soviet officials almost always offer the same response: Don't be naive. Whatever goes on here is no different than the treatment Russian reporters in Washington and New York receive from the Federal Bureau of Invesgitation. Having covered the F.B.I., I know there is a good deal of reciprocity in these matters, not that it makes me feel any better when I'm being pursued.


THERE WAS ONE occasion when, without exchanging a word, I scored a satisfying symbolic victory. Andrei Voznesensky, the Russian poet, was an unwitting partner. He was coming to dinner with his wife, Zoya, and I had gone downstairs to await them.

Militiamen guard the entrance to our apartment compound, one of several that houses foreigners, primarily to keep track of our departures and to check the identification of any Russian who wants to enter. Even someone as prominent as Voznesensky, who has permission to talk to foreigners, prefers to avoid the humiliation of having to produce an identity card, and so asked me in advance to escort him into the building.

The militiaman, assuming I was headed for my car, called the K.G.B. car pool around the corner. A tan Zhiguli promptly appeared. But when the driver saw I was just standing at the corner, he stopped. All three K.G.B. men looked at me, puzzled; I looked back, barely able to suppress a grin. The car meekly backed up the street.

FORTUNATELY, OUR children - Michael is 7 and Gregory 3 -have not been direct K.G.B. targets, at least as far as we know. But they did have a brush with the K.G.B. last November when we went to Red Square to take a family photograph to send to friends at Christmas.

As we started out, I noticed a Zhiguli slip into the traffic behind us. When we parked in front of Lenin Library, the Zhiguli stopped across Prospekt Marxa and one of the men stepped out and watched as we collected our belongings. Once we plunged into the crowd by the Kremlin wall, I lost sight of him. When we returned, the Zhiguli was gone. But as soon as we pulled out, it reappeared from around the corner.

A few blocks later, I realized that not one, but two, Zhigulis were in pursuit. As I made a U-turn to head home after a stop at a Georgian bakery, one of the cars passed us on the opposite side of the street, then quickly made a U-turn. By then, the episode seemed chillling as well as ludicrous. Michael, sensing our discomfort, asked what ''men'' Mom and Dad were talking about.

The only explanation for the heavy surveillance would seem to be a series of phone calls we received late the night before from a Russian who had been trying for years to emigrate. He and a friend were holed up in his apartment, afraid to go out because K.G.B. agents were parked on the street below. He wanted us to drive by, hoping we would scare them off. We wanted to help, but such a mission would cross a line beyond which journalists should not go.

AT TIMES, THE game can become violent, such as when the K.G.B. shows up in force at any unsanctioned demonstrations. As tensions build, the K.G.B. thugs start to get rough, pushing and shoving reporters, cutting television camera cables, and dragging off demonstrators for questioning and detention.

For transients like us, the K.G.B. is a constant reminder that the power of the secret police remains an essential ingredient of this society, even as the glacier of authoritarian control appears to be breaking up in some areas.

But for the Russians whose lives cross our own, the K.G.B. is a frightening, depressing reality they cannot escape. Long after I leave Moscow, I will remember the morning when my colleague Bill Keller and I met briefly in a park with a Russian who wanted to talk about the problems he was having with the authorities. As we parted, a young man in a black leather jacket and fur hat who had been standing at a nearby bus stop suddenly took off in pursuit of the Russian. We watched as the two disappeared in the distance, the gap between them narrowing.

I WONDER AT TIMES IF visitors think I've gone around the bend when I point to the ceiling in the midst of a conversation, or warn them that making calls from the office could endanger Russian friends. I explain that ''Boris,'' our shorthand for unseen listeners, is a party to any conversation in our apartment or the office. I try not to think about whether our bedroom is wired.

Some Russian sources use fictitious names we've agreed on when they call, and more than once I've forgotten which person it is. The phone, indispensable to a reporter in most places, is almost useless here for many conversations. A stroll around a park is often the easiest, and safest, way to meet a Russian friend, or to talk over a sensitive story with a colleague.

My distrust of the telex machine, which we use to file stories and carry on most communications with New York, was vindicated several weeks after I transmitted this story to editors at the magazine. A Soviet reporter I know approached me at a Moscow news conference, asking whether I could provide him with a copy of ''The New York Times article on the K.G.B.''

''What article was that?'' I inquired, thinking he might be referring to some other, already published story. Then it dawned on me that he was talking about this article. ''I'm working on a story, but it hasn't been printed yet,'' I said.

''Well, I'm not sure,'' the Russian went on. ''I only heard there was an article about the K.G.B.''

This exchange was probably intended as a cannon shot across the bow, but I can't exclude the possibility that the Russian had simply picked up a convoluted reference to my story that originated days earlier when some K.G.B. clerk pulled a copy of the story off a telex monitor somewhere in Moscow.

I never had so many editors.

​© 1988 The New York Times Company

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