In August 1959, a group of students from Oxford travelled to Moscow on a red doubledecker bus they’d bought from the London Transport Authority. One of them was Nicholas Daniloff, an American studying law at Oxford. His grandfather, General Yuriy Danilov, had served as chief of operations for the Russian Imperial Army but emigrated to Paris after the October Revolution. Daniloff told me a few years ago that the trip deepened his resolve to become a foreign correspondent in the Soviet Union.
In August 1986, when he was the Moscow bureau chief for US News and World Report, Daniloff was arrested by the Soviet authorities on espionage charges. He was held in Lefortovo prison for thirteen days, before being placed under house arrest while the United States and the Soviet Union negotiated a prisoner exchange. By the end of September, he was free to return to the United States, swapped for a Soviet representative to the UN, who had been arrested in New York on espionage charges.
Two months ago, Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was arrested in Yekaterinburg on espionage charges. Like Daniloff, Gershkovich was born into a family of emigrés. His parents are both Soviet-born Jews who left in 1979 and settled in the United States, where they met. Like Daniloff, Gershkovich is now confined to a cell in Lefortovo. But Daniloff was soon released and returned to the US. He even came back to Soviet Union a few years later, as perestroika took hold. Gershkovich’s future, however, is far from clear. His ‘pre-trial detention’ has been extended until at least 30 August.
Gershkovich arrived in Moscow in 2017 and took a job with the Moscow Times. Russian journalists faced arrest and exile. Their ability to investigate had been steadily eroded, and their publications forced to shutter or accept more Kremlin-pliant management. But Western correspondents could, broadly, go about their reporting. Gershkovich and his colleagues published scoop after scoop from across Russia, most impressively during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. He later moved to Agence France Presse and then, in January 2022, to the Wall Street Journal.
A couple of days after the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, I made dinner for three journalist friends at my apartment in Moscow. By the end of the next week they had all left Russia. I followed them at the end of March. Some journalists remained in the country, if they had Russian families or worked for international broadcasters, but the majority left, at least temporarily.
Gershkovich was one of those who travelled in and out of Russia to continue reporting from inside the country. After his arrest, few feel able to take the risk. A friend who works for a newswire was waiting for the Russian authorities to issue accreditation so he could return to Moscow when he learned of Gershkovich’s arrest. He withdrew his application.
Western correspondents, long seen as irritants by the Russian authorities, are now considered agents of the ‘collective West’, a term which has gained prevalence in Russian propaganda in the last two years to describe the enemy. But Russia continues to issue visas to tourists and residents. A few of my Western friends are still in Moscow, working in finance or IT, or teaching English. They say that little has changed in their daily lives, at least on the surface. They spend time with the same Russian friends, visit the same bars and restaurants at weekends. But with the arrest of Gershkovich, and the departure of Western correspondents concerned for their own safety, their vital reporting on how ordinary Russians relate to the war and navigate its effects will be lost. That, it appears, is what the Russian authorities want.