Their paths almost crossed. Twenty minutes after convicted Soviet spy Gennady Zhakarov took off for Moscow aboard Aeroflot Flight 318 from Washington’s Dulles Airport, freed U.S. journalist Nicholas Daniloff touched down on a parallel runway aboard Pan American Flight 61. The closely timed departure and arrival appeared to conflict with official American declarations that there had been no exchange of the two men. Daniloff, accused by the Soviets of spying, was himself quick to refute any comparison between himself and Zakharov. Flanked by his wife, Ruth, and his children, Caleb, 16, and Miranda, 23, the former U.S. News & World Report Moscow correspondent told an airport news conference that although Zakharov had been tried, convicted and expelled, he had “left [Moscow] as an ordinary, free American citizen.”
For Daniloff, 51, the distinction was important. Despite the hero’s welcome he received last week after spending 30 days under restraint in Moscow, the suspicion that he may have been a spy for the Central Intelligence Agency
(CIA) was prevalent among the American public. A Gallup poll conducted on Sept. 20 found that two-thirds of those surveyed thought that there was at least a slight chance that he was a spy, while one-third thought that there was “some to a good chance.”
Although most Soviet specialists agreed that Daniloff was probably framed by Soviet secret police, the KGB, in retaliation for the arrest of Zakharov seven days before, such suspicions may persist among the U.S. public long after the euphoria of his return has faded.
In many ways, Daniloff fitted the profile of a potential KGB hostage, according to Kremlinologists. The French-born son of a Czarist intelligence officer who fled Russia after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, Daniloff spoke Russian fluently. “They [the Soviets] don’t like correspondents who speak the language too well and know
too much about the country,” said Anne Garrels, Moscow correspondent for ABC television in the early 1980s. As well, he was openly skeptical of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts to give the Soviet Union a more open image. Maclean’s London correspondent Ross Laver, who spent time with Daniloff while on assignment in Moscow last July, recalled: “I was struck by how firmly he rejected the idea of Gorbachev as a reformer. He clearly thought his ‘new openness’ was a sham.” Also, Daniloff was a loner in the tightly knit Moscow press corps. Said Garrels: “They [the Soviets] probably thought that since he wasn’t too friendly with the rest of the foreign press, nobody would make too much fuss if they arrested him.” Summed up a U.S. News colleague: “Nick was trade bait.”
But the architects of Daniloff’s arrest clearly miscalculated. When the KGB seized him in a Moscow park on Aug. 30, after he received a package of documents from a longtime Soviet contact, Western journalists and news organizations rallied to support him,
and the U.S. administration applied heavy and persistent pressure for his release.
By arresting him, the KGB also gave a boost to Daniloff’s career. He was at the end of his Moscow posting and on his way back to Washington when he was seized. And a journalist connected with U.S. News told Maclean’s last
week that Daniloff’s relations with the Washington-based weekly newsmagazine had not been “hot” up to that time. He had been given six months unpaid leave to write a book about his great-great-grandfather, a 19th-century Russian revolutionary, said the source, and he was not expected to return to the magazine. Now
all that has changed. Daniloff is considered an important asset to U.S. News, and his first assignment, after writing an account of his arrest and detention, will be to cover the minisummit in Iceland. Said U.S. News deputy managing editor Henry Trewhitt: “In
Reykjavik he will have the chance to question Gorbachev face-to-face about his arrest.” The prospects for Daniloff’s career as an author seem distinctly better, too. Up to the time of his arrest, no publisher had shown an interest in his book. Now, colleagues say, the offers are pouring in.
As he was about to leave Moscow last week Daniloff quoted a verse by the 19th-century Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov: “Farewell unwashed Russia, land of slaves, land of overlords.” But on his return, Daniloff appeared to look forward to going back one day. Recalling that just before leaving he had put flowers on his great-great-grandfather’s grave, he said, “I am hopeful that I’ll be able to do that again some time.”
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