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Of Spies and Spokesmen: My Life as a Cold War Correspondent

Nicholas Daniloff, Professor, School of Journalism, Northeastern University

Date & Time

Apr. 28, 2008
12:00pm – 1:00pm ET


In one of the last dramas of the Cold War, U.S. journalist Nicholas Daniloff was arrested by the Soviet government in retaliation for the arrest of a Soviet spy in the United States. Speaking at a recent Kennan Institute event, Daniloff, professor, School of Journalism, Northeastern University, recounted his career as a journalist, from beginning as a copy boy working for the Washington Post to becoming a two-time veteran correspondent in Moscow.

Daniloff said his interest in Russia stems from his family origins. His father and grandmother came to the United States as refugees from the Bolshevik revolution. His father was bitter toward the Bolsheviks who "stole his country," and discouraged Daniloff from taking any interest in Russia. He warned his son that if he ever went to Russia, he would be arrested and his American passport would not help him. "Well, it turns out he was partly right," conceded Daniloff. His grandmother, on the other hand, inspired Daniloff's interest in Russia with tales of his ancestors, who included a 19th century revolutionary and high ranking military officers.

After working for the Washington Post and studying at Oxford University, Daniloff accepted a position in United Press International's Moscow bureau in the early 1960s. From there he reported on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Daniloff noted that in the Soviet Union, where public information and the press were tightly controlled, the crisis was covered very differently. There was no information about Soviet missiles being based in Cuba; instead, the conflict was covered as a U.S.-Cuban affair that resulted from anti-Castro policies in the United States. During an earlier Berlin crisis, Daniloff noted, there was fear of war and food hoarding in the Soviet Union. There was no such tension at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in Moscow.

One aspect of the Cuban Missile Crisis that drew concerned attention was the length of time it took for communications to pass between Soviet and U.S. leadership. Between coding messages, sending them over commercial cables, and decoding them, it could take as long as eight hours for a message to be delivered. After the crisis, UPI correspondents demonstrated that cables between Moscow and Washington, D.C. could be delivered in 60 seconds, and that demonstration helped pave the way for the installation of the "hotline" between the White House and the Kremlin.

He described some of the "dirty tricks" that the KGB would employ against Western journalists who drew their anger. One journalist who wrote critical articles returned to Moscow from his honeymoon to discover that his freezer had been unplugged and a supply of imported meat had rotted. A West German embassy technician had mischievously tampered with a listening device, and was later attacked and injected with mustard gas, leaving him seriously injured. Daniloff's own apartment had been vandalized as well while he was on vacation.

Daniloff returned to the Soviet Union as Bureau Chief for U.S. News and World Report from 1981-86. During this time, he found the opportunity to explore his family roots in Russia and reported on the new Gorbachev administration. His work in Moscow came to an abrupt halt, however, when he was arrested in retaliation for the arrest of a Soviet spy in the United States. Years later, in a televised exchange at a Harvard University conference, Gorbachev admitted that Daniloff's case had been a "tit for tat" Cold War exchange.

Russia has emerged from a period of weakness in the 1990s, and thanks in part to high oil prices it is once again strong on the world stage. Daniloff observed that there are a number of writers who want to raise concerns over Russia's renewed strength, as well as some of Russia's actions and other suspicious events. According to this point of view, Russia and the West are moving into a new Cold War. Daniloff disagreed with this assessment, citing a range of issues on which Russia has common interests with the United States and the West, including non-proliferation and terrorism.


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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more

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