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Chapter 1: First Contact
I do not, truth be told, remember the exact day Vyacheslav Baranov walked into my office in Moscow. It was the early summer of 1998, and I had been Newsweek's bureau chief there for nearly two years, arriving just after Boris Yeltsin was reelected in June of 1996 for what would turn out to be a disastrous second term.
But that someone like Baranov could just walk into our office unannounced, the fact that anyone could walk into our office unannounced, spoke to just how much Russia had changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Our office was on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, just up the broad, eight-lane thoroughfare from the Russian White House, which at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union was the parliament, the place were Yeltsin famously stood atop a tank to save the revolution, and just down from the huge arch that commemorates Russia's rout of Napoleon. This was the middle of one of the world's most historic cities, and that history surrounds you.
During the Cold War, the big, impersonal diplomatic compounds on Kutuzovsky if you've ever seen Co-op City in the Bronx, that's basically what they look like were open only to diplomats and foreigners. Only Soviet citizens with special permission, such as those working for foreign journalists, were allowed in. And all of them had to report back to their government what it was we were up to. Phones in both the apartments and the offices were bugged, and journalists were, as a matter of course, followed whenever they ventured outside the compound.
Five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of this had changed completely. While both our office and home phones were still bugged, we never got the impression anyone was listening anymore. Far from being a police state, Russia in the Yeltsin years tended toward anarchy; the fearsome state security apparat of the Soviet era had effectively been privatized, the best people snapped up by the businessmen, the so-called oligarchs who had come to dominate the post-Soviet economic landscape.
The ease with which absolutely anyone could stroll into what had once been forbidden ground for Soviet citizens was a small window on the anarchic quality Moscow had taken on. The people who would occasionally pitch up in our office were usually poor souls, destitute, mainly, some of them alcoholics, some of them seemingly paranoid. One poor old man named Nikolai, who spoke with a pronounced stutter, hounded me constantly with his tales that the KGB was still persecuting him for reasons that were never clear. Another woman, a fine English speaker who claimed to have once worked for a United Nations agency, came in often to beg for a job with Newsweek. She was invariably drunk.
I felt sorry for all these people, and spent more time listening to their tales of woe than I should have. But even before Baranov turned up, I had grown irritated with my office manager for letting them just stroll into my office. It was ridiculous. I wasn't in a position to help them, and Newsweek wasn't paying me to spend quality time with cranks, however desperate they may be.
In the weeks before Baranov's first visit, my colleague in the office, a young British reporter named Owen Matthews, whom I had hired as a full-time stringer, had been poking into rumors that Russia still maintained a large and largely secret chemical weapons development program. At some point during the course of the reporting for this piece, he mentioned to me that he had gotten a couple of strange calls from a guy who claimed to be a former officer of the GRU the once powerful, and, in the West, feared, Soviet military intelligence agency. He had said he wanted to visit the bureau and meet the Newsweek correspondents. Owen at one point wondered aloud whether this wasn't some form of harassment from the current Russian security agencies, who may not have been thrilled that he was trying to dig up information about the alleged chemical weapons program. I don't remember what I said, but I remember thinking I didn't believe that. The story hadn't progressed that far, and I had already concluded that the newly constituted KGB, known now as the FSB (Federal Security Bureau), wasn't spending a lot of time worrying about what foreign correspondents were up to.
So when the latest of the line of strangers to show up in my office came in late one afternoon, I just thought to myself, Here we go again. He looked to be in his sixties. Thin, gaunt almost, about five feet eight inches tall, bald save for swathes of white hair on each side of his head, the only thing that registered immediately about him was the quality of his English. He spoke with a slight Russian accent, but almost flawlessly. His gauntness, and the fact that his face was deeply lined and his teeth had deteriorated, suggested that he had endured some hard times. But that was only true for about the entire Russian male population.
He came in saying he was looking for Andy Nagorski, who had been my predecessor as the Moscow bureau chief. I politely told him that Andy and I had swapped jobs almost two years before, and that Andy was now the Berlin bureau chief. I was curious why he wanted to see Andy. He replied that he had been a prisoner at Perm 35, an infamous labor camp in the Urals where many Soviet dissidents had been imprisoned, and that a few years into his time there, Andy had visited with a group of former dissidents.
This was true. Nagorski had done a piece on what life was like in these infamous camps, and it centered around a visit to Perm 35. I still didn't quite understand why he wanted to see Andy, but I asked him why he was in there.
He was sparing on the details in that first visit. But he did say that he had been imprisoned for espionage. That he had been a colonel in the GRU, and that in 1989, while based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, he had agreed to spy for the CIA. Upon his return to Moscow sometime later, he had been arrested, tried, and convicted. And then had done time in Perm 35, where, he added, he had spent some of his time translating Frederick Forsyth spy novels from English into Russian.
I don't know whether it was clear to him in that first meeting, but I didn't believe any of this. I had, in my short time in Moscow, already become jaded. I believed he had been in Perm 35 when my colleague visited, but I didn't believe the espionage tale. First, I didn't know whether the Russians imprisoned spies at Perm 35. I had thought, in fact, that the Russians took their spies to the basement underneath KGB headquarters, at what was once Felix Dzherzhinsky Square (named after the founder of the Soviet secret police) and put a bullet in the back of their heads. Second, I cynically sensed, given my previous visitors, a sob story coming and a request, at some point, for money.
I didn't know how right, and how wrong, I was.
Because I didn't know where this story was headed indeed, because I was so skeptical of his tale that he wasn't at that point a "story," he was a crank these early days are a bit of a blur. Baranov himself says he doesn't remember how long after that initial visit it was before he called me again. But it wasn't long. Maybe a week; maybe ten days. The one thing that had stuck in my mind was the Nagorski detail. If this guy was telling tall tales, it wasn't all a tall tale. He clearly had been at Perm 35 for something, otherwise how would he know Andy had been there, unless he had read it in Newsweek (not very likely given the magazine's limited circulation in Russia). Plus, his English was extraordinarily good, and he was intelligent, distinguished even. I was at some level intrigued. And so when he called again, I said sure, come by.
We met again in my office. And this time, after some small talk, he began to add more details to his story. He said he had wanted to meet Andy or someone from Newsweek because he wanted to get in touch with the U.S. government. He had been trying to do so on his own since he had been released from prison several months earlier. He had gotten nowhere. He said he had, through a friend who had emigrated from Ukraine to Canada, got the name of the FBI legal attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa. A man named Jerry Rose. He had sent faxes to Jerry Rose several times, explaining his situation, explaining that he wanted, needed, to get in touch with the U.S. government. Jerry Rose had never responded.
Why didn't you just go to the U.S. Embassy here, in Moscow? I asked. He said he was concerned, first, that that might be risky. He had done his time, but the Russian government still had his passport. He couldn't travel out of the country; and if his government's spies discovered him walking into the U.S. Embassy, having already been convicted for espionage, he could get into trouble all over again.
This sounded reasonable. Russian spies may not have been paying attention to journalists anymore, but they no doubt still had people checking out who was going in and out of the U.S. Embassy.
I asked Baranov why he hadn't just been killed on the spot, once "convicted" of espionage. He said that had he been "tried" under the law of the Soviet Union, his sentence would have been harsher. But his trial had come after the Soviet Union had fallen. He came under the law of the newly constituted Russian Federation. And since the state had been unable to prove that he had given away secrets "highly damaging" to the country's security, he had received a relatively lenient prison sentence.
These answers came calmly, straightforwardly. I think it was during this second meeting that the thought first occurred to me: if this guy is making this up, he's a helluva good liar. It was the first moment when I thought that maybe he wasn't making it up.
I asked why he thought the U.S. government, at that point in the person of Jerry Rose, hadn't responded to his requests for contact. He demurred, said he didn't know. Why, I asked, was it so important that he get in touch?
I wasn't taking notes at this second meeting, but it was then, for the first time, that he let me know that he felt he had been treated badly both after he had been recruited in Bangladesh, and after he had been released from the Gulag. He had a grievance, and he wanted to air it.
That was not to be the only reason he wanted to talk to the U.S. government, as I would learn soon enough. But now his motivation in coming to the Newsweek office (if he was telling the truth) was becoming clear. He wanted me, someone with access to U.S. diplomats in Russia, to help him gain access to them. He hadn't said that yet, nor did I know then how deep his anger ran. I didn't know then the details of how he'd been handled or mishandled. Nor did I know why, if he was telling the truth, he had agreed to spy for the Americans. But as he spoke, not very specifically, about what had happened to him, the thought first entered my head: not, could I help this guy? Not, should I help this guy? I wasn't even considering the idea at this point that I would end up where I eventually did, smack in the middle of a mole hunt. No, at that point I was simply intrigued. Not convinced, but intrigued. If Vyacheslav Baranov was to be believed, if he was telling me the truth, this might be a helluva story. That was the thought that popped into my head.
Was he telling the truth? I had made it clear to him, if only through my willingness to listen at this point, that I was interested in what he was saying. I wanted to hear more. I reinforced the point just before he left that day. If you want to continue to talk, I'd be happy to. Just call and let me know when you want to come by.
He thanked me, and said something to the effect that he'd probably do just that. If I needed to figure out whether he was telling the truth, he needed to figure out if I could, and would, actually help him.
Copyright © 2002 by William Powell