Friends and Acquaintances, Soviet Style : Daniloff’s Arrest Is Serious for Him and Western Correspondents

<i> Frank Bourgholtzer served several tours of duty as a Moscow correspondent for NBC News. </i>

The last friend whom Nick Daniloff met before the KGB secret police arrested him was a young man from Central Asia, a schoolteacher named Michael, or Misha, who gave him a package of newspaper clippings--presumably from local papers in Central Asia, where Misha lives. Serious reporters like Daniloff are always reading the provincial newspapers, because there is so much more to the Soviet Union than just Moscow.

Moments after Misha gave the package to Daniloff, they were accosted by eight KGB agents, and Daniloff has been in Lefortovo Prison in Moscow ever since.

For Daniloff’s friends and colleagues there is no question that he was set up. The question is how could one of the most experienced correspondents in Moscow have let himself be caught in such a crude trap? And why would the Soviets want to trap Daniloff just days before his scheduled departure for a new assignment in Washington?

All of us who have wrestled with Soviet thinking have learned that it is futile to apply our values, our standards of common sense to their actions. Why did they wait until the South Korean airliner was leaving Soviet air space, until the intrusion was over, to shoot it down?


Maybe there is something logical about Daniloff’s detention, like setting up a trade for their United Nations employee, Gennady F. Zakharov, arrested on espionage charges Aug. 23 in New York. Then again, maybe it’s not that simple.

In the Russian language, there are two words that mean friends, druzya and znakomiy . In their “Peace and Friendship” ( Mir i Druzhba ) campaigns, Soviet banner-carriers enthusiastically proclaim themselves druzya to everyone, but privately they carefully choose the second word, znakomiy , for all who are not truly special friends.

Daniloff has both friends and acquaintances in the Soviet Union. They include party members, government officials, artists, scientists, journalists, workers. Some are dissidents, many are not. He has family roots in Russia, knows the place, knows that there are bad things and good things about it, and reports both.

A few months ago in Moscow, after Daniloff and I had been visiting Soviet acquaintances, we talked about the changes that have occurred in the decades since we both started covering the Soviet story. In the 1960s, Western correspondents lived and worked in a closed circle. We spent most of our time with each other. It was very difficult to meet Soviet people, except for those whose official duties brought them into contact with us. Attempts to enlarge our social world were firmly discouraged.


In the 1980s that has changed. The official rules still are strict, but the society has opened. It has become much easier, much more commonplace, to get to know Soviets in many walks of life. Daniloff, with his background of long experience and a sound knowledge of the language, has spent relatively little of his time in the last four or five years with fellow Westerners. He has been able to spend a lot of time with Soviet people.

Five years ago, soon after his return to Moscow as a correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, he met David Goldfarb, a retired professor of genetic engineering whose son is a professor at Columbia University in New York. Four years ago, during a visit to Frunze in Central Asia, he met Misha, a young schoolteacher. They were just two of the many whom Daniloff came to know on a personal basis during his current tour of duty in the Soviet Union.

Two years ago Prof. Goldfarb was asked by the KGB to set Daniloff up by handing him a rigged package. We don’t know why. We do know that the professor refused, even though it meant that he could not realize his desire to emigrate to Israel.

Last Saturday it seems that Misha did what the professor would not do.


Eventually the Soviet purpose in arrested Daniloff will become at least somewhat clearer than it is now. So far all that is evident is that whoever in the regime arranged Daniloff’s arrest is very serious about it.

Meanwhile, for all of Daniloff’s fellow correspondents, who know that what happened to him also could happen to them, a painful reassessment is in order. Who, they must wonder, among their Soviet friends and acquaintances are druzya , like Prof. Goldfarb, and who are znakomiy , like Misha?

It’s a dilemma that the KGB will hugely enjoy.