15 Questions with Nicholas Daniloff

Nicholas Daniloff ’53 may be enjoying his current position as director of the Northeastern University School of Journalism, but the

Nicholas Daniloff ’53 may be enjoying his current position as director of the Northeastern University School of Journalism, but the seasoned journalist hasn’t always been nestled in the Ivory Tower: while reporting in Soviet Russia, Daniloff was imprisoned by the KGB. FM sat down to ask the veteran reporter 15 Questions about Final Clubs, Russian bureaucracy and KGB contacts.


Fifteen Minutes (FM): What were your feelings about life at Harvard?

Nicholas Daniloff (ND): It certainly satisfied and stimulated my intellectual curiosity. I lived in Holworthy Hall, Suite 16, which was always a subject of some joke—Sweet 16. And I went out for crew as well; so the intellectual pursuits and the crew were very big in my life.


FM: You’ve said that going to Harvard was very important for your father. Did this affect your view of the school?

ND: My father was a refugee from the Russian Revolution. He came to the United States in 1919 and he actually went to Harvard College and graduated in the class of ’21. He wanted to become an American. He wanted his son to be an American citizen fully, in a way that he couldn’t quite be. I’m sure that he thought it was important that I should make good contacts with the establishment—particularly the moneyed in the establishment—so that I could make my way in an easy and smooth fashion. I did join a final club, the Spee Club, and he thought that was quite important—although I must say that it was of zero importance to my subsequent life.


FM: Did you feel that way back then?

ND: Well, you got elected in your sophomore year. First of all, the thrill of being accepted was true in the beginning. Over time, I became more and more a closet member and I thought of it less as being of any particular consequence.


FM: What would the consequence be?

ND: Well, you know, mixing with the moneyed folk. I remember one of my club mates was Elbridge Gerry, who is one of the descendants of the Elbridge Gerry who signed the Declaration. I mean, at Harvard in those days there were descendants of those original folks and I knew three of them.


FM: You’ve said that Harvard doesn’t prepare you for anything but further education. Can you tell me more about this?

ND: It seems to me that what Harvard particularly prepares you well for is going on to more professional education. What I thought Harvard did not prepare me particularly well for was getting a job outside of that sort of intellectual stream.


FM: So what led you to journalism after Harvard?

ND: It was essentially desperation. I wanted to be a foreign service officer or a diplomat but I didn’t pass the foreign service exam. Then in ’56 we all had a military obligation because there was a draft, but I got rejected on physical grounds by the Navy. So I went to Washington to see if I could persuade the Navy to give me a waver and I failed. But I was walking down the street and I saw a sign that read “‘The Washington Post’ and ‘Times Herald,’” so I walked in and I said, “Look, I’m a recent Harvard graduate and I’d like to become a foreign correspondent. Would you give me a job?”


FM: You’ve written multiple books. Marvin Kalb called your book “Of Spies and Spokesmen” a “journalistic memoir.” What was the process of writing a memoir like compared to reporting?

ND: Writing a book is very different from writing an article because when you’re writing an article you research it or you interview someone and you put it together. But how much time do you spend doing it? It might be a day, a week, or a month, but then it’s over. Writing a book requires a very long arc, a very long trajectory.


FM: Journalist Paul Starobin has written, “To be a Russian, or at least to be a proud, historically attuned Russian like Putin, is to feel both a certain suspicion of and a certain resentment toward the West.” Was this true when you were in Moscow and is it true today?

ND: Suspicion of and resentment towards the West? How about the word “admiration”? I would say that Russians have a love-hate relationship with the United States, and generally speaking that is true for the Americans also. My view is that the Russians have not handled their relations with their neighbors very well over the centuries. They have been deeply hurt and shocked by the various invasions into Russia. These invasions have left their mark on the Russian psyche which is, essentially, a fear of foreigners.


FM: What do you think about the current Russian leadership?

ND: They reflect that [fear], in my view. Russians have made a lot of rather negative comments about the West, about the United States, some of which you might even characterize as belligerent. When Obama was elected president, President Medvedev made a very strong speech to the Russian parliament, which was very negative towards the United States. From a diplomatic point of view I believe this was poorly conceived.


FM: How do you see Putin with respect to Russia and the West?

ND: There are several aspects to Putin. The positive aspect for Russia is that he has brought a considerable stability to the Russian economy. He is very much appreciated by the Russian people and you can see this in the political polls. However, those in the West, including myself, who had hoped that Russia would move toward a democratic structure, have all been very disappointed.


FM: So what do you think would have to take place to put Russia back on a democratic track?

ND: Time.

FM: Just time?

ND: Time. Plus, I don’t think you can export democracy. George Bush and those folks thought you could, but I don’t think you can. For democracy to happen people have to understand what democracy is and they have to want to adopt it. Each country that tries to go down the democratic road is probably going to have a different democracy than the Americans have.


FM: Concerning your imprisonment and interrogation, it seems interesting that the KGB picked a journalist to charge with espionage. Could you have foreseen that? Would you say that makes sense?

ND: They needed somebody whom they could make out to be a spy. As a Western journalist in the Soviet Union you poked around in areas that were secret. So how do you find secret information? You work through Soviet journalists and try to wheedle out of them what they know. If the secret police wanted to build up the reputation of a newly arrived American correspondent, they would feed him information that nobody else had. The KGB had an interest in building up the Western correspondent, the Western correspondent had an interest in getting exclusives.


FM: Would you meet your KGB contact in person?

ND: Sure. He was disguised as a journalist, but he also tried to become my personal friend. He’d invite me to go cross-country skiing on Sundays out in the countryside. We would go to dinner together sometimes.


FM: So would you say that you became his friend?

ND: He overplayed his hand as time went on in the third and fourth year of my first Moscow assignment. Our relations began to cool. He began telling me to let him be my exclusive channel, which is not a good idea for a journalist.


FM: Have you kept in contact with him?

ND: When I went back to Moscow in the 1980s he was still around and I was very careful to have no contact with him. Later on in ’97 he was murdered. I think he was involved in some shady monetary machinations, and he was murdered by persons unknown.