At this writing, a fellow American reporter, Nicholas Daniloff, is sitting in a Moscow cell charged with spying. All his colleagues, including this one, have strong feelings of helplessness and misery.
I met another U.S. reporter at breakfast a short while ago. He said: ''The next time theycatch a Russian spy in Chicago or New York, it could be your turn or mine to be picked up. Not an uplifting thought for the day.Mr. Daniloff, who works for U.S. News and World Report, was planning to leave Moscow after working in the U.S.S.R. capital more than five years. His
memories of good times here may all be eclipsed by the current nightmare.
None of the U.S. or other Western correspondents I've spoken to believe the Soviets are always in the wrong. But, at the same time, nobody enjoys working under the incubus of uncertainty. The entire American press corps in Moscow has signed a letter addressed to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev telling him, among other things, we are worried over attempts to intimidate every member of the media in Moscow.
Some Western observers wonder: Are the Soviets perhaps frustrated because they can't get President Reagan to agree to a nuclear test ban? Is it true that most Americans are suspect in the eyes of the Soviets? And what about the British, the West Germans, the French, the Japanese?
The Soviets scoff. "This is utter nonsense, they say. In any case, we are watched. Some ore than others.
I, like most Americans in Moscow, practically live in a goldfish bowl. It's easy to spot us. For example, any Soviet can look at the "K 04 license plates on my Chevrolet and identify me as an American correspondent. The "K is the Soviet initial for correspondent, the "04 code means United States, just as '01 means Britain, "02 West Germany, "03 Canada, "05 Japan and so on.
Just the other day, I had a scary experience with the local police. I spent two whole hours inside a militia (police) station because I was accused of not stopping for a red light. It was at a highway intersection where the signal is on a sharp curve.
What I experienced could have been right out of a Marx Brothers movie. A full 20 or 30 minutes after I was stopped and questioned on the highway, the traffic cop hailed three passing motorists at random as witnesses against me. Later, at the station, I was barred from making a phone call to my wife or to the U.S. Embassy.
That old feeling of helplessness and misery was very much with me. I protested but to no avail.
The "04 on my car was no help, of course. In any case, two or three militiamen were certain that, as an American correspondent, I must earn big bucks.
The inside of the police station itself was not very reassuring. It was dimly lit and had a foul smell. It was truly unfit for human occupancy. I don't mean to overplay the physical details. But the place obviously had not had a scrub or coat of paint, or an airing, in ages. Its location? Right under the prestigious Moscow University.
What brings little comfort is that arbitrary acts may occur, more often than not, at a low level. It is possible for almost anybody to be held.
To be fair, the Soviets complain of many hooligan acts against them in the United States. Recently, for example, a New York performance of their world-famous Moiseiev dance troupe was disrupted by tear gas bombs.
It is wrong to magnify the problems and risks of foreign correspondents in Moscow. Those who worked here many years ago say it was a real closed society then and a much difficult place to work in. I'm certain if John Gunther, who wrote about the U.S.S.R., were alive he would be amazed at the greater openness in Moscow.
But those dark images are hard to erase.
Two years ago I took my mother, who was visiting me, to a Moscow park together with my wife, five-year old son and our Siberian cat. A man sat reading not far away. "The person behind that newspaper is a KGB-man and he's watching us, my mother said knowingly. I was certain the KGB had better things to do with their employees than to monitor my family's antics in the park.
Recently, on a plane from New York to Moscow, I met a Soviet official (he works in New York), and asked him which city he found safer to drive in, New York or his native Moscow? 'New York, he said without hesitation.
'Why? I asked.
His answer: "Because in New York the traffic police don't bother me. I know what he means. And I am certain that Nicholas Daniloff does, too.