Reporter's Notebook Tells Tale of Detention
WHAT started out as a routine trip to a provincial city to report on price increases turned into a Kafka-esque decent into a bureaucratic nightmare for three Western correspondents.
Most restrictions on foreign correspondents accredited in Moscow were lifted during the perestroika era, but correspondents are still required to inform the Russian Foreign Ministry of their travel plans a day before departure. The correspondents visiting Alexandrov followed normal procedure for travel. But upon arrival in the small city 75 miles northeast of Moscow, they found officials there still lived in an age marked by suspicion of outsiders.
After visiting a few food stores and talking to people in the city, the correspondents were confronted by Viktor Statov, who identified himself as the head of the local Worker's Control Commission, a watchdog organization formed by the then-ruling Communist Party. Flanked by two police officers, Mr. Statov insisted the correspondents follow him to the police station. He seemed particularly upset with the photojournalist accompanying the two correspondents - one American and one British.
"You are here illegally," Statov snarled. "All of Alexandrov is my home, and you have burst in uninvited. It's as if you stamped on my face and spit on me."
The correspondents refused to go to the police station, but eventually they found themselves in the office of a city official, who filled out a criminal report charging each with entering the city without permission. Meanwhile another official showed up, who also said the correspondents had violated the law. Both seemed to have detailed knowledge of the places the correspondents had visited in the city.
The officials later wanted signed "confessions," but the Westerners refused. Almost three hours after their detention, they were taken to the regional police chief, Lt. Col. Leonid Astafev, who issued warnings against traveling to restricted parts of the "Soviet Union." He then dismissed the correspondents, sending them to City Hall, where Mayor Yuri Lakayev was waiting to be interviewed.
During the interview, Mr. Lakayev explained the ordeal by saying that until recently Alexandrov was a so-called "closed city," off limits to all foreigners. But when asked why the city had been closed, Lakayev shrugged his shoulders.
"I can't really say why this city was closed," he said. "There were never any particularly important secrets here."