Reporting From Moscow: Is That A Russian Ghost In My Machine?

Jun 20, 2017
Originally published on June 21, 2017 4:33 pm

There was a moment last week in Moscow when I had occasion to wonder if I was being surveilled.

"They'll be tracking you from the moment you land," my CIA sources back in Washington had warned, as I prepared for a reporting trip to Russia. "For God's sake, don't log on to your regular email accounts from there."

I've reported from Russia before. I'm careful.

But one evening, typing away in NPR's Moscow bureau, the cursor began to jump around on its own. Words moved. I raised my hands from the keyboard and watched in wonder as the screen went black.

Several minutes of panicked cursing later, and after plugging into a different power source, my computer revived. All seemed well.

It wasn't until two days later that I noticed one document was scrambled. Words were missing or jumbled out of order. It was a document containing names and contact information for intelligence officials whom I'd asked for interviews.

Russian hackers? Glitch on my hard drive?

Who knows?

Russia has a way of doing that to you. Of messing with your head, until you're no longer sure if you really are being monitored or you've jumped off the deep end into a pool of paranoia.

The strangest episode on this particular Russia trip came in the form of a note responding to an interview request I had made for the editor-in-chief of RT, the English-language news channel funded by the Russian government. RT's critics accuse it of being a mouthpiece for the Kremlin; RT denies this.

I've requested thousands of interviews in my two decades as a journalist. Sometimes people say yes; sometimes they say no. Fair enough. But I've never received a response quite like this one, which hit my inbox on June 7:

Dear Mary Louise Kelly,

Thank you for your request to meet. We have been informed, via our red phone straight to the Kremlin, that the officers who have tracked you since you landed sense that your mind is already made-up on this issue, and so meeting to discuss the baseless accusations made against RT would be fruitless. We politely refer you to the man in the blacked-out Volga parked outside your hotel for further explanation.

Best regards,

RT Press Office

Seriously?

After my NPR colleagues and I landed back in the U.S., we wrote to ask what prompted the note. The RT press officer who had sent it referred us to RT's head of communications, Anna Belkina. We wrote to her, too.

I asked: Was there a specific report of mine that you object to? Is it customary for RT to decline interview requests in this way?

She has yet to reply.

I kept my eyes peeled, but to my disappointment, I spotted precisely zero sinister-looking men lurking behind the wheel of a Volga, once the favorite vehicle of Soviet apparatchiks.

But here's the twist: NPR actually landed an interview with the editor-in-chief of RT. My colleague David Greene sat down with Margarita Simonyan at her office at RT headquarters the day after I received that note. They talked for nearly an hour.

"She was lovely," David told me afterward.

So was the note a joke? Was it a threat? Or something in between: a little hint of both mischief and menace, just to remind you that someone might be watching?

You tell me. Or you could ask the guy parked outside. You know, the one in the blacked-out Volga.

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