Two weeks ago, observant readers of the New York Times may have noticed a curious “Editor’s Note” acknowledging that the paper’s former Moscow bureau chief, Patrick E. Tyler, had been completely snookered. It corrected a March piece that featured an interview with Captain Andrei Samorodov, who claimed to have served in one of Russia’s elite airborne units in Chechnya. He told of how swastika-sporting Army cadets had instigated several civilian killings.
Samorodov went on to say that he’d attempted to stop the violence, only to be threatened himself. Eventually he went awol, fled to Mexico, and managed to cross the border into the U.S., where, after six months in an INS detention center, he was finally granted asylum.
Besides being gripping journalism, the story was something of a Holy Grail for Tyler – and human-rights investigators – who had been trying to find witnesses to alleged massacres of Chechen civilians in 1999 at the hands of neo-Fascist military officers. The kind of story, in other words, that would make the Russian government squirm. Alas, it was all untrue – and the Russians, in a post–Cold War Le Carré remake, turned the tables on Tyler.
“I spent a lot of time in Chechnya,” says Tyler, who’s a particular favorite of executive editor Howell Raines, and on several occasions reported stories that “the Russian government was not happy to see in print.” He first stumbled across the story after seeing a column in the San Antonio Express-News by a reporter named Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje. Her son had been taking fencing lessons from Samorodov, and, moved by his plight, she asked readers to donate money to fly his family to join him. Fascinated by the idea of a post–Cold War defector, Tyler followed up with his article.
The Russians wasted no time in setting upon this target. First, Izvestia gleefully mocked his “sensational revelations,” then, availing itself of Samorodov’s service record, it reported that the soldier had in fact left the Army in 1993. The Times sent a reporter to Samorodov’s hometown to try to verify its account, to no avail. And finally, the Kremlin forced the Times’ hand, threatening to hold a press conference trumpeting the error; the paper quickly printed a correction.
“I feel terrible that I didn’t smell the fraud,” says Tyler from his new office in D.C., where he took over from R. W. Apple last month as the Times’ chief correspondent. “We ran the story because Samorodov had a compelling account and had been interviewed by the INS… . The thing that gnaws at me is that the Russians have tried to discredit every report of abuse in Chechnya.” And this time he helped them.