Last week, a friend called to say he was worried. The air conditioning was running when he came home. He was sure he’d turned it off. Absolutely positive. Had someone—some spook—broken in? That was when I knew Washington, D.C., had turned into Moscow.
I had the same feeling on Tuesday morning when The New York Times and The Washington Post reported that my think-tank project at the Hudson Institute had been targeted by Russian military intelligence. This again.
In 2014, I stopped going to Moscow. It felt like the right thing to do. Twice over the past two years, I had been taken in for questioning by the FSB. Once, in remote Tuva, I was hauled in off the side of the road and, as my notebook was photocopied and every file was downloaded from my laptop, I was made to write a “declaration of my activities.”
A few months later, I arrived in Birobidzhan. For years, I had dreamed of visiting the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, the name still attached to the mosquito-infested marshlands set aside by Stalin for Jewish settlement in Siberia as an alternative to Zionism. But before I could find any of the handful of Jews there was a knock on my hotel-room door. It was two agents from the FSB.
Both encounters lasted only a few hours. There was nothing special, nothing unprecedented, about them. Both times, the agents were almost courteous. But still, the encounters rattled me. I was a think-tank researcher with an interest in corruption, not military secrets. What did the FSB have to do with me?
But what made me decide not to go back to Moscow was when friends started to accuse one another of being involved with the Russian security services. It was too depressing and too murky. I wanted something new.
In 2015, I started visiting Washington, D.C. I began working with the newly launched Kleptocracy Initiative at the Hudson Institute on Pennsylvania Avenue. After years in and out of Moscow, the languid city on the Potomac felt like a breath of fresh air. I could call a senator’s office for a quote and someone would actually answer. Even better: I could meet senior officials who were actually charged with running policy.
It felt so different from Moscow, where if ever I had the chance to visit the Foreign Ministry or speak with Russian lawmakers, we would always have wonderful conversations, but all too often they felt irrelevant. With a nod and wink they would practically admit the obvious. The real power wasn’t there—it wasn’t even in the institutions with grand imposing names like the Federation Council—but in the hands of oligarchs, propagandists, and the president’s friends.
Power had long ago slipped out of formal institutions in Moscow. What mattered most was an unspoken fact: The president’s friends’ financial interests shaped almost everything. I became sick of government officials repeating the lines they parroted from the hate-filled nightly opinion shows on state TV. What I really wanted was to move to America, where it was all so different.
Then Donald Trump was elected president. I moved a few months later and started noticing things changing almost immediately. People I knew began having dreams (actual dreams) about Trump, something that started with Putin in Moscow a long time ago. Everything that felt so distinctively D.C. about how people talked began to fade. All the earnest discussion about policy that I had so enjoyed was replaced by opaque rumors and guesswork about the influence of oligarchs, the ructions of the intelligence services, and the intentions of “the family.” I shuddered as, when discussing politics, people started to speak about “him” and “what he wants” without ever needing to name him. Just like Moscow.
I set to work on my new project at the Hudson Institute doing open-source research on corruption. But what had long been my fringe interest on the nexus of money laundering through luxury real estate, shell companies, and Russian oligarchs no longer felt so eccentric as Paul Manafort was arrested and Robert Mueller started digging into Ukrainian money trails.
Something strange was happening. Offline, living in a Whole Foods–eating, Netflix-watching bubble off Dupont Circle, Washington felt like one of the softest places in the world. Moscow, goodbye. But online, and on TV, it was quite another matter.
I had to pinch myself watching Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson on Fox News. These men, railing furiously against plots and traitors, were eerily reminiscent of the propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov on Channel One Russia.
But that was not all. The mounting hysteria about foreign influence. The professional trolls and Twitter accounts laying blame on MI6. I felt like I had seen it all before. But nothing more so than the fact that smart people kept telling me power was measured here by proximity to the president, not by the office you held.
So I wasn’t surprised when my computer was hacked in a custom-made attack launched from a Russian-speaking country. Nor was I shocked when Microsoft revealed that, once I had finished my research into how kleptocrats move around their money, my project had been targeted by hackers run by Russian intelligence who cloned a website in order to phish the accounts of anyone interested in our work.
But this time I didn’t stop to think Why me? It was now perfectly clear. What upsets the current regime in Moscow is not what used to infuriate the old Soviet authorities—research into its military strength—but anything exploring its illicit finances. Something similar might now be said of the current White House.
Looking back on it, I realize that every story I ever filed from Russia was not just a politics story, or a crime story, or a spy story—but almost always, on some level, also a corruption story.
That’s one final, spooky way that Washington now feels just like Moscow.