Vladimir Pimonov stepped out of the USSR first in 1988. The Soviet authorities didn’t want to allow him to leave, and kept him under house arrest in 1987, but they were getting a beating in the Danish press for being, well, Soviet-like, and now we know the system was close to collapse. So they threw in the towel and gave him the exit visa.
Volodya arrived at the Copenhagen train station later that year, greeted by hundreds of émigrés and journalists. He was very famous for about two weeks, then slipped to obscurity. Back in the USSR Volodya had done his academic work on Shakespeare – Hamlet in particular, and published many articles on Russia’s national sport, chess. He appears in the 1988 book, “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” by Fred Waitzkin. We forget that chess was the precursor to video games and war simulations from an earlier age, and was an enactment of all-out war for centuries, though with freeze-frames between the moves.
He said, “To understand Russia it’s not enough to know Kremlinology: you must know chess and ballet as well.”
I put him in touch with Sven Ove Gade, editor at that time for the Danish tabloid Ekstra Bladet. At the U.S. Embassy we used to parse the daily take from the more “serious” dailies (Politiken, Berlingske Tidende, Information…) but mostly ignored the tabloids which had over twice the circulation as the serious ones, combined. There seemed an inexhaustible supply of Danish teenage girls (and a few 40-year-olds) ready to decorate the tabloid’s page nine al fresco, and this no doubt kept the circulation at reliable levels. Gade, however, was determined to make the paper into a premier exposé vanguard as well, and to add serious investigative pieces to its mix. Over the next twenty years, he managed to do so.
He “interviewed” Volodya for a job in late 1988, and asked a single question: “So what do you think you can do for me?”
Volodya answered, “How can you ask such a question? Isn’t it obvious? I’m Russian.”
Gade hired him on the spot. Volodya kept the job for 23 years.
Volodya had sources in Moscow, wide and deep. They all sang to him over the phone. He broke late cold war stories, and scooped Europe’s more famous dailies in UK, Germany, France, and elsewhere.
With Gade’s full trust and backing, and almost no editorial interference, Volodya published pieces exposing prominent Danes benefiting from KGB financial backing, and a scoop on Yeltsin’s health problems, drawing rebukes from Germany Chancellor Helmuth Kohl. But the scoop was right.
Pimonov’s stories went much counter to Danish paradigms, and Danes didn’t appreciate it. I don’t think Volodya had a vendetta against the Soviet Union or anyone else in particular, but his stories were red flags (pardon the expression) and did no more than assist a corrupt Moscow regime in indicting itself in Western eyes. The stories drifted to other dailies in Europe, and in their modest way probably accelerated the rapid removal of the veil over Soviet hollowness.
More painfully, Volodya’s Ekstra Bladet outed Danish collaborators and others on the take of the KGB’s modest handouts. A local journalist obsessed of the possible irregularities of the NATO radar in Thule in northern Greenland, and even developed a logo for his daily diatribes. He argued the Thule base was a violation of the 1972 ABM treaty, even as NATO said the same of Krasnoyarsk in Russia.
With colleague Jakob Andersen, Volodya also tracked down evidence the KGB was financing similar articles and showing its appreciation monetarily to the Danish journalist.
Forgiveness for one more pun, but his crossed a red line in Danish society. Tacit codes of conduct required the “cold shoulder” at worst for social misdemeanors and outings of individuals by foreigners, but never explicit naming and shaming. The libel case then initiated by the Thule journalist is even now in the Danish Supreme Court for adjudication, 25 years later.
Volodya also traced the KBG’s material support for Yasir Arafat’s terrorist activities prior to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, and Moscow’s (illegal) financial favors for Danish communist leader Ole Sohn.
In 2006, working with colleagues Bo Elkjaer and John Mynderup, Volodya published a series of articles on the alleged money laundering for Russian oligarchs by banks in Iceland, accurately predicting the 2008 demise of one of them, Kaupthing.
Volodya was shunned, and his own colleagues at Ekstra Bladet found him indigestible foreign matter. People said he had a lack of social lubricant, I call it journalistic integrity. He was hurt by his isolation, but never pandered for popularity.
Volodya’s passion for Shakespeare surpassed his temporal achievements. His work on “minimal plot” found expression in his doctoral thesis, “The Poetics of Theatricality in Shakespeare’s Drama,” published in 2004.
Twenty years after I met him, I was driving down the street in Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé, and saw a commercial banner stretching out over the road, offering “specials” on Swiss Air flights to Moscow. These banners usually offered deals on underwear in bulk, or newly imported cell phones or cognac. The ad seemed directed to a very tiny target group, possibly only me.
I went for the bait and booked a ticket for Moscow, where I’d never been. I contacted Volodya who was back in Moscow after the Iron Curtain had fallen. At that time he was Ekstra Bladet’s correspondent in Moscow, and teaching students at a journalism school there.
The rigmarole was impressive in 2006. In a Catch-22, I needed proof of hotel payment in order to get a visa; but payment was a complicated matter, and Inturist required a wire transfer to an obscure bank in Luxembourg (!) I followed all instructions, some of them bizarre, but the Russian tourism apparatus seemed to outsmart itself as from Tzarist or Stalinist times. A ready traveler with hard currency, I found the whole thing just too macaronic, and cancelled the trip – until the day of departure, when my passport and visa just appeared on my desk at the U.S. Embassy. To this day I don’t know how they got there.
The flight cancelled, I went to the Swiss Air counter downtown, and was able to rebook the flight. I left later the same evening.
I had always imagined Moscow to be exotic, culturally rich, interestingly threatening. It exceeded expectations. It could never have happened without Volodya’s help and constant friendship. He drove me through the city, took me to the Moscow Music Conservatory, advised me on how to get around on the Metro and tram. I saw the Noviy Arbat for blini and vodka, and was very happy with it all.
On one little car transfer, Volodya made an illegal left turn, and police were upon him from out of nowhere. I recognized the gambit as something that would happen in Cameroon. Russia was, of course, a more sophisticated place, and the police took him into a sort of mobile home where the transaction (aka bribe) happened. When he came back to the car I asked him the amount he’d had to pay, and to the penny it was identical to the standard in Yaoundé: $25 U.S.
Volodya has been a close and reliable friend since I met in him in 1988. Here he is, December 22, at Østerport Station in Copenhagen, where he updated me on his latest scoops and plans. He was still dealing with the cold shoulder of some Danish colleagues and media bosses, but making his way by dint of good leads, lots of phone call follow-up, and internet work late into the night.
Hard hitting journalists are the monks of our time, uncompromising, socially removed while also keeping society literate and alive through the latter’s hard times and long periods of mendacity and lost manuscripts. Many find them odd, but know somewhere within that they are needed, to keep track of errant egos, and to check the basest of human schemes, for our own good.
Dan Whitman teaches Foreign Policy at the Washington Semester Program, American University. As Public Diplomacy officer in USIA and the Department of State for more than 25 years, he drafted and edited speeches for U.S. ambassadors in Denmark, Spain, South Africa, Cameroon, Haiti, and Guinea-Conakry. A senior Foreign Service Officer, he retired in 2009 from the Bureau of African Affairs, U.S. Department of State.