Robert Toth, veteran Times reporter once arrested by KGB, dies

Robert C. Toth, a veteran reporter and foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times who made headlines when he was arrested by KGB agents and interrogated for days on fabricated espionage charges, has died at his home in Maryland.

Toth, an award-winning journalist who was among those whose work helped popularize The Times, died Sunday of heart failure, said his son-in-law Craig Whitlock, a Washington Post reporter. He was 93.

Toth was at the forefront of many of the most important stories of the second half of the 20th century—the dawn of the space program, the Nixon White House, the arms race, the Iran-Contra scandal, and the Soviet Union’s ruthless suppression of dissidents.

“Bob Toth was not only a gifted journalist but also a serious scholar,” said Doyle McManus, a Washington columnist for The Times who worked with Toth. “What he was most proud of was not his Moscow coverage, but an important 1990 article on US nuclear strategy that he co-authored for International Security, a journal published by MIT.”

In June 1977, after completing a three-year stint as a Times correspondent in the Soviet Union, Toth was preparing to leave the country with his wife and three young children when he was handed an envelope allegedly containing government documents from a person contained, who he believed was a Soviet researcher. He was immediately grabbed by four KGB agents and taken to Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo prison.

Robert C. Toth, right, with Anatoly Shcharansky in Moscow in 1976.

Robert C. Toth, right, with Soviet human rights activist Anatoly Shcharansky in Moscow in 1976.

(family photo)

Accused of being a spy, Toth was interrogated for days by his unmoved kidnappers, who repeatedly pressed him about his contacts with Soviet dissidents, particularly the Jewish human rights activist Anatoly Shcharansky. Toth later wrote that he quickly realized the espionage allegations were just a ploy to get him to detail his connection to Shcharansky.

Toth’s arrest made headlines around the world and drew reprimands from the White House and the State Department. Supporters gathered for a vigil outside the prison. While he was being interrogated, his family worried about what was to come.

Then, just as quickly as he was chased off the streets, Toth was told he could leave the country.

“It ended on a ridiculous note,” he later wrote in a first-person account of his ordeal. He said an employee of the Soviet news agency Tass asked him if he had been treated fairly and wondered if he would like to return to the country one day.

Toth said he bit his tongue. But his escort from the US Embassy is not.

“You forcibly detain him, interrogate him without allowing an American official to be present, accuse him of gathering classified political and military information… and you ask if it was fair?”

After Toth returned to the Times Washington bureau, Shcharansky was sentenced to 13 years in prison but later released in a prisoner swap in 1986. Shcharansky now lives in Israel.

The son of a miner, Toth grew up in Throop, Pennsylvania, a small, sooty coal town near Scranton. His grandparents both suffered from black lung disease and he wrote that early death was a common fate in Throop. Acid fumes drifted through the air, chipping the paint off houses. Yellow, sulphurous sewage spilled into the Lackawanna River and the bodies of miners who died in collapses or explosions were placed in wagons and shipped to their loved ones along with $100 for burial.

Toth enlisted in the Marine Corps. after the end of World War II and left Throop. He later attended Washington University in St. Louis on the GI Bill and then earned a master’s degree from Columbia, where he majored in journalism. He ended up at the Providence Journal as a general duties reporter, then moved on to the New York Herald Tribune and the Washington bureau of The New York Times. He was hired by the Los Angeles Times in 1963.

Throop returned to his hometown in 1990 to take stock of their depraved surroundings. At first glance, he wrote, much has improved. The mines were gone. The towering piles of coal mud had been leveled and turned into baseball diamonds. The carp and even some trout had returned to the river.

But another environmental threat had arrived in the form of toxic waste that out-of-state factories trucked into Throop and illegally pumped into the abandoned mine shafts. Meanwhile, trash from Philadelphia, New York, and New Jersey was being hauled into the small town and dumped on the outskirts. “We call the Throop landfill the ‘Magic Mountain’ because it has grown so quickly,” one resident told Toth.

Along the way, Toth won numerous awards for his work, including the George Polk Award for his reporting in Moscow and Georgetown University’s Weintal Prize for his work with McManus on CIA operations in Central America. After retiring from The Times in 1993, he was a Fellow at the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press.

Toth is survived by Paula Goldberg Toth, his wife of 68; daughters Jessica Toth and Jennifer Toth; son John Toth; Sister Barbara Polovitch and five grandchildren. Robert Toth, veteran Times reporter once arrested by KGB, dies

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