I suspect we’re not the only ones on this phone call,” Ryan Chilcote says at the end of a 90-minute interview. “People talk about getting spied on by the Russians. I wouldn’t rule it out.” Chilcote, an Emmy-nominated journalist, isn’t worried. He’s not exaggerating, either. He’s simply stating a possibility that has been part of his life for decades. Now a special correspondent for “PBS NewsHour,” Chilcote cut his teeth as a reporter in the CNN Moscow bureau in the late 1990s, and later immersed himself in economics and business while working for Bloomberg Television in London. Chilcote has covered Brexit, the international oil industry, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is his first beat — Russia — that fascinates him the most. Chilcote first lobbed interview questions at Russian president Vladimir Putin back in 1999, when Putin was still prime minister under Boris Yeltsin. Since then, there have been other interviews, and last fall, Chilcote shared a stage with Putin at an international energy forum in Moscow, along with Saudi Arabia’s energy minister and CEOs of the world’s largest oil companies. That’s where Putin made headlines when he answered a question from Chilcote, saying that the former Russian agent Sergei Skripal — who was poisoned in England along with his daughter and a bystander who died — was a “scumbag.” Chilcote says, “Putin is at his best when he’s challenged. He’s actually quite good to interview because you can learn a lot you didn’t already know.” Besides Putin, Chilcote can tick off other notable interviews he’s done: former British prime minister Tony Blair; Nicolás Maduro, the embattled president of Venezuela; and Petro Poroshenko, the outgoing president of Ukraine. And places he’s reported from: Europe, the former Soviet Union, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt, South Africa, Sudan, Kenya, Iceland, and Russia’s border with North Korea. In London, Chilcote has spent time in the anchor’s chair for Bloomberg Television, wearing a suit and a layer of makeup and updating viewers on the international headlines of the day. What sticks with Chilcote, though, are the unglamorous, under-theradar stories. One time, he sat at a kitchen table in southern Russia and interviewed a young mother who was forced to leave her child behind during a deadly hostage crisis at an elementary school. Another time, he went deep under the ground in eastern Ukraine to talk with coal miners who were working without pay while Russian-backed troops fought in the streets above their heads.
How does Chilcote compare these stories, and the intense reporting they require, to the suit and the layer of makeup and the anchorman’s chair? “I’d rather be in the coal mine,” he says. “I’m always more interested in the underreported part of the story.”
hilcote has “traveled aggressively” as a journalist, he says. He grew up traveling, too, as an “airplane baby” who went back and forth between divorced parents. He became “fiercely independent,” he says, and watched a lot of TV. His mother steered him toward NMH with the hope that he would focus on schoolwork and find a strong mentor. At NMH, he met Fred Johnson, who taught Russian. It was the late 1980s, and there was great excitement around the prospect of the Soviet Union opening up; Johnson’s introductory Russian class was so packed that Chilcote had to wait a year to get a seat. At 16, he joined an NMH studyabroad program in the USSR led by Johnson. “Academically, I was never the strongest, but Fred thought the experience would resonate with me,” Chilcote says. “Boy, did it.” In Russia, Chilcote’s independence worked to his advantage. Within his first few hours in Moscow, he found himself changing his money not in a bank but with “a dodgy guy” at the Cosmos Hotel, in a room where the walls were lined with shelves filled with caviar and vodka. “I got 26 rubles on the dollar, which
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