Evan Gershkovich’s Year in Captivity

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Evan Gershkovich, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, has now been held in Russia’s infamous Lefortovo prison for a year. It looks like he’s going to be in Russia even longer: This week, a Russian court extended his pretrial detention by three more months, meaning that he will not have his case heard until July at the earliest. The Russian-speaking Gershkovich was accused of espionage, making him the first foreign journalist charged with that crime by the Kremlin since the end of the Cold War. Evan, the Journal, and the United States government all deny the Russian accusations.

The charges against Evan, of course, are nonsense, and even the Russians know it. Evan is in prison because Vladimir Putin has made no pretense about using Americans as human bargaining chips to be exchanged for Russians in Western jails.

During the Cold War, the Soviets would sometimes grab a prominent American for propaganda reasons or to force an exchange for one of their more valuable spies. Such events were rare: When I was young and studying the Soviet Union, for example, my classmates and I were told the cautionary tale of Frederick Barghoorn, a Yale professor who was framed in Moscow for spying in 1963 and whose case became a major Soviet-American issue for a few weeks. Likewise, when the American reporter Nicholas Daniloff was arrested in 1986—apparently in response to the FBI’s arrest of a Soviet physicist in New York on charges of espionage—his detention sparked a diplomatic crisis that eventually drew in Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Those events seem almost quaint now, stories from a bygone era when even the Cold War had rules. U.S. Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy said earlier this week that Evan’s detention is “not about evidence, due process, or rule of law” but about “using American citizens as pawns to achieve political ends.” The ambassador may be granting too much credit to Putin and his circle, however. Evan is not being held by an ideological superpower playing some great game of chess for diplomatic or propaganda purposes. He is being held by gangsters who consider hostage-taking a normal business practice.

As one of my Russia-watcher friends has observed rather darkly, dealing with Putin and his capos is not a job for Tony Blinken. It’s a job for Tony Soprano.

Even in a time when every American who enters Russia is in danger, Evan’s capture represents an escalation, and his continued imprisonment is likely meant to send multiple messages, including a warning to Western journalists working in Russia not to stray too far from Moscow. Evan was likely a tempting target for arrest because he’d traveled around Russia for years as a reporter for various outlets, telling the stories of ordinary Russians including migrant workers, fishermen, and young men who were shipped off to fight for Putin in Ukraine. (The day he was arrested, Evan was working in Yekaterinburg, some 900 miles from Moscow.) The Russian leadership knows it must tolerate the presence of at least a few actual journalists in its country, but it would much prefer that they stay close to the capital, where they can be watched, instead of talking with the Russian people.

For the Kremlin, Westerners talking with Russians risks two-way contamination: Reporters and Russian citizens alike find out things that the regime would prefer to keep hidden. Publicly arresting a foreign journalist and then throwing him into the darkness of Lefortovo is not only a reminder of the reach of Putin’s power but also a way of firing a shot over the heads of any Russians who might be inclined to talk with reporters.

Putin is also locking up people such as Evan Gershkovich merely to make the point to America and other nations that he can, and to emphasize that he has no intention of observing rules formed during the Cold War. The Soviet Union’s leaders cared about diplomatic niceties not because they respected diplomacy but because the bosses of the Politburo tied Soviet actions to Soviet policy goals—often evil goals, but comprehensible goals nevertheless. Putin, like the mafia boss he is, cares only about himself, his cronies, and his survival in power. Incarcerating Evan (and others) serves those purposes.

The Biden administration might be able to bring Evan and other U.S. citizens home, but Americans should remember two things about negotiating with the Russians.

First, the State Department has issued a warning that Americans should not set foot in Russia, and people should take that warning seriously: Putin will continue to seize hostages as long as he has a ready supply of them.

Dual citizens should be especially careful, because they are exposed to particular risk in any repressive nation whose citizenship they hold. In October, the Russians arrested the Russian-American dual citizen Alsu Kurmasheva, an editor for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty who lives in Prague, on a mishmash of charges that she and RFE/RL dispute. (The Kremlin, for many reasons, hates RFE/RL and prosecutors later tacked on a charge of spreading false information about the Russian military.) Much like in the Gershkovich case, Russian officials have extended the period of Kurmasheva’s pretrial detention.

Second, prisoner-exchange deals might be ugly, but Americans should understand that such deals must get done anyway. In early 2022, the Russians grabbed the WNBA star Brittney Griner on a minor drug charge. The United States agreed to a prisoner swap, offering to release a notorious arms dealer, Viktor Bout, in exchange for Griner. The U.S. also wanted to free Paul Whelan, an American serving a 16-year sentence in Russia on trumped-up spying charges. The Kremlin tried to add a Russian contract killer, Vadim Krasikov, to that deal; Krasikov is serving a life sentence in Germany. (The United States could not immediately spring a stone killer from a German prison—America does not control the government of Germany, for one thing.) In the end, Griner and Bout were freed, but Whelan remains in Russia.

Similar deals may be required to get Evan and other Americans back home. Putin cannot be deterred from hostage-taking, and leaving innocent Americans in Russian prisons just to try to teach a 71-year-old dictator a lesson is pointless. Evan Gershkovich’s imprisonment, like those of other Americans captured in Russia, is not about international relations or grand strategy. Mobsters care about power and money and personal security, and they will trade in human flesh to get them. If sending some Russian miscreants back to the Motherland brings home some Americans, we should do it—as distasteful and unfair as it would be.

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