On March 29, Russia’s Federal Security Service arrested Evan Gershkovich, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg and accused him of espionage.
His arrest happened to occur a few days after US authorities announced espionage charges against a Russian national named Sergey Cherkasov, who was pretending to be a Brazilian national while studying at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
On Tuesday, Gershkovich, who is Jewish, appeared briefly in court in Moscow. His appeal to be freed from pre-trial detention was denied.
He will remain in Lefortovo prison, an ex-KGB facility whose previous inmates include the Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, until at least May 29. If he is tried, he will be found guilty, as accused spies invariably are in Russia.
The charges carry a sentence of 20 years in prison. Meanwhile, Gershkovich has finished Vasily Grossman’s epic novel Life and Fate and is now reading War and Peace.
Gershkovich is the first American journalist to be charged with espionage in Russia since the Cold War. The charges are absurd. The Wall Street Journal is the last serious newspaper in America. I write for it, and I know how seriously its editors and writers value their accuracy and independence.
Gershkovich was one of the few American journalists to remain in Russia after the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
The BBC has reported that he was asking questions in Yekaterinburg about the Wagner Group, the mercenaries and war criminals who have done Vladimir Putin’s dirty work in Ukraine, Africa and elsewhere.
Gershkovich was doing his job. His arrest, like the arrests and even murders of other journalists who asked the wrong questions, reflects how far Russia has drifted into the kind of authoritarianism that Putin calls a “dictatorship of the law”.
Ivan Pavlov, a Russian lawyer specialising in spying cases, says that espionage charges, once rare, are now brought about 50 times a year in Russia.
Gershkovich, who is 31, was raised in Princeton, New Jersey by Ella Millman and Mikhail Gershkovich, emigrants who escaped from the Soviet Union in the late 1970s.
Ella recalls her mother hanging blankets on the windows before lighting candles on Friday night, so the “neighbours wouldn’t see we were Jewish”.
Evan’s arrest elicited instant condemnation across the spectrum of American life, from President Biden downwards. Gershkovich’s colleagues at the WSJ have created a Twitter hashtag, and they encouraged Jews to set an extra place at their Seders for Evan.
This kind of high-profile and unanimous response does not happen when a real spy is arrested. When that happens, the government refuses to comment. The press, if it persists in pursuing the story, runs into a wall.
Gershkovich is a hostage, kidnapped by a foreign government. While the rise in espionage cases reflects Putin’s “dictatorship of the law”, the rise in the number of kidnapped Americans reflects the growing willingness of its leaders to negotiate.
In 1850, Lord Palmerston’s government sent the fleet to Piraeus after a Gibraltar-born Jew named Don Pacifico was assaulted in the street in Athens.
Britain can no longer afford “gunboat diplomacy”. America shuns it by choice. In 2015, Barack Obama created a Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. Roger Carstens, the current envoy, has been notably busy under the Biden administration.
In April 2022, the administration commuted the sentence of a Russian pilot convicted of conspiring to import cocaine to obtain the release of Trevor Reed, an ex-Marine held for three years after a drunken incident with a Russian police officer.
In September 2022, an Afghan drug lord was freed from a US prison in return for a Navy officer held by the Taliban.
In October 2022, the US released two nephews of Venezuela’s president held on drug trafficking charges in exchange for seven employees of the Citgo oil company, held on corruption charges the US called “specious”.
Last November, the US exchanged Viktor Bout, an arms dealer known as “The Merchant of Death”, for basketball player Brittney Griner.
If Cherkasov’s arrest triggered Gershkovich’s arrest, then he may be home soon. Joe Biden needs him back: he knows what the Iranian hostage crisis did to Jimmy Carter’s chances in 1980.
But Gershkovich will not be the last foreigner to be detained on false charges in Russia.
Like Israel, the US has committed itself to a pattern of lopsided exchanges that reward the hostage-taker and even incentivise future hostage-taking.