Prisoner of Putin
- April 5, 2023
- Elisabeth Braw
- Themes: Russia
During the latter decades of the Cold War, Western correspondents could feel reasonably secure behind the Iron Curtain, but because Vladimir Putin no longer aspires to be part of the international community, he and his government have free hands to be as capricious as they like.
Even during the Cold War, Russia sought a respectful relationship of equals with the West. The plight of the detained US journalist Evan Gershkovich suggests this is no longer the case.
What is Evan Gershkovich’s precise crime? What is the evidence against him? We may never know. The Wall Street Journal reporter has simply been snatched off a Russian street on vague charges of espionage, and imprisoned in Lefortovo, the prison used by the FSB security service. If convicted, Gershkovich faces 20 years behind bars. Gershkovich’s arrest is the first time since the end of the Cold War that a Western correspondent has been held in Russia on espionage charges.
The last such case took place in 1986, when US News & World Report correspondent Nicholas Daniloff was arrested. Daniloff, though, was held for just 13 days, and his case was so rare that it made the headlines. In fact, after Stalin’s ruthless reign ended, foreign correspondents in the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact states no longer had to fear that they might vanish into the gulags.
The Warsaw Pact’s secret-police agencies were brutal and capricious. Even in the 1980s, they sent citizens to prison, labour camps and other forms of detainment. Some jailed foreigners, too: in 1972, the British pastor David Gordon Hathaway was arrested and put on trial in Czechoslovakia for the crime of smuggling Bibles into the country. Hathaway spent nearly a year in pre-trial detention and prison. But Pastor Hathaway knew that the Czechoslovak authorities would not condone Bibles being brought into the country: that’s why he and others smuggled them in. Warsaw Pact secret-police agencies also killed their own citizens. In 1984, officers of Poland’s SB secret-police agency beat Fr Jerzy Popiełuszko, tied his feet to cement blocks and threw him into the Vistula.
Despite this, international correspondents kept working behind the Iron Curtain. Their activities were monitored, and yes, the host governments complained about inaccurate reporting. ‘We will not agree to being defenceless in the face of cynical lies. We will use any means to defend ourselves against propaganda aggression,’ the Polish government’s spokesman Jerzy Urban complained to Warsaw-based correspondents in 1985. If the ‘inaccurate reporting’ didn’t change, Urban told them, his government would initiate an international body to set standards for reporters. It’s an unpalatable idea, but hardly a threat to correspondents’ personal safety. Their chief concern remained the threat of expulsion.
As brutish as Warsaw Pact governments were, they wanted to appear respectable, to be held in the same regard as leaders of democratic countries. That’s why they signed the 1975 Helsinki Accords, a set of agreements negotiated under the auspices of the then-Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, even though the Accords’ so-called Basket III contained human rights promises that were painful for the Warsaw Pact governments to commit to.
Vladimir Putin, in contrast, has refused to sign agreements that aim to defuse geopolitical tensions and respect human rights. That’s what makes Evan Gershkovich’s situation so perilous. During the latter decades of the Cold War, Western correspondents could feel reasonably secure behind the Iron Curtain, but because Putin no longer aspires to be part of the international community, he and his government have free hands to be as capricious as they like. If they arrest a Western correspondent, the journalist’s home government won’t get far by appealing to Russian authorities’ good sense or desire for Western respect. That’s why, last December, the United States had to trade its crown jewel among prisoners, the notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, to gain the release of basketball star Brittney Griner (who’d been arrested on a minor drugs offence). Russia has taken its leave from the league of nations. The danger that now brings to foreign correspondents means they’ll take their leave and the West will become even more ignorant of Russian affairs.