Russia Escalates Its War on Reporters
The arrest on spying charges of the American journalist Evan Gershkovich is a grave—and cynical—new stage in Vladimir Putin’s repressions.
Updated at 2:35 p.m. ET on April 4, 2023
I found it hard to get to sleep on Thursday night after seeing news that a Moscow court had charged the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich with espionage. The images from outside the court shocked many of us. The Moscow press pack is a tight-knit community, and Gershkovich’s colleagues from the BBC, the Financial Times, Politico, and other publications posted “Journalism is not a crime” on their social media. As a journalist who has covered Russia for most of my career and worked closely with many foreign reporters, I count myself among Evan’s friends. The spying charges—a ludicrous pretext for what is, in effect, hostage-taking by the Russian state—threaten the 31-year-old reporter with a possible sentence of 20 years in prison.
Multiple Russian sources told me that, according to their knowledge of how Russia’s government operates, such a consequential action—the first arrest of an American journalist on espionage charges since the Soviet era—could not have been authorized without President Vladimir Putin’s assent. They also said that the razrabotka, an old KGB term for a surveillance and investigation operation, had begun against Gershkovich weeks before his arrest. It had been triggered, they said, by a paragraph in an article published in late December that carried his byline, along with those of three other Journal staff.
The Journal article described how intelligence reports from frontline commanders in Ukraine were “edited” by the KGB’s successor organization, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, before reaching Putin’s hawkish ally Nikolai Patrushev, a former KGB agent who’s now the secretary of Russia’s Security Council. A source with connections in the Russian state media who asked not to be named for reasons of personal security told me that they read the article as suggesting that Patrushev was, in effect, “censoring the reports from the battlefields for Putin.” By the time the reports have been filtered through Patrushev and reach Putin himself, they are “often out of date,” the Journal reported, and “carefully calibrated to emphasize successes and play down setbacks” in the progress of the war.
Last week, a man was reportedly abducted from outside a restaurant in Yekaterinburg, near the Ural Mountains. With his face obscured by a sweater pulled up over his face, he was bundled into a van by security officers. The Journal could not verify whether this man was in fact Gershkovich, but the reporter was in the city working on assignment, and the details described were instantly recognizable as the hallmarks of an operation by the FSB. Gershkovich was quickly transported to Moscow and locked up in the notorious Lefortovo Prison, where many victims of Stalin’s purges had been tortured and shot.
The very same FSB was the agency that certified the Russian foreign-affairs ministry’s clearance for Gershkovich, the usual vetting procedure for members of the international press in Putin’s Russia. “Old KGB officers always thought of Americans as their enemies, but now they see themselves fighting a war with Washington, so Patrushev and his key men in FSB are extremely vindictive,” Gennady Gudkov, himself a former KGB officer, told me.
He shared the view that the December Journal article had touched a sore spot among Putin’s associates—“so in their view,” the report was “driving a wedge between Putin and the FSB, between Putin and Patrushev.” Gudkov, who was also a deputy in the State Duma (one of the few willing to voice public criticism of Putin), told me that Patrushev has high political ambitions for his son, 45-year-old Dmitry Patrushev, who currently serves as Russia’s minister of agriculture.
After the Kremlin began its suppression in 2021 of the Nobel Prize–winning human-rights group Memorial, and last year forced the closure of Russia’s preeminent independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, the remaining foreign correspondents in Moscow commonly discussed whether they themselves might be the next target for the FSB. Those fears have now been borne out. I spoke with Ivan Pavlov, a leading attorney in Moscow who specializes in politically sensitive cases like Gershkovich’s. “Now the rules have changed,” he told me. “Every accredited correspondent for American media should realize that they are seen as enemies, as a potential hostage for swapping.”
Gershkovich was born in New York, the son of Soviet Jewish immigrants. He moved to work in Russia six years ago and soon became known for his incisive investigative journalism. He lived in Peredelkino, a dacha complex just outside Moscow that had been a Soviet-era writers’ community, and was a journalist at The Moscow Times. The Wall Street Journal hired Gershkovich in January 2022, and he soon gained a reputation for his knowledgeable reporting on the leading players in Putin’s circle, their intrigues and conflicts.
In Putin’s Russia, acquiring such inside information can be hazardous. Some of Russia’s best investigative journalists on these themes, including Timur Olevsky, the editor of the online investigative outlet The Insider, and Ilya Barabanov, a correspondent for the BBC’s Russian service, have been pushed out of the country by threats and smear campaigns. I reached Barabanov by phone in Riga, Latvia, where he is now based, and he related one especially chilling episode. “I was reporting Prigozhin and Wagner stories for the BBC, and one morning, I found crutches left right outside my apartment door,” he told me. “Somebody was leaving me a message.”
He went on to explain that Putin has a network of former KGB colleagues, loyalists who head major state enterprises, who can take care of such business as surveilling those whom the regime regards as enemies—including at least 18 Russian journalists arrested in connection with anti-war protests last year. One of them, Maria Ponomarenko, was sentenced to six years in prison for a social-media post about last year’s Russian air strike on the drama theater in Mariupol. What’s changed now is that the Kremlin’s crackdown has gone beyond its domestic enemies. If “an American journalist like Gershkovich travels to Nizhny Tagil [an industrial city in the Urals], the center of Russia’s tank production,” Barabanov told me, “I can see how” one of these oligarchs “complains to his friend Putin about an ‘American spy.’” (There is no indication that Gershkovich’s assignment at the time of his arrest had any connection with the tank plant.)
Several Moscow bureaus of the U.S. press, including The New York Times, evacuated their correspondents soon after the invasion of Ukraine last year. After most American correspondents left, reporting in Russia became more challenging. The few colleagues who stayed—and continued to report on the mobilization, on the growing number of coffins returning from Ukraine, on the escalating crackdowns on any critics of the regime—are inevitably more visible. That could now mean more vulnerable. The Insider’s Olevsky says he admired Gershkovich’s courage; he himself is now based in Prague, but has a keen sense of the prevailing paranoia swirling around the Kremlin. “Everybody in Moscow is thinking these days who will be punished for the war crimes and who is to blame for Putin’s criminal decisions during the year of the war,” Olevsky told me.
Since Evan’s detention, I have been thinking of the famous words of the Soviet dissident poet Anna Akhmatova about the arrest in 1963 of a talented young poet named Joseph Brodsky: “What a biography they are fashioning for our red-haired friend!” she said of Brodsky’s KGB interrogators, meaning that they would make him famous. Today, I hope for the early release of my friend, however it can be achieved. I trust that the U.S. State Department and Gershkovich’s employer are doing their utmost. And I hope that one day soon, it will be the FSB agents who have reason to be losing sleep.
This article originally mischaracterized a quote from Anna Akhmatova as meaning that KGB agents would concoct a confession for Joseph Brodsky. In fact, she meant that they would make him famous.