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The New Yorker: How Putin Criminalized Journalism in Russia

The case of Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter being held in Moscow on espionage charges, is only the most recent example of the Kremlin’s crackdown on reporters.

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In 2012, Vladimir Putin broadened the definition of espionage so that reporting and other professional activities could be interpreted as spying. Photograph from Getty 


In the course of a few days, Komsomolskaya Pravda, one of the most widely read newspapers in Russia, published no fewer than two dozen items on Evan Gershkovich, the American journalist being held in Moscow on charges of espionage. “The FSB Has Nabbed a Wall Street Journal Reporter: He was Collecting Information on Russian Military Industry,” one headline proclaimed. Another article was titled “An Ideal American Spy: What Doesn’t Add Up in the Career of Evan Gershkovich.” This piece listed facts about Gershkovich, making each appear sinister or at least suspicious. At Bowdoin, he majored in philosophy, not journalism—this, the newspaper implied, meant that he is not a real journalist. In the year after college, he worked for an environmental N.G.O. somewhere in Asia—this must have been a cover for an intelligence organization. He played soccer in high school and college, which suggested that he is physically fit, which, in turn, made him a desirable recruit for a spy outlet. He advanced in his career suspiciously fast. He has a Web site on which he lists publications he has written for but no biographical details—“Did he have something to hide?” the article asks. He travelled to Tallinn in 2019, ostensibly to write a story on Estonian politics—“Was he meeting his handlers from the Center? We’ll see what investigators have to say about this.”

Ordinary journalistic activity—indeed, the ordinary details of a young American man’s life—are recast as evidence of espionage. Under Russian law, it may indeed be evidence. In 2012, as Vladimir Putin cracked down in the wake of mass protests, Russia broadened the definition of espionage so that reporting and other professional activities could be interpreted as spying. Contrary to popular perception and common sense, in Russia, “espionage” does not need to mean working for a foreign intelligence service or even a foreign government—under the 2012 definition, espionage can include gathering information for any foreign organization the Russian government sees as threatening the security of the country. The F.S.B., the successor agency to the K.G.B., claims that Gershkovich was collecting classified information, but Russian law makes it possible to prosecute someone for espionage for using publicly available information; conversely, simply obtaining information, without sharing it with anyone, can be a crime. Finally, the law doesn’t require the prosecution to prove intent. Back when the law was changed, the F.S.B. argued that the previous version had been too restrictive and “lack of proof of ‘hostile’ intent was used by defense as an argument to release the accused and defendants from criminal responsibility.”

The expansive law has been used to charge a number of Russians with high treason (the charge when acts of ostensible espionage are performed by a Russian citizen). People charged with espionage or high treason are usually tried in closed court, and their cases are often classified, so it has been particularly difficult for human-rights activists to keep track of cases. At least some of the people convicted of high treason appear to have been academics prosecuted for standard international collaboration. Another category of people accused of high treason are ordinary citizens—people without a security clearance—who told others about the movement of troops they’d witnessed during the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia and the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Last September, the law was used to convict Ivan Safronov, a thirty-two-year-old Russian journalist. Much of his trial was closed to the public, but Russian human-rights activists and journalists believe that Safronov, who covered the Russian military, was tried and convicted for his reporting. He is serving a twenty-two-year sentence. A month after Safronov was sentenced, Russian authorities filed a charge of high treason against Vladimir Kara-Murza, a journalist and politician who had originally been arrested for “discrediting the Russian armed forces,” a lesser charge. Human Rights Watch considers Kara-Murza the first person to have been charged with high treason for opposing the war in Ukraine.

Gershkovich is the first foreign journalist to be charged under the law on espionage and high treason. It appears he’s being treated just like the Russians who have faced similar charges. His arrest hearing was closed to the public. Gershkovich’s lawyer was reportedly not allowed to take part or even enter the courtroom. Instead, Gershkovich was represented by a state-appointed attorney. Defense lawyers can do little to change the outcome in Russian courts, which seem to convict virtually everyone who appears before them, but attorneys enable defendants to communicate with the outside world. Gershkovich has so far been denied access to the U.S. consulate as well. (On Tuesday, Gershkovich’s lawyers were able to visit him for the first time and said that he was in good health.)

When the F.S.B. and the Russian parliament first rewrote the law a decade ago, making it possible to charge almost anyone doing almost anything with espionage, they created a legalistic instrument of terror. During the decades of Stalin’s rule, still-untold numbers of people were charged with espionage or high treason and jailed or executed. (At the time, the law itself was arguably less vague and broad than it is now, but that didn’t stop the prosecutors; no defense attorneys were involved). Article 58 of the Criminal Code, which made espionage, treason, and other “anti-Soviet agitation” illegal, inspired terror in Soviet citizens and foreigners who had moved to the Soviet Union, but accredited foreign correspondents were apparently outside its purview. Generally speaking, the biggest threat they faced was expulsion. To stay in the country, they had to abide by a strict set of rules. They could not travel outside of Moscow, except on an official excursion. They could barely communicate with Soviet citizens. They were under constant watch. And they had to show all their work to a Soviet censor.

For ten years, starting in 1946, my grandmother Ruzya was usually that censor. (I described her work, and the conversations we had about it decades later, inEster and Ruzya.”) Her workplace was a small office at the Central Telegraph, the only location from which foreign correspondents were allowed to file their dispatches. Whether these were newspaper articles or radio scripts, she read them first, and only then could they be transmitted to a newspaper or dictated using a radio booth situated in that office. My grandmother sat shielded by a curtained door so the correspondents couldn’t see her. Her job was to insure that the pieces written by foreign correspondents did not stray from the so-called news communicated by official Soviet outlets. If a dispatch contained something that hadn’t appeared in the Soviet papers, my grandmother translated the suspicious paragraph into Russian and called it in to Stalin’s secretariat for approval.

Most of my grandmother’s work was routine. People like Walter Cronkite, she told me, just rephrased what was in the Soviet papers. Some correspondents managed to get things past her, having calculated, correctly, that she would be unfamiliar with American colloquialisms. Daniel Schorr, who ran the CBS News bureau in Moscow from 1955 to 1957, told me about a time he used the phrase “tell it to the Marines” to indicate that the listener should not believe him (the passage went something like this: “Tell it to the workers, tell it to the soldiers, and above all, tell it to the Marines”). Marvin Kalb, another Moscow bureau chief for CBS, recalled that, one day in the early nineteen-sixties, the foreign-press corps in Moscow was informed that the Soviets were drastically cutting their military. The correspondents were then loaded onto a bus and driven to some military base, where they encountered a line of soldiers who, on command, threw their guns on the ground. Kalb began his radio broadcast, “A group of western correspondents were taken for a ride today . .  .” The censor (whoever had succeeded my grandmother) didn’t catch the joke.

I recorded a series of interviews with my grandmother in the nineteen-nineties, and she never tired of telling me that the Times was the greatest newspaper in the world and its greatest journalist was Harrison Salisbury. He ran the Times bureau in Moscow, from 1949 until 1954, and he was the most enterprising and inventive of the reporters. He seemed to have actual sources among the locals. He also used the censorship system as a reporting tool: he would include hypotheses in his news stories, to see if they got through—if Stalin, in effect, confirmed them. But most of Salisbury’s stories never got past my grandmother, who loved reading them. Sometimes, he managed to smuggle uncensored information out in the diplomatic pouch of the U.S. Embassy.

As the Soviet regime softened after the Stalin era, ways of controlling foreign correspondents became gentler. Direct censorship was lifted. But reporters remained under constant surveillance. Journalists were required to live in a system created for them by the Foreign Ministry, which also issued their accreditations. The system was administered by an agency called the Main Administration for Service to the Diplomatic Corps, or GlavUpDK, a version of which still exists. Correspondents had to live in GlavUpDK housing, which was bugged, and employ GlavUpDK drivers, fixers, translators, and office managers. It was no secret that the GlavUpDK staff members reported on their foreign employers: they were double agents by design. A transgression caught by an GlavUpDK employee—such as travelling outside of Moscow without permission from the Foreign Ministry, or using a non-GlavUpDK interpreter—could cost a reporter their accreditation.

Some journalists did lose their accreditation and got deported from the Soviet Union. But most were careful enough to work within the boundaries set by the Soviets, even if the worst they had to fear was being sent home. And then, in 1986, an American journalist, the U.S. News & World Report bureau chief Nicholas Daniloff, was arrested and charged with espionage. Daniloff’s arrest appeared to be retaliation for the arrest, in the United States, of the Soviet diplomat Gennady Zakharov, who was charged with espionage. Two weeks later, the Soviets released Daniloff and the Americans released Zakharov.

I served as U.S. News & World Report’s Moscow bureau chief from 2000 to 2002. The Soviet Union had collapsed. A half-dozen journalists had held the job after Daniloff, with no run-ins with the authorities. Yet the institutional trauma of the arrest lingered. Long after other bureaus had let go of their GlavUpDK staff, U.S. News kept theirs on. Whenever I broached the subject with my boss in Washington, he reminded me that the bureau was Daniloff’s old office and so faced extra scrutiny. I thought it was absurd. I thought the Soviet regime, with its ways of controlling and intimidating foreign correspondents, was dead and gone.

Within weeks of the beginning of the full-scale war in Ukraine, most foreign journalists left Russia (as did most of Russia’s real journalists). A few have since returned, mostly, it seems, for time-limited stints. At the time of Gershkovich’s arrest, there weren’t many Western journalists accredited and stationed in Moscow permanently. The number of such journalists was probably smaller than it had been anytime since the height of the Great Terror. Memoirs of former Moscow correspondents, such as Salisbury and Walter Duranty, who was in Moscow for the Times between 1921 and 1936, show that, even in the darkest of Soviet times, a lively community of foreign correspondents made a temporary home in the Russian capital. Gershkovich’s arrest, and the White House’s subsequent plea to all Americans, including accredited journalists, to leave Russia, will surely cause some to leave and will constrain those who remain even further.

The Soviet century has taught us what happens in an information regime of restrictions and fear. Probably the most infamous example of what it does to journalism are Duranty’s dispatches purporting to debunk rumors of a famine in Ukraine. We now know that the famine occurred, that it was man-made, that it killed millions of people—and that it was possible to report on it (a Welsh journalist named Gareth Jones did so, was banned from reëntering the Soviet Union, and was later kidnapped and disappeared while reporting in Asia). In the nineteen-fifties, Salisbury implored the Times, in vain, to append a disclaimer to his articles, indicating that they had been censored. Now there is no such censor, only terror and the near-impossibility of reporting on the ground. How does one fashion a disclaimer for that? ♦


Masha Gessen became a staff writer at The New Yorker in 2017. Their latest book is Surviving Autocracy.”



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