The Moscow prison where a U.S. reporter is kept was used in Stalin’s purges

Lefortovo prison, where American journalist Evan Gershkovich has been jailed on espionage charges, has been a terrifying symbol of repression since Soviet times

Reporter for U.S. newspaper The Wall Street Journal Evan Gershkovich,
Reporter for U.S. newspaper 'The Wall Street Journal' Evan Gershkovich, detained on suspicion of espionage, leaves a court building in Moscow, Russia, March 30, 2023.EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA (REUTERS)

Lefortovo prison, where American journalist Evan Gershkovich has been jailed on espionage charges, dates from the czarist era and has been a terrifying symbol of repression since Soviet times.

The inconspicuous, pale yellow complex in eastern Moscow was built as a military penitentiary in 1881 and was used for low-ranking convicts sentenced to relatively short terms. But it gained its notoriety after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, when it became a top detention facility for the Soviet secret police.

Under Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s Great Terror of mass arrests in the 1930s, Lefortovo was one of the main pre-trial detention facilities for “enemies of the people,” equipped with torture chambers to extract confessions. Stalin’s sadistic secret police chief, Lavrentiy Beria, personally took part in some prisoner interrogations and executions in its basement.

Vasily Blyukher, one of the highest-ranking Red Army officers, was among those who died in 1938 after being tortured in Lefortovo.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, the prison continued to serve as the main detention facility for the KGB, which used it for espionage suspects and political dissidents.

Nobel prize author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who chronicled Stalin’s purges in his Gulag Archipelago, was briefly held in Lefortovo in 1974 before being expelled from the Soviet Union.

Nicholas Daniloff, a Moscow correspondent for U.S. News and World Report, was put in Lefortovo after his 1986 arrest on bogus espionage accusations. He was released without charge 20 days later in a swap for an employee of the Soviet Union’s U.N. mission who was arrested by the FBI on spying charges.

Gershkovich, a 31-year-old reporter for The Wall Street Journal, is the first American reporter to be arrested on espionage charges in Russia since Daniloff. The Journal denied the allegations and demanded Gershkovich’s release.

Mathias Rust, a German teenager who astonished the world by landing his light plane on Red Square in 1987 after fooling Soviet air defenses, also was held in Lefortovo until his release the following year.

In a twist of history after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the leaders of a hard-line parliamentary rebellion against Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, in 1993 also were held there until their amnesty the following year.

Even though it was formally transferred to Justice Ministry jurisdiction in 2005, the Federal Security Service, the top KGB successor agency that is known under its acronym FSB, has maintained de facto control of the facility.

All those arrested by the FSB on spying charges and some other high-profile suspects, including government officials accused of corruption, are held in Lefortovo pending trial.

Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive and a former Marine, was held in Lefortovo after his arrest in 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government have said are baseless. After his conviction in 2020, Whelan was transferred to another prison to serve his 16-year sentence.

Lefortovo’s trademark is holding its prisoners in “total information isolation,” said Yevgeny Smirnov, a prominent lawyer who has defended espionage and treason suspects.

“No calls, no visitation, no newspapers, nothing,” Smirnov told The Associated Press. “At best, they will receive letters — and even then most likely with a delay of a month or two. It’s one of the tools of suppression.”

Smirnov and his colleague Ivan Pavlov said FSB espionage investigations typically last from a year to 18 months, followed by a trial behind closed doors. There have been no acquittals in treason and espionage cases in Russia since 1999, Pavlov said.

While Lefortovo has maintained its distinctive Soviet-era feel, one addition was a small Russian Orthodox church built on its grounds with small separate prayer cabins to keep inmates from being seen by others.

Authorities maintain a tight lid of secrecy on Lefortovo, not disclosing any details such as the number of prisoners held there. Russian media reports said it hosts no more than 200 prisoners at a time, normally kept in solitary confinement.

Writer Eduard Limonov, who spent two years in Lefortovo in the early 2000s after being charged with extremism for his political activities, described its dusty red carpets in the corridors, muffling the steps of inmates, and portraits of Soviet secret police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky in interrogation rooms.

Cell doors shut noiselessly, with the silence only broken when guards use clacking devices or banged metal pipes to warn colleagues that they were escorting a suspect to avoid meeting others.

Biden to Russia: “Let him go”

President Joe Biden on Friday urged Russia to release Gershkovich. “Let him go,” Biden told reporters at the White House when asked about his message to Russia on the arrest of Gershkovich.

The Biden administration said Thursday it was working to secure U.S. consular access to Gershkovich. Asked Friday whether he would expel Russian diplomats or journalists in the U.S., Biden responded: “That’s not the plan right now.”

Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, called the targeting of U.S. citizens in Russia “unacceptable” and said the administration condemns the detention of Gershkovich “in the strongest terms.”

The Biden administration has also warned U.S. citizens not to travel to Russia, and for Americans in the country to depart immediately.

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