Russia has a rich history of imprisoning people on bogus charges for no purpose other than to help keep a dictator in power. At the peak of the Stalinist purges, when millions were swept into the Gulag, the secret police nevertheless insisted on giving a veneer of legality to the dragnet with formal charges, witnesses, mug shots and trials. As Nadezhda Mandelstam, wife of the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, recalled in her memoir, “We never asked, on hearing about the latest arrest, ‘What was he arrested for?’” The official crime was never the real reason.
In his drive to consolidate power, silence opposition and lash out at the West, Vladimir Putin has drawn on many of the techniques of the Soviet secret police in which he was reared. Once again, people are being arrested and imprisoned not because they committed a crime but because they got in Mr. Putin’s hair, or he needed a hostage, or he wanted to send a signal. Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza, two prominent Russian dissidents, are imprisoned because they opposed Mr. Putin.
An American, Evan Gershkovich, a 31-year-old reporter for The Wall Street Journal, has been detained since late March to demonstrate Mr. Putin’s disdain for the West and its democratic institutions.
An accomplished and widely respected journalist, Mr. Gershkovich was seized by the FSB, the Russian successor to the Soviet KGB, in Yekaterinburg on March 29 and has been accused — with no evidence provided — of espionage, a grave charge that carries a prison term of up to 20 years. It was last known to be used against an American reporter in the Soviet era, in 1986, when Nicholas Daniloff of U.S. News & World Report was arrested and accused of the same charge, which he denied, only to be swapped within weeks for an employee of the Soviet mission to the United Nations.
Hopefully, Mr. Gershkovich will be released as speedily. Brittney Griner, an American professional basketball player, spent almost 10 months in a Russian prison on drug smuggling charges before being swapped for a Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout. In Mr. Gershkovich’s case, his arrest followed the indictment of an alleged Russian spy who posed as a Brazilian and reportedly entered an American university with that identity, though there has been no indication so far that the Russians are looking to swap for him.
In the years since Mr. Daniloff’s ordeal, hostage-taking in foreign countries has increased so much that the United States government has created an office, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, to focus on the release of Americans classified as “wrongfully detained” in foreign countries.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that he has “no doubt” Mr. Gershkovich was wrongfully detained; an official determination of “wrongful detention” is pending. The White House made clear that his release is a priority for President Biden.
The Biden administration should also continue to do everything in its power to obtain the release of two other Americans in custody: Paul Whelan, a former Marine with U.S., British, Canadian and Irish citizenship, has been detained in Russia since December 2018. Marc Fogel, a teacher at the Anglo-American School in Moscow, was arrested in August 2021 and sentenced to 14 years in prison after Russian customs officials discovered a small amount of marijuana in his luggage. (Mr. Fogel said the marijuana had been prescribed by doctors in the United States.)
The Kremlin’s readiness to seize an accredited journalist as a hostage demonstrates again why the United States and its allies need to stand firm to block Mr. Putin’s designs on Ukraine. Ukraine has chosen to be part of a Europe that is stable, peaceful and governed according to rules and law. Mr. Putin would supplant that with fear and force.
To achieve his ends, he has violated all accepted norms against targeting noncombatants, including countless attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure and the abduction of children in Ukraine. Within Russia, Mr. Putin has declared criticism of his government or his war to be tantamount to treason and has deemed that any person or organization with any ties abroad can be labeled a “foreign agent,” which in KGB-speak often means enemy.
Mr. Putin has now added to these repressions the detention of a foreign reporter, one of many, including from this newspaper, who have bravely documented his wrongdoing. Mr. Gershkovich, who was a news assistant for The Times earlier in his career, is a skilled journalist with native fluency in Russian and empathy for the country from which his parents emigrated. He has written broadly in recent months for The Wall Street Journal about the war and its impact on Russians — including the heavy toll on soldiers from Pskov and the quiet acts of resistance at the site of a Ukrainian poet’s statue.
We join our colleagues in expressing outrage at Mr. Gershkovich’s detention and in demanding his immediate release.
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