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Alsu, the KGB—and One Hundred Days Detained

Alsu, the KGB—and One Hundred Days Detained

The brutal tactics of the Soviet KGB are alive again in Putin's Russia.

Jeffrey Gedmin

Bautzen, less than an hour’s drive northeast of Dresden, is home to an infamous institution. From 1933 to 1945, the Nazis used Bautzen’s prison for “protective custody” before transferring detainees to concentration camps. From 1945 to 1949, the Soviets crammed dissidents into overcrowded cells with little food and water and extracted confessions by torture. After 1949, the KGB’s trainee, the East German Stasi, incarcerated some two thousand political prisoners in Bautzen.

This is Vladmir Putin’s world. Russia’s president joined the KGB at twenty-three and spent formative years as an agent in Dresden. From early days and by his own admission, he dreamt of coercion and control. This is now Alsu Kurmasheva’s world. January 25 will mark her one hundredth day behind bars.

Alsu is the U.S. citizen and culture reporter for congressionally funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) who is being held in a cold, poorly lit, overcrowded cell in Kazan, five hundred miles east of Moscow. She’s been pressured to confess. But to what exactly? This is Kafkaesque KGB culture, a parallel universe where independent thought is a threat and journalism is a crime.

When last summer Alsu traveled to Kazan from her hometown of Prague, she went to visit her elderly, frail mother. On such a private trip, she thought she’d be safe. A mother in Russian culture is sacred. Alsu herself has children in the Czech Republic, where RFE/RL is headquartered. 

On June 2 at Kazan airport, ready for her return journey, Alsu was paged fifteen minutes before boarding. Authorities detained her and charged her with failure to disclose her U.S. passport. Alsu is a dual national. She was returned to her mother’s home and issued a fine in rubles, the equivalent of roughly $100. By late summer, it looked like Alsu might be on her way home. 

In September, Alsu was charged with failure to self-register as a foreign agent, a new twist in Russian law. Putin’s Russia thrives on opacity.

On October 18 came the gang of masked men. Alsu was cuffed, the mother of two young girls taken for interrogation. Today, it appears prosecutors are preparing a case against her for spreading false information about the Russian military. 

Alsu has done nothing of the sort. She reports on language, ethnicity, civil society, and minority rights. Kazan is the capital of the Russian Federation’s Tatarstan, a republic comprising roughly 50 percent Tatars, a Turkic people. Alsu is Muslim.

Rather, it looks like Mr. Putin is collecting American hostages. He traded American basketball star Brittney Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in December 2022 and his stock for negotiation still includes Alsu, the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich, and ex-Marine Paul Whelan. To ease isolation and pave a path home, Evan and Paul have two things Alsu is still struggling to obtain: consular access and State Department determination as “wrongfully detained.” The latter designation unlocks diplomatic resources that would improve Alsu’s chances of being freed in a prisoner exchange.

What does Putin want? For one thing, if this is about swaps, the Kremlin apparently wants Vadim Krasikov, who sits in a German prison. Krasikov is the assassin who, peddling on a bike through a park in central Berlin in August 2019, used his Glock 26 with silencer to put two bullets in the head of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Georgian citizen of Chechen ethnicity.

It was never easy, but back in the day things could at times be more straightforward. East German Communists, for example, wanted cold cash from the West Germans. By late communism in the 1980s, some 85,000 West Deutsche marks (roughly $47,000) was the price to buy one East German prisoner. For those interested in that history and the politics of such deals, the 2019 series Berlin Wall is available on Netflix.

I visited Bautzen before the pandemic. The prison is now a museum and memorial. I was especially disturbed by the former cell and story of Heike Waterkotte, a West Berliner who tried bringing literature across the border to East German friends. Independent thought was discouraged, control was craved by authorities. Twenty-year-old Heike was arrested in December 1976. After eight months’ detention, she was sentenced to four years and ten months in Bautzen for staatsfeindliche Hetze (anti-state agitation).

That was KGB culture then. We must work harder to save innocents—and certainly American citizens like Alsu—from the KGB state today.

American Purpose’s Jeffrey Gedmin is former president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a member of the RFE/RL board, and a member of the International Broadcast Advisory Board. Views expressed are the author’s alone.

DemocracyAuthoritarianismEastern EuropeRussiaUnited StatesU.S. Foreign Policy