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Putin's Hostages

Putin's Hostages

A year ago, the Russians released Brittney Griner. Another American hostage now—Alsu Kurmasheva—points to a trend and bigger problem.

Jeffrey Gedmin

On the banks of the Volga and Kazanka rivers, Kazan has been known for cosmopolitan vibrancy and culture. The capital of Tatarstan—500 miles east of Moscow and one of the Russian Federation’s 21 republics—is home to 10 universities, a dynamic theater scene, abundant jazz cafes, a cluster of top music schools, and some 50 museums. Since summer, Ukraine war-watchers know Tatarstan as home to an Iranian drone factory. I know it now as the place where our journalist Alsu Kurmasheva is being detained.

This summer, Alsu traveled from Prague to Kazan to tend to her elderly mother. She was fined the equivalent of $103 for neglecting to disclose her U.S. citizenship— Alsu is a U.S.-Russian dual national—and was ready to return to her husband and two young children in the Czech Republic, except that her confiscated passports were never returned.

Then, on October 18, came the masked men, the cuffs, the jailing, and pressure to confess. Kazan, it turns out, has its cruel side. Alsu’s cell is often overcrowded with little natural light. She sleeps with only a thin blanket—daytime highs in Kazan are now in the mid-20s Fahrenheit. Last week, everyone in her cell block was sick. Two weeks ago, prison guards jammed into her cell a severely mentally ill woman without medication. This is what pre-trial detention looks like in Russia, where authorities, in the case of Alsu, deny U.S. consular access. It’s all pretty brazen stuff. Alsu’s captors tell her the Americans have abandoned her. 

Alsu’s story brings things into sharp relief. Kazan has its own local secret police, but Alsu’s case appears to rest in Moscow; the center pulls the strings. It’s especially so these days, as it’s from the provinces that Moscow collects the cannon fodder necessary to sustain the Russian war on Ukraine. “Quantity has a quality all its own,” said Stalin. It’s apparently a problem that Alsu and her colleagues with the Tatar-Bashkir service of Congressionally-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) report on language, religion, minority rights, and civil society. Those bent on domination loathe pluralism and tolerance.

It seems that this Russia wants a fight with us Americans. On December 8 last year, American basketball star Brittney Griner was released from custody, freed in a prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. She was sentenced to 9.5 years for having less than one gram of medically prescribed cannabis oil in her possession. Marc Vogel is an American English teacher serving 14 years in a maximum-security penal colony 200 miles north of Moscow for carrying his own medical marijuana. Paul Whelan is a former U.S. Marine arrested for spying on December 28, 2018 during a trip to Moscow to attend a wedding. Paul is serving 16 years in a high-security prison that is an eight-hour drive southeast of Moscow. There must be hints in all this. 

Alsu’s husband Pavel Butorin leads RFE/RL’s Current Time, Russian language television and digital work. He’s now denounced in state-controlled media. Pavel’s triple offense: He’s Russian by birth, American by choice, and a U.S. taxpayer-funded journalist.

In the case of Pavel’s wife Alsu, if she is found guilty now of failure to self-register as a foreign agent—something new to our lawyers and human rights groups—she faces up to five years forced labor in a penal colony.

The Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich faces stiffer charges. The 32-year-old reporter was the first American journalist charged with espionage in Russia since the Cold War. One fears he won’t be the last. Evan has been confined in pre-trial detention in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison since March. It all sounds seriously and severely Soviet. The State Department disclosed this week that Russian authorities have rejected U.S. offers to swap for Gershkovich and Whelan.

Clamp down on the regions, tighten up on the center, threaten—and invade—neighbors, and go after the Americans. Vladimir Putin seems to think that just because the Soviet Union lost the Cold War, it hardly means the United States and its allies have won the peace. He has a point. 

Jeffrey Gedmin, co-founder of American Purpose, is a member of the board of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is serving through January 1 as acting president/ceo of RFE/RL based in Prague. He is a Senate-confirmed member of the USAGM International Broadcasting Advisory Board.

Image: Alsu Kurmasheva. (© Pavel Butorin courtesy of RFE/RL)

AuthoritarianismEastern EuropeRussiaU.S. Foreign Policy