American journalist imprisoned since Stalin’s time

The Lefortovo prison, where American journalist Evan Gershkovich was jailed for espionage, dates back to tsarist times and has been a terrifying symbol of repression since Soviet times.

The discreet, pale yellow complex east of Moscow was built as a military prison in 1881 and used for low-level convicts sentenced to relatively short terms. But it became famous after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, when it became the top detention facility for the Soviet secret police.

Under Soviet Leader Josef Stalin with mass arrests in the 1930s, Lefortovo was one of the main pre-trial detention facilities for “enemies of the people”, equipped with rooms torture to get a confession. Stalin’s brutal secret police chief, Lavrentiy Beria, personally participated in several interrogations and executions of prisoners in its basement.

Vasily Blyukher, one of the most senior officers of the Red Army, 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 to house suspected espionage and dissidents.

Nobel Prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who chronicled Stalin’s purges in “The Gulag Islands,” was briefly detained in Lefortovo in 1974 before being expelled from the Soviet Union.

Nicholas Daniloff, a Moscow correspondent for US News and World Report, was sent to Lefortovo after his arrest in 1986 on bogus espionage charges. He was released without charge 20 days later in exchange for an employee of the Soviet Union’s UN mission, who was arrested by the FBI on espionage charges.

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

Mathias Rust, a German teenager who shocked the world when he landed his light plane on Red Square in 1987 after fooling Soviet air defenses, was also detained in Lefortovo. until released the following year.

In a historic turning point after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the leaders of the hard-line parliamentary uprising against Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, in 1993 were also detained. stay there until pardoned the following year.

Although it was officially transferred to the Department of Justice’s jurisdiction in 2005, the Federal Security Service, the KGB’s top successor, known by the acronym FSB, has maintained control actually for this establishment.

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

Paul Whelan, Michigan’s corporate security executive and former Marine, was detained in Lefortovo after being arrested in 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the US government say are worthless. base. After being sentenced in 2020, Whelan was transferred to another prison to serve a 16-year sentence.

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

“No calls, no visits, no press, nothing,” Smirnov told the AP news agency. “At best, they’ll get the mail – and even then it’ll most likely be delayed by a month or two. It’s one of the tools of repression.”

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

While Lefortovo still maintains its distinctive Soviet-era feel, an addition is a small Russian Orthodox church built on its grounds with separate small prayer cabins to keep the prisoners. person cannot be seen by others.

Authorities kept Lefortovo closely under wraps, not disclosing any details such as the number of prisoners held there. Russian media reports say the prison holds no more than 200 prisoners at a time, often in solitary confinement.

Writer Eduard Limonov, who spent two years in Lefortovo in the early 2000s after being accused of extremism for his political activities, described the dusty red carpets in the hallways. , choking the footsteps of prisoners and the portrait of the founder of the Soviet secret police Felix Dzerzhinsky during the interrogation room.

The cell doors closed without a sound, the silence broken only when guards used rattling devices or banged metal pipes to warn colleagues that they were escorting a suspect to avoid meet other people.

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