U.S. journalist kept in prison from Stalin era

Lefortovo Prison, where American journalist Evan Gerszkovic was imprisoned on suspicion of spying, dates back to the Tsarist era and has been a terrifying symbol of oppression since the Soviet era.

An unremarkable pale-yellow complex in eastern Moscow was built as a military prison in 1881 and used for lower-ranking prisoners serving relatively short sentences. However, it gained notoriety after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution when it became the premier detention center for the Soviet secret police.

Under the scare of mass arrests by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in the 1930s, Lefortovo was one of the main pretrial detention facilities for “enemies of the people” with torture chambers to extract confessions. . Stalin’s sadistic secret police chief, Lavrenti Beria, personally participated in the interrogation and execution of prisoners in the basement.

Vasily Blyukher, one of the highest-ranking Red Army officers, was one of those who were tortured to death in Lefortovo in 1938.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, the prison continued to serve as a major KGB detention center, which it used to hold suspected spies and political dissidents.

Nobel Prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn documented Stalin’s purges in his “Concentration Camp Archipelago” and was briefly held in Lefortovo before being expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974.

Nicholas Danilov, a Moscow correspondent for US News and World Report, was imprisoned in Lefortovo after being arrested on false spying charges in 1986. He was released without charge 20 days after his death in exchange for an employee of a Soviet UN mission who had been 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 in Russia on espionage charges since Danilov. The Journal denied the allegations and called for Gerszkovic’s release.

German teenager Matthias Lust, who surprised the world in 1987 by tricking the Soviet air defense system into landing a light aircraft on Red Square, was also held in Lefortovo until his release the following year.

In a twist of history after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the leader of a hardline parliamentary uprising against Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin in 1993 was also detained there until an amnesty the following year.

Despite being formally transferred to the Department of Justice in 2005, the KGB’s successor agency, the Federal Security Service, known by the acronym FSB, maintains de facto control of the facility.

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

Michigan corporate security officer and former Marine Paul Whelan was detained in Lefortovo after being arrested on espionage charges in 2018, according to baseless claims his family and the U.S. government made. After being convicted in 2020, Whelan was transferred to another prison and served a 16-year sentence.

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

“No calls, no visits, no newspapers, nothing,” Smirnov told The Associated Press. It’s one of my tools.”

According to Smirnov and his colleague Ivan Pavlov, FSB espionage investigations typically last from one year to 18 months, followed by closed-door trials. Pavlov said Russia had not been acquitted in treason and espionage cases since 1999.

Lefortovo retains its distinctive Soviet-era atmosphere, but a small Russian Orthodox church was added to its grounds, with a small separate prayer room for prisoners to keep from being seen by others.

Authorities keep Lefortovo a closely guarded secret and do not disclose details such as the number of prisoners held there. According to Russian media reports, he accepts no more than 200 prisoners at a time, usually in solitary confinement.

Writer Eduard Limonov spent two years in Lefortovo after being indicted for extremist political activism in the early 2000s, but the dusty red carpet in the corridors drowned out prisoners’ footsteps and exposed Soviet secrets during interrogations. Described the portrait of police founder Felix Dzerzhinski. room.

The cell door closes quietly, and the silence is broken only by the use of cracking devices to alert colleagues that guards are escorting suspects to avoid seeing others. , only when hitting a metal pipe.

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