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A Short History of Spy Swaps


WITH ANY LUCK, Evan Gershkovich will spend only a few weeks in  Lefortovo Prison, the 142-year-old hulk on Moscow’s east side where many a Russian who’s run afoul of state security has perished from a bullet to the head.  It’s also been the home of Westerners accused of spying.  Gershkovich, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, is just the latest, but in a sign of the times, he’s the first American journalist to be arrested on espionage charges since 1986, in the depths of the Cold War.

Evan Kershkovich (Twitter)

The last American reporter to languish in Lefortovo was Nicholas Daniloff, a Moscow-based reporter for U.S News magazine. He was thrown into Lefortovo in 1986 when the KGB coerced a Russian friend of the reporter into handing him sensitive materials, setting him up for an espionage charge. He was released to the U.S. Embassy after only 13 days in a swap for a Russian spy who had just been arrested in New York.

A similar frame up likely happened to Gershkovich, 31, who like Daniloff is the son of anti-communist Russian emigrés to America, objects of extra attention in Putin’s neo-Soviet Russia.

The Kremlin has yet to detail its charges against him.  But he’s facing a harrowing experience, if Daniloff’s brief-ish nightmare is any guide.

In room 215 of Lefortovo, Daniloff was relentlessly interrogated by KGB Col. Valery Dmitrovich Sergadeyev, “a tall, handsome man in a well-cut suit, about age 60, with black hair combed straight back,” the reporter recalled after his release. 

“I am the one who ordered your arrest,” he told Daniloff. “You are held on suspicion of espionage.” Sergadeyev was an expert in psychological manipulation.

“Time in Lefortovo was mental torture….I was manipulated into moments of hopeless despair, physical nausea—and even good feelings about some of my captors,” Daniloff wrote. “Over the next two weeks I would spend 30 hours in interrogation. The colonel never raised his voice or pounded the table. He was never abusive or overtly threatening. He was a pro. He played with my emotions, posing alternatively as a ‘good cop’ and a ‘bad cop.’ He controlled all information that reached me. He controlled my food, my exercise, my life. By the time I was freed, he had made me feel guilt where there was none.”

Daniloff was so enraged at being branded a spy that he initially refused to go along with the swap of him for Gennadi Zakharov, a Russian physicist and spy under U.N. cover who had been caught red-handed in a New York subway station paying a U.S. defense worker for documents. 

“Nick told me he didn’t feel it was appropriate for him to be swapped for someone clearly involved in espionage,” Mortimer Zuckerman, the owner and editor of U.S News,  said after visiting Gershkovich in Lefortovo. A workaround was arranged.

The chances of that for Gershkovich are slim. No Russian spies are known to be in U.S. custody—although one may soon be. Last week the Justice Department charged Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, 37, a Russian national who had spent time under cover as a student at Washington, D.C.’s Johns Hopkins University, with espionage and other charges.  But Cherkasov is stuck in a Brazilian prison serving a 15-year sentence on fraud charges related to his use of a false identity. 

DoJ’s indictment suggests it wants to block Brazil from expediting Cherkasov to Russia, as Moscow has officially requested.  But it may now find such an arrangement useful as a Daniloff-like workaround to secure the release of Gershkovich, who is almost certainly not an American spy.  

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In 1996 the CIA was prohibited from enlisting American journalists as spies except under extreme circumstances. Even with the U.S. and Russia virtually at war over Ukraine,  American spy and cyberwar agencies have so thoroughly penetrated Moscow’s national security apparatus—witness its accurate prediction of Putin’s invasion in February 2022—  that pitching Gershkovich for some mission impossible is inconceivable—not that he would ever have agreed: It’s dangerous enough merely reporting from Russia that any sane American journalist would reject adding an espionage portfolio to their vulnerability.

“Friends told the Financial Times he had travelled to Ekaterinburg, a large Russian city east of the Ural Mountains, for a story on a paramilitary group that is part of the Russian offensive in Ukraine,” Guardian columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote Friday. Presumably authorities would be happy to learn what Gershkovich learned by burgling and/or wiretapping his apartment—a common occurrence— rather than arrest him and create an international uproar.

But the ex-KGB spy atop the Kremlin has his own agenda. Getting Cherkasov home and turning his bumbling spy into a hero, as he did with the infamous  Anna Chapman and nine other Russian sleeper agents rolled up here in 2010, allows him to turn shit into Shinola.  And he needs a win after so many Russian spies have been arrested or expelled from the U.S. and Europe since he launched his flailing  “special mission” in Ukraine.  He has a soft spot, after all, for his fellow siloviki—and these days it’s more important than ever to keep them on his side.

Lefortovo Prison in East Moscow (Wikipedia)

But Gereshkovich is likely facing a longer term in Lefortovo’s hell than Daniloff, given the intricacies of the Cherkasov case.  Maybe something on the order of Francis Gary Powers, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison after his spy plane was shot down over Russia in 1961, but released after a year, 9 months, and 10 days in a spy swap dramatized in the 2015 movie Bridge of Spies.   WNBA star Brittney Griner served a relatively brief 10 months on a narcotics charge before she was released last December in exchange for Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer captured by the U.S. in 2008,  whose release had been long sought by Putin. 

But his refusal to free Paul Whelan, a former Marine picked up in Russia in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison on what U.S. officials say are “sham” espionage charges, suggests Putin may be angling for more than a one-for-one swap for Gershkovich—maybe Russian spies held by other NATO members such as Poland, which in mid-March detained nine people it said were “preparing acts of sabotage and monitoring rail routes to Ukraine,” according Warsaw’s interior minister.

Whatever, it’s not likely poor Evan Gershkovich will be released anytime soon. He’s a pawn in a long game.

“Certain exchanges that took place in the past took place for people who were already serving sentences,” Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei A. Ryabkov, told reporters Thursday, according to the Russian news agency Interfax, adding, “Let’s see how this story will develop.”

There’s no sweet-coating the spiritual trials Gershkovich, his family, friends and colleagues are going to face over the ensuing months and maybe years.

“I learned firsthand what every Soviet citizen knows—that an individual is helpless in the grip of the KGB,” Daniloff wrote after his release in 1986. He credited “the American government and American people who rallied to me and stood firm for me,” for his release. The White House has dismissed Russia’s trumped up charges and demanded his release.

In a brief telephone interview with SpyTalk, Francis Gary Powers, Jr., son of the late U2 spy pilot, said, “My thoughts and prayers go out to the family…”  The pilot’s wife went insane during his captivity.

“It’s just, you know, the cat and mouse game all over again,” Powers, founder of the Cold War Museum in Vint Hill, Va. added. “They try to one up us and maneuver to get someone out that they want. You know, it’s all political positioning.”###

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