The Wall Street Journal
- The WSJ reporter detained in Moscow is reportedly reading a famous anti-Soviet novel.
- His choice of book could be viewed as a subtle jab at the Kremlin and its repressive policies.
- The book, which equated crimes of the Nazis and the Soviets, was written by a Ukrainian Jew.
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich’s reported choice of book as he sits in an infamous ex-KGB prison in Moscow could be viewed as a symbolic jab at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly authoritarian government and Soviet-style crackdown on free speech.
A Russian prison monitor said Gershkovich is reading “Life and Fate” by Vasily Grossman, a Ukrainian Jew and war correspondent who reported from the front lines during World War II — including during the bloody battle of Stalingrad.
Gershkovich, who was covering the consequences of the war in Ukraine before he was detained, has apparently chosen to read Grossman at a time when Putin falsely claims to be waging a war against Nazis in Ukraine. Grossman’s Jewish mother was killed by actual Nazis during a mass execution in Ukraine in 1941. Meanwhile, many experts say that Putin’s true goal in Ukraine is to restore Russia as an imperial power, as it was during the Soviet era.
The book, which was written in the 1950s and ultimately confiscated by the KGB in 1961 before being censored for decades, was extremely critical of totalitarianism and drew parallels between the crimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. “Life and Fate” was not published in the Soviet Union into 1988, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost allowed for greater freedom of expression.
“This is a novel written by a Jew that concludes that the Soviet Union had come to resemble Nazi Germany,” historian Walter Laqueur told the Washington Post in 1987, shortly before the novel was finally published in the Soviet Union. “The Soviet press is now full of stuff of an anti-Semitic bent and this publication is bound to cause a great reaction.”
—Joshua Yaffa (@yaffaesque) April 3, 2023
Gershkovich, 31, is fluent in Russian and is the son of Soviet-born Jewish exiles. His parents were part of a large wave of Jews who fled the Soviet Union due to ongoing persecution. He was covering the war in Ukraine and its impact prior to being detained.
The Wall Street Journal reporter is the first US journalist to be arrested in Russia on espionage charges since 1986 — the tail end of the Cold War. Gershkovich is being held in Lefortovo Prison, one of Moscow’s most notorious prisons. Lefortovo, built in 1881, was used by the KGB to imprison dissidents and foreign spies. Joseph Stalin’s secret police tortured prisoners in Lefortovo, and the prison continues to carry a gruesome reputation.
The Biden administration has called on Russia to release Gershkovich, denouncing the charges against him as “ridiculous.” The case is widely viewed as an effort by Russia to send a message to the US amid heightened tensions over the war in Ukraine, and some experts have speculated that Moscow eventually plans to use Gershkovich as part of a prisoner exchange, as it has done in the past.
Andrew Nagorski, a former Newsweek correspondent who was expelled from the Soviet Union in the 1980s, recently told Politico that Moscow is trying to warn journalists against seeking the truth in Russia. Putin has been cracking down on free speech for years, but his government has gone to particularly extreme lengths to squash dissent and control the media landscape in Russia since the invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022.
“Journalism is always at the heart of these confrontations, as they were during the Soviet regime in the past or the Russian regime today. Truthful reporting is absolutely an anathema to the Kremlin,” Nagorski said, adding, “I’m sure they know that Gershkovich is not a spy.”