Moscow prison for an American reporter was used in Stalin’s purges

Dating back to the Tsarist era, Lefortovo Prison, where American journalist Evan Gershkovich is imprisoned on espionage charges, has been a terrifying symbol of repression since Soviet times.

Built in 1881 as a military prison, the nondescript, pale yellow complex in eastern Moscow was used for low-ranking convicts who had been sentenced to relatively short prison terms. But it rose to prominence after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, when it became a top prison for the Soviet secret police.

Under the great terror of Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s mass arrests in the 1930s, Lefortovo was one of the main pre-trial detention facilities for ‘enemies of the people’, equipped with torture chambers to extract confessions. Stalin’s sadistic chief of the secret police, Lavrentiy Beria, personally participated in some of the interrogations and executions of prisoners in the cellar.

Vasily Blyukher, one of the top 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 center for the KGB, which used it for espionage suspects and political dissidents. Stalin’s younger son Vasily was detained in Lefortovo at some point after his father’s death as the country’s new leaders prosecuted him for various crimes.

Nobel Prize writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who chronicled Stalin’s purges in his “Gulag Archipelago,” spent a night in Lefortovo in 1974 before being expelled from the Soviet Union.

Soviet dissidents Vladimir Bukovsky and Natan Sharansky were held there during Leonid Brezhnev’s rule and later released in prisoner exchanges, and Brezhnev’s son-in-law Yuri Churbanov was held there on charges of corruption shortly after the leader’s death.

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Nicholas Daniloff, Moscow correspondent for US News and World Report, was imprisoned in Lefortovo after his 1986 arrest on charges of false espionage. He was released without charge 20 days later in an exchange for a USSR UN mission employee who had been arrested by the FBI on charges of espionage.

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

Mathias Rust, a German teenager who stunned the world by landing his light aircraft on Red Square in 1987 after fooling Soviet air defenses, was also imprisoned in Lefortovo until his release the following year.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the leaders of a harsh parliamentary uprising against Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, were also held there in 1993 until their amnesty the following year.

Other famous Lefortovo prisoners included Russian intelligence officers Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal, both later poisoned in the UK during what British authorities described as Moscow-engineered attacks. Litvinenko died in London in 2006 after drinking tea containing radioactive polonium, while Skripal and his daughter survived their poisoning with the nerve agent Novichok in 2018.

Although it was formally transferred to the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice in 2005, the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the KGB known by its abbreviation FSB, has retained de facto control of the facility.

All those arrested by the FSB on espionage charges and some other high-profile suspects, including government officials charged with corruption, are being held in Lefortovo awaiting trial.

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Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive and former Marine, was detained in Lefortovo after his 2018 arrest on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government say are baseless. Following his 2020 conviction, Whelan was transferred to another prison to serve his 16-year sentence.

Lefortovo’s trademark is to keep his prisoners in “total isolation from information,” said Yevgeny Smirnov, a prominent lawyer who has defended espionage and treason suspects.

“No phone calls, no visits, no newspapers, nothing,” Smirnov told The Associated Press. “They will receive letters at best – and then most likely with a delay of a month or two. It is one of the instruments of oppression.”

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

While Lefortovo retains its distinctive Soviet-era atmosphere, one addition was a small Russian Orthodox church built on the site with small separate prayer huts to prevent prisoners from being seen by others.

The authorities keep Lefortovo under strict secrecy and do not release details such as the number of prisoners held there. According to Russian media reports, no more than 200 prisoners are housed at a time, who are normally held 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 corridors, which muffle the steps of prisoners, and portraits of the founder of the Soviet secret police, Felix Dzerzhinsky, during interrogation rooms.

Cell doors closed silently, and the silence was broken only when guards with clanking devices or knocked metal pipes warned colleagues that they were escorting a suspect to avoid meeting others.

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