An American journalist, Evan Gershkovich, has been detained in Russia. A former correspondent for the AFP, then a journalist with The Wall Street Journal, Gershkovich was arrested in Yekaterinburg, 1,500 kilometers east of Moscow.
And the Russian authorities, through the doubled voices of the spokespeople for the ministry of foreign affairs and for the Kremlin, claim he is an agent, pretend they him caught red-handed committing espionage, and threaten him with 20 years in prison.
His colleagues, in the United States and the rest of the world, know very well that he is no such thing.
They used to read, or now read, his excellent investigations on COVID-19 in Russia, forest fires in Siberia, the mercenaries of the Wagner Group, the political isolation of Putin, and the economic crisis that the war in Ukraine has plunged Russia into.
And so we must admit that, for the first time since the end of the Cold War and the arrest, in 1986, of Ivan Safronov, the Russian Federation has taken an American journalist hostage, thus behaving like a Libyan or Syrian jihadi group, and reinforcing what has been stated time and again: that Russia, today, is a terrorist state.
Some would say a journalist is not worth the fuss, especially in these times, in a region where the killing is like a deforestation.
And, even if they don’t say it, they might think that here we have, as Jean-Paul Sartre said, quoting Louis-Ferdinand Céline, “a boy of no consequence,” whose fate means little compared to that of millions of women and men threatened since the war began.
They would be wrong.
First because, contra the cynics, tricky guys, and other speculators of human destinies, we cannot recall enough the words of André Malraux: A life is worth nothing, but nothing is worth more than life—especially when, as here, we have the power to save it.
Next because the arrest of Evan Gershkovich is, again, no ordinary arrest, but rather a hostage situation. And hostages, as we’ve known since the Greco-Persian wars and Herodotus, are never isolated instances, caprices, or chance happenings, but rather the sign, in any war, of a rise to the extremes. The blackmail we’ve already seen from Putin over refugees, gas, wheat, nuclear threats? Well, now here’s a new blackmail, one step further into terror, one degree more in the escalation, or descent, into the hell where Putin is leading us, and which we must resist with all our might.
And finally, because there are some men who, to their misfortune, become symbolic of more than themselves, and whose destiny, suddenly, is married to their times.
Perhaps the comparison is not precisely accurate, but how can we not think here and now of that other journalist, also of The Wall Street Journal, also of seemingly no consequence, named Daniel Pearl, who resembled Evan in many ways (in his youth of course, but also in his integrity, his love of his work, his relations with others, his consideration in the face of the enemy, his Judaism …)? Another secret service, that of Pakistan, programmed Pearl’s kidnapping; to this local FSB he was made to pay for the triple crime of being American, Jewish, and the author of articles that revealed the underside of a country that was busy delivering its nuclear secrets to al-Qaida; and the world understood immediately that his suffering was ushering in a new era in the history of the war on radical Islamism.
I fear that we may be headed for those extremes when I look at the photos of Evan.
His strong, straight, and sensitive gray gaze …
His air of youthful and serious assurance, which he shares with Hemingway’s heroes, and also with Daniel Pearl …
That terrible image in which we can see him, head bowed, the hood of his yellow sweater over his head, again looking like Daniel Pearl on the eve of his torment …
And I say to myself that, in this terrorist state that is today’s Russia, anything, absolutely anything, is possible concerning an American whose parents were born one in Odessa and the other in Saint Petersburg: A long stay in a prison cell at Lefortovo, in Moscow; poisoning with heavy metals, like Saakashvili, the former president of a vassalized Georgia; or, worst of all, the fate of Sergei Magnitsky, collaborator of the American businessman Bill Browder, tortured to death in his cell in 2009 …
From this, three emergencies.
Understanding that Russia is a country where free journalists enjoy no legal protections at all, and for each newsroom to take every lesson from that.
Not letting up on the “media fuss” that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov laughably complained about, and—Le Monde and Le Figaro side-by-side, or Le Point and L’Obs, or even Mediapart and Charlie—keeping the Sacred Union on behalf of a colleague in danger.
And doing everything we can, of course, to get Evan out. Everything. Even at the cost of a bitter exchange for a Russian spy, a real one this time, that the Kremlin seems to want. But without losing sight of the fact that we are dealing with barbarians, that we are talking gastronomy, as the historian Jean-Pierre Vernant would say, with cannibals, and that if there’s anyone who deserves to spend his last days in prison, it’s Putin.