The arrest and trial of US reporter Evan Gershkovich on spying charges would have prompted a range of emotions in any outsider who has been a reporter or researcher in Russia. At first, there’s the sense that you yourself may have escaped after running a similar risk of working in such a potentially dangerous environment. Then comes a sense of foreboding for Gerskovich’s future.

Gershkovich is the son of Russian Jewish emigres to the US. He had been living and working in Russia for six years when he was arrested on March 29 2023 in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city which lies in the Urals about 1,500kms east of Moscow. He’d been reporting on the Russian mercenary Wagner Group for his employer of two years, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

The 33-year-old reporter was detained by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) on charges of espionage, something both Gershkovich and the WSJ have strenuously denied. The trial will be held in secret in Yekaterinburg. But it will still serve the Russian authorities’ cause.

First, to strengthen, for domestic political consumption, official narratives that all westerners are potential enemies. Second, to remind Russian and international journalists of the huge risks of just doing your job.

Putting the trial into historical context over the past century suggests that it represents a dangerous development. You have to go back to the 1980s, and the last, confrontational, phase of the cold war, to find a case of a Moscow correspondent being locked up on spying charges.

From the revolutionary year of 1917 all through the 20th century, the treatment of foreign correspondents in Russia mirrors the history of Russia’s relations with the west.

The Times’ implacable opposition to Bolshevism led to its correspondents being refused visas after the Soviets secured power. The Times covered the infamous show trials of the 1930s from neighbouring Latvia.

It foreshadowed today’s situation, when many journalists formerly based in Russia have fled to Riga.

Stalin’s “approach to western journalists” as the historian Shelia Fitzpatrick has written, “was that, while a few could be usefully manipulated, their real function was to discredit the Soviet Union, which made them essentially spies”.

In the 1940s, the wartime alliance against Nazi Germany briefly improved access for correspondents from Britain and the United States. Then the curtain fell once more. The cold war dominated the continent.

Convinced as they were that all western correspondents were agents of bourgeois governments, Soviet authorities subjected journalists to strict censorship rules. Entire dispatches and even direct quotes from “Pravda” could be blacked out.

Alongside strict information control, western journalists frequently met with harassment and intimidation. The dwindling foreign press corps operated in an atmosphere fraught with tension, apprehensive about potential Soviet entrapment. Their fears were often justified. In 1948, veteran reporter Robert Magidoff was accused of espionage and expelled from the Soviet Union.

After Stalin’s death, censorship of foreign correspondents was abolished and their working conditions improved a great deal. Still, intimidation, harassment and expulsions of journalists remained and intensified in the late 1960s, when many western correspondents mobilised to cover the Soviet rights defenders, making Andrei SakharovLarisa Bogoraz, or Nathan Shcharansky recognisable all over the world.

Foreign correspondents could become targets of Soviet entrapment regardless of what they actually reported on. In 1986, Nicholas Daniloff, the Moscow bureau chief of US News & World Report, was arrested on the street after meeting with a Russian acquaintance and receiving a package of, what he thought, were newspaper clippings.

Daniloff was rushed into Moscow’s infamous Lefortovo detention center, where it transpired that the package contained materials marked “secret”. Daniloff spent two weeks under arrest and spent two more weeks in the custody of US ambassador in Moscow. He returned home following Soviet-US agreement, exchanged for a Soviet spy arrested in New York.

Daniloff’s case was as a shock and surprise. He was an experienced reporter, who spoke fluent Russian and was just wrapping up his second five-year-long assignment in the Soviet Union. He was arrested one year after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, bringing a palpable atmosphere of change.

Contemporary observers largely concurred that Daniloff’s arrest was a ploy to secure his exchange for the detained Soviet spy.

Still a risky business

For Russian journalists, the late Soviet, and early post-Soviet, periods offered unprecedented freedom – but also fatal risk.

Our current research project looks at the violence – sometimes deadly – inflicted on journalists during Russia’s turbulent transition from communism to unbridled capitalism, and afterwards.

The fate of Anna Politkovskaya – an award-winning journalist and tenacious critic of Vladimir Putin and his conduct of the wars in Chechnya, who was shot dead in 2006 – exemplified both the excellent journalism produced in Russia, and its potential price.

As his trial begins, Gershkovich potentially faces a long prison sentence. It may be that he is part of what the Russian security experts Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan have called “a bank of hostages” – high-profile prisoners held for future exchange. If so, it could eventually lead to his release.

Such deals have previously happened, even during the current age of confrontation between Washington and Moscow. Yet, this is a world without the systems that existed during the cold war. Russia has shown itself to be a hostile environment for Russian journalists.

Gershkovich’s case shows that a foreign passport – even from the most powerful nation on earth – is no longer protection against some of those excesses.

This article was originally published in The Conversation

James Rodgers is a reader in International Journalism at City, University of London

Dina Fainberg is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at City, University of London