When a prisoner exchange is a Rorschach test


Growing up in the 1980s, my image of a prisoner exchange was that of the Cold War: two men, captured enemy agents, standing at opposite ends of a bridge in Berlin. American and Soviet officials around them have done all of this before. Tense, slowly, the men cross the bridge – there is always a glance in the middle – then the agents go home.

Yet what happened yesterday on the tarmac with Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout was not Bridge of Spies. The ritual was the same, but not the players. On one side was Griner, a young basketball player. She was convicted for transporting a small amount of hash oil. On the other side was Bout, an arms dealer who spent decades fueling wars by selling weapons he smuggled out of the former Soviet Union. He was convicted in an undercover operation where he believed he made a deadly deal with Colombian rebels.

Was it fair trade? Certainly not. But what this prisoner swap made me stand out is where the two countries landed in the decades following the Cold War. An exchange of prisoners as a kind of Rorschach test:

Russia wanted to recover an arms dealer.

The United States wanted to recover a young gay and black athlete, beloved by her fans, who sometimes smokes weed and has many tattoos.

Griner would have been unimaginable as a celebrity during the height of the Cold War. Now she talks about a social change taking place in the United States – a change that some do not want to see – where the divisions certainly remain sharp but where many of us no longer see the differences of gender, race and sexuality as something new, but as just an ordinary part of being American. What I loved about Griner was how normal she was in some ways. Here she talks about growing up in a cul-de-sac in Houston and eating Lunchables.

Long before invading Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin closely observed the changes taking place in American society and sought to exploit them. The Kremlin delighted in commenting on the killing of George Floyd as protests engulf the United States; he created fake Black Lives Matter accounts to reduce black participation in 2016.

Turning Griner into a bargaining chip in wartime seemed like another chess move by Putin, a way to sow division in the United States and see if the white American president would negotiate for a black woman hostage.

But as Griner’s case progressed slowly through the Russian justice system, the response in the United States was overwhelmingly supportive. There were persistent but sober pleas from her family to release her and the “Free BG” shirts during the NBA Finals in June. Yet “BG” has not been exploited politically the way mask mandates or critical race theory were. You never know what turns Americans on these days – and it was an America I never expected.

Then came Joe Biden’s speech yesterday afternoon announcing his release. After Biden left the stage, Griner’s wife, Cherelle, took to the podium. Not so long ago, that would have been remarkable. But on the other side of the capital, a bipartisan vote took place the same day enshrining their marriage in federal law.

That America sided with Griner would hardly have angered Putin; he probably savored it. The Kremlin broadcast the prisoner swap to the world, eager to show that Russia and the United States were equal powers, exchanging human negotiation tokens, even as the swap bolstered Putin’s narrative, in which America is an ungodly nation, compared to its Russia, where there are the consequences of drug use or the audacity to be gay. Russia still has Paul Whelan, a US corporate security official, who has been jailed longer than Griner – and whom Republicans have said Biden should also have freed.

The American narrative, of course, speaks of pluralism. Griner “represents the best America – the best in America,” Biden said at the White House yesterday. But another way this exchange differs from those of the original Cold War is that both nations find themselves diminished, in different ways.

Growing up at the end of the Cold War, I felt like not only had America won, but Russia had really lost. We have seen a coup attempt against Russian President Boris Yeltsin. We have seen life expectancy in Russia begin to drop and the proud Soviet state being sold to a system of oligarchs. But more recently, we’ve also seen life expectancy drop in the United States, like last year and the year before. We have seen an American version of a coup attempt and a former president who still refuses to accept the results of an election he lost. And we would see a group of billionaires sweeping up wealth in the 2010s and 2020s, not unlike what the oligarchs were doing in the 1990s.

This morning, Griner’s plane landed in San Antonio, ending his 10-month ordeal. Until yesterday, it was conceivable that she would spend years in a Russian penal colony. Now she may be back on the court with the WNBA. We will see. That certainly gives me more hope than the idea that Bout may be returning to the arms business.



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