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A White House Prisoner Dilemma

American officials are privately frustrated by the view, held by Russia, that the U.S. government will do absolutely anything to bring American hostages home, no matter what they’ve done and no matter where they are in the world.
American officials are privately frustrated by the view, held by Russia, that the U.S. government will do absolutely anything to bring American hostages home, no matter what they’ve done and no matter where they are in the world. Photo: Contributor/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
January 23, 2024

Shortly after the New Year, as Russia lay hibernating during the customary break between January 1 and the Old New Year (by the old Russian calendar), an American was arrested outside of Moscow on drug charges. If the case of Robert Woodland sounds familiar, that’s because around this time two years ago, we were talking about Brittney Griner’s detention for a similar offense. But there are key distinctions, not least of which is that Woodland is not a celebrity athlete. His case, however, is part of a bigger trend of Americans accumulating in Russian jails—and what the Biden administration is doing about it. 

Woodland was born in Russia, in 1991, in a small, impoverished village in the Perm region. After Woodland’s teen mother, who drank, was beaten by his father so badly that she landed in the hospital, baby Robert was taken by child protective services, put in an orphanage, and, in 1993, adopted by an American couple. In May 2020, with the help of Russia’s state-owned Channel One, he returned to Russia to find his biological mother. They were reunited on the air, a perfect piece of propaganda for the Kremlin, which accuses Americans of killing the Russian children they adopt. (In 2012, Russia banned American adoptions in retaliation for U.S. sanctions on certain Russians.) After the reunion, Woodland added his birth last name, Romanov, and moved to Russia, where he spent his time learning Russian and teaching English in a small town outside of Moscow.