Marc Fogel was returning to Russia for his 10th and final year of teaching at a prestigious international school when authorities at a Moscow airport arrested him for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana. Ten months later a Russian court sentenced Fogel to 14 years in a maximum-security penal colony for “large-scale” drug smuggling. The American schoolteacher, now 61, remains behind bars nearly two years after his 2021 arrest.
Fogel’s case is no simple story of crime and punishment, his friends and family say. The State Department has made concerted efforts to bring other detained Americans home but has refused to classify Fogel as “wrongfully detained,” which would open new avenues for negotiating his return home. Now his family is mounting a public campaign for action from the Biden administration—and getting more backing from members of Congress.
“I voted for Biden and I think that he’s done a fairly great job in many things, but the negotiating has been absolutely abysmal,” Fogel’s sister Anne tells The Dispatch.
Fogel and his wife, Jane, first moved to Russia in 2012 to take up posts at the Anglo-American School of Moscow, a private English language academy attended by children of diplomats, oligarchs, and high-ranking military officers from around the world.
A Russian court suspended the school’s operations in April—perhaps for good, many fear—amid U.S. support for Ukraine in fighting off Russia’s invasion. But some educators and parents saw the school’s closure as a long time coming. In 2019, the Russian Foreign Ministry denied visas to 30 prospective teachers in what U.S. officials believed to be a pressure campaign to get Washington to roll back some sanctions and return two luxury compounds in the U.S. to Russia’s diplomatic mission. Two years later, the school abruptly relinquished its diplomatic status, forcing employees to apply for new types of visas.
“I sometimes felt like we were being targeted by the Russian authorities,” Alissa Donovan, a former teacher at the school, tells The Dispatch. “Maybe even if not targeted per se, often sort of swept up in the deteriorating relationship between the two countries.”
That apparently included Fogel. “He seemed so happy connecting with others, and I think that’s what made him such a good colleague and neighbor to me—and such an impactful teacher,” Donovan says. “I don’t think there was a single kid who Marc did not make smile.”
Fogel taught the often politically fraught subject of history with nuance and balance, but also with an understanding of where his classroom sat. Wisened by decades of teaching in unstable countries including Oman, Venezuela, Malaysia, and Colombia, he refrained from taking overtly political positions in his courses.
It may not have been enough to spare him the attention of Russian authorities watching the high-profile school.
According to the court verdict, Russian authorities had received a tip-off from a former school employee about Fogel’s medical marijuana use—prescribed in the United States to help manage chronic pain from old football injuries—before his plane touched down in Moscow that day in August 2021. The drug remains illegal in Russia, even for medicinal use.
Fogel’s lawyers claim he was in possession of about a half-ounce of marijuana—which typically carries shorter sentences or even fines in lieu of jail time. But in June 2022 a Russian court convicted him of “large-scale drugs smuggling” and “large-scale illegal storage of drugs without a commercial purpose” and sentenced him to 14 years of hard labor.
Unlike most U.S. press reports, Russian state-run media clearly links Fogel’s employment at the Anglo-American School and his eventual arrest. The Russian news agency Tass, for example, claimed Fogel planned to use his “diplomatic status” to “organize a channel for supplying drugs to Russia with the purpose of subsequent selling to students at the school.”
Russian outlets further allege, falsely, that Fogel had been a former employee of the U.S. Embassy—an apparent reference to special visas granted to Anglo-American teachers prior to 2021.
Many view Russian officials’ efforts to tie Fogel to the U.S. government as evidence of the political motivations underpinning his arrest. A bipartisan group of senators led by Democratic Sen. Bob Casey has called on the Biden administration to reclassify Fogel’s imprisonment as a wrongful detention. Fogel’s exorbitant sentence “can only be understood as a political ploy by Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime,” they wrote last year.
Such designations are granted on a case-by-case basis by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and put responsibility for negotiating the detainee’s release in the hands of the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. The body was created with the express purpose of securing the freedom of Americans being held hostage or unlawfully imprisoned abroad.
Fogel’s congressional supporters, frustrated by his case’s apparent sidelining by the administration, on Tuesday introduced the Marc Fogel Act, which would require more transparency from the State Department as it deliberates on wrongful detention determinations.
“For too long, we have pressed the Biden administration to declare Mr. Fogel as wrongfully detained by the Russian government,” said Republican Rep. Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania, Fogel’s home state. “This legislation would allow Congress to receive critical information not only about Mr. Fogel and why he has not received this declaration, but also for other Americans who may be imprisoned or held hostage abroad in the future.”
Yet the State Department remains silent.
Fogel’s family initially thought there might be a method to the State Department’s madness, agreeing to keep his case under wraps to avoid increasing his perceived “value” in the eyes of the Russian government. But now they fear their own early silence may be partially to blame for the scant attention he’s received. They’ve turned to using online petitions, letter writing campaigns, social media outreach, and public gatherings to draw attention to Fogel’s plight. They plan to gather outside the White House on July 15 in a call to action.
But even Fogel’s loudest supporters know their grassroots efforts are unlikely to generate the same attention others have received. Much of the optimism generated by the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner from Russian custody six months ago has soured into pessimism—and a growing suspicion that some American lives are of greater value to the U.S. government than others.
Griner was arrested in February 2022 after Russian authorities discovered small amounts of cannabis oil in her luggage at a Moscow airport. She pleaded guilty on drug charges in July, and by August was designated wrongfully detained by the State Department. In December, American negotiators secured Griner’s release by handing over Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer nicknamed the “Merchant of Death.”
“She did not warrant a nine-year prison sentence. But of course it hurts. It’s painful. I don’t hold any grudge against her, but I wish she would stand up for my brother,” Anne says of Griner.
Given the similarities between his and Griner’s cases, Fogel’s family and friends had hoped that the lifelong educator and father of two might get similar treatment. Not so. While Griner’s wife, Cherelle, received a personal call from President Joe Biden, administration officials have refrained from even mentioning Fogel’s name unless asked by reporters about his case directly.
“Where is the lobby behind Marc? It’s individuals, it’s family, it’s students. We are not a pressure group,” says Dr. Kamakshi Balasubramanian, a friend and colleague of Fogel’s from his time teaching in Muscat, Oman. “Was the U.S. government only looking for an international news headline?”
At the time of Griner’s release, State Department special envoy for hostage affairs Roger Carstens said Fogel’s classification remained “under review.” Asked by The Dispatch if anything has changed in the half a year since, a State Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
Yet Fogel’s family and congressional allies argue that he meets most of the criteria for a wrongful detainee as outlined in the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-taking Accountability Act. That includes a citizen being detained to secure economic or political concessions from the U.S. government, which Russian media has openly articulated.
Prior to Griner’s release, state-run outlets referenced Fogel for a possible prisoner swap to negotiate for Bout’s freedom. They also named Fogel in the context of Russian drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was released in 2022 in exchange for former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed. And they’ve used Fogel and other American detainees to call on Washington to drop some sanctions against Russia.
“I don’t see why his case should be any different than the others,” Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, says in an interview. “I don’t personally understand the distinction and I’m struck that the distinction is never explained.”
That adversaries increasingly arrest American citizens as bargaining chips is no mystery to the U.S. government. Between 2001 and 2011, an average of five Americans per year were wrongfully detained abroad, according to a report by the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation. But between 2012 and 2022, an average of 25 Americans per year were unjustly detained. Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela, and Syria accounted for 75 percent of detentions.
Other criteria for wrongful detention status—that the U.S. national didn’t receive due process or is being subjected to inhumane conditions—are self-evident in Russia’s legal and penal systems. A 2021 State Department report found that in some prison colonies, Russian authorities “systematically torture” inmates, “in some cases resulting in death or suicide.” In one notebook entry from his pretrial detention shared with the Washington Post, Fogel wrote that Russian authorities seemed to be trying to “break” him.
The State Department report also details poor conditions due to overcrowding, food shortages, poor sanitation, and limited access to medical care.
It all spells especially bad news for Fogel, whose football injuries have required multiple surgeries, including a hip replacement, rotator cuff surgery, and spinal fusion. “His body is kind of a mess,” Anne Fogel says. His pain management is a “24-hour a day job.”
For McFaul—who co-authored a letter with Sen. Steve Daines of Montana calling on the State Department to reclassify the case—opposing Fogel’s imprisonment is as much a personal stand as it is a principled one. Fogel once taught McFaul’s son, Cole, who remembers Fogel as his favorite teacher at the Anglo-American School of Moscow.
The sparse attention paid to Fogel’s case is particularly disheartening given the crucial support role international teachers play for the State Department. Without experienced English language teachers willing to live abroad, particularly in troubled parts of the world, recruiting experienced diplomats to represent Washington worldwide would be exponentially harder.
“That part of the story has not been well-represented,” says McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014. “It’s not just some random American that got caught up in things. He was part of our American presence as a diplomatic community there. We rely on the Marc Fogels of the world to do the kinds of diplomacy that we do. Without those kinds of people, we couldn’t function in places like Russia.”