‘Every Day Is Hard’: One Year Since Russia Jailed Evan Gershkovich

‘Every Day Is Hard’: One Year Since Russia Jailed Evan Gershkovich

One year ago Friday, Ella Milman and Mikhail Gershkovich received a frightening call from the editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal. Her son Evan, a foreign correspondent for the Journal on a reporting assignment in Russia, had missed his daily security check.

“We were hoping it was a mistake and that everything would be okay,” the elder Mr. Gershkovich recalled. But the frightening reality became clear: Russian authorities had arrested Evan and accused him of spying for the American government. He became the first American reporter to be held in Russia on espionage charges since the end of the Cold War.

Since his arrest, Mr. Gershkovich, 32, has been held in Moscow’s notorious high-security Lefortovo prison, the same facility that houses those charged in the deadly attack on a concert hall in the city this month. The Journal and the U.S. government vehemently denied that Mr. Gershkovich was a spy, saying he was an accredited journalist doing his job.

On Tuesday, Mr. Gershkovich’s detention was extended for another three months. A trial date has not been set.

“Every day is very hard – every day we feel like he’s not here,” Ms Milman said. “We want him home and it’s been a year. It took its toll.”

President Biden said Friday that he would not give up on bringing Mr. Gershkovich home.

“I admire him deeply,” Mr. Biden said.

Roger Carstens, the Biden administration’s special hostage envoy, said the U.S. government had made “intensive efforts” to secure the release of Mr. Gershkovich, as well as the release of another detained American, Paul Whelan, a Marine veteran who is also accused. ensure espionage.

“Journalism is not a crime,” Mr. Carstens said in a statement. “Evan Gershkovich did his job and should not have been arrested by Russia.”

Recent public comments by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin about a possible prisoner swap could provide cause for optimism, said Jay Conti, general counsel at Dow Jones, The Journal’s parent company.

In an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson last month, Mr. Putin suggested he wanted to swap Mr. Gershkovich for Vadim Krasikov, a Russian citizen imprisoned in Germany for killing a target in a Berlin park.

Initial talks between American and German officials examined whether Berlin would be willing to release the assassin if Russia released opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny in addition to Mr. Gershkovich and Mr. Whelan. But Mr Navalny died under mysterious circumstances in an Arctic prison last month, ending that possibility.

“I don’t think it’s a secret that there aren’t many prominent Russians in U.S. custody, and so it makes any potential deal that much more complicated,” Mr. Conti said. “I do believe that the US government was actively trying to bring Evan home, but of course that requires a willing partner and a deal.”

While in prison, Mr. Gershkovich plays a slow game of chess with his father via mail and works his way through book recommendations from friends, his parents said. He also keeps track of people’s birthdays and milestones and arranges through others to send flowers, including to his mother and sister on International Women’s Day this month.

“It’s a very small, very isolated place with a small window and very little time outside,” his father said of his son’s cell. “We know that it takes a lot of courage, effort and strength to stick together, exercise, meditate, read books, write letters to encourage us to stay strong and hope for the best.”

Mr. Gershkovich exchanges weekly letters with his family as well as friends and pen pals around the world. A group of his friends have set up a website where people can submit letters, which will be translated into Russian, as required by law, and sent to Mr. Gershkovich, who will gladly receive them, his mother said.

“He fights. He keeps his spirits up,” Ms. Milman said.

Mr. Gershkovich grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, the son of Jewish émigrés who fled the Soviet Union in the 1970s. His parents said he was curious about his Russian heritage from a young age and spoke Russian at home. He was also interested in people and went on to study philosophy and English at Bowdoin College in Maine, graduating in 2014. Journalism seemed like a perfect fit.

After nearly two years as a news assistant at The New York Times, Mr. Gershkovich moved to Russia in late 2017 to work as a reporter for The Moscow Times. Before joining The Journal in January 2022, he worked at Agence France-Presse, a job his parents said he loved.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Mr. Gershkovich, along with most foreign journalists, left Moscow and moved to London. However, he often returned to Russia on reporting trips.

The Wall Street Journal has worked hard to keep Mr. Gershkovich’s plight in the headlines, said Editor-in-Chief Emma Tucker. The newsroom displays a large photo of him and colleagues wear “Free Evan” buttons. The Journal’s homepage features updates on Mr. Gershkovich’s case, and the company has organized letter-writing campaigns, social media storms and even a 24-hour readathon of Mr. Gershkovich’s reporting.

On Friday, the journal’s print edition was included in a special section, with a blank page in place of an editorial under Mr. Gershkovich’s authorship. The headline: “His story should be here.”

“We have to keep the pressure on,” Ms. Tucker said. “We won’t let up.”

His arrest marked a particularly chilling moment in Putin’s crackdown on independent media and dissent. While hundreds of independent Russian journalists were expelled from the country, Putin had not yet jailed a Western journalist on charges that would have earned him a prison sentence.

Russian authorities arrested Mr. Whelan in 2018 and accused him of espionage, which he and the U.S. government deny. In early 2022, Russian authorities arrested basketball player Brittney Griner and accused her of drug smuggling. They later swapped her for a convicted arms dealer, Viktor Bout, whose repatriation from an American prison they had been seeking for years.

Ms. Griner’s release in late 2022 and the imbalance of the swap – a basketball player caught with some hash oil for an arms dealer – raised concerns that Mr. Putin would target other Americans, recognizing they were being used as leverage could, to secure a high-profile, dangerous Russians captured in the West.

Mr. Gershkovich’s arrest came several months later. This had a widespread impact on reporting on Russia, with many major newsrooms withdrawing their journalists from the country and reassessing the risk of reporting in the region. Another journalist, Alsu Kurmasheva, an American-Russian citizen who works for the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was arrested in October while traveling to Russia to visit her mother. She was charged with failing to register as a foreign agent and remains in custody.

Gulnoza Said, program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in an interview that journalists in Russia now know they are at “constant risk.”

“Prior to Evan’s case, foreign correspondents who may have been viewed as too critical of Russian policy were denied extensions of their visas or accreditation,” Ms. Said explained. “It has become clear that the Russian authorities will stop at nothing to suppress independent media.”

Mr. Gershkovich’s parents said they devoted their time to bringing him to the Biden administration’s attention, meeting with Mr. Biden, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser. They traveled to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this year and were guests at Mr. Biden’s State of the Union address on March 7, when the president said the United States was working “around the clock” to bring Mr. Gershkovich home .

“We know they are committed and President Biden is committed, but we would like to see a resolution as quickly as possible,” Ms. Milman said.

A trial date for Mr. Gershkovich is expected to be set in the coming months, said Mr. Conti, the general counsel at Dow Jones. The process would take place behind closed doors and the process was not very transparent.

Until then, Mr. Gershkovich’s parents continue to hope for his release.

“We have to be optimistic to keep going,” his father said. “We don’t have any other skills to deal with it.”

Paul Sonne contributed reporting.

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2024-03-29 21:40:34