Evan Gershkovich’s Story

Foreign Policy Brief #136 | By: Yelena Korshunov | April 17, 2024
Featured Photo: www.cbc.ca

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On March 29th, The Wall Street Journal came out with a blank white page where there was supposed to be an article by Evan Gershkovich, an American journalist imprisoned in Russia on accusations of espionage. Gershkovich became the first Western journalist charged with espionage since the end of the Cold War. The White House condemned his arrest, and the WSJ (Wall Street Journal) categorically denied the accusation, while multiple world and Russian journalists demanded his immediate release.

Evan Gershkovich moved to Russia at the end of 2017, having previously worked for almost two years at The New York Times. He was a journalist for The Moscow Times and worked for Agence France-Presse. In January 2022 he started working at The WSJ. After Russia’s attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022, he moved to London, but often returned to Russia for journalist reports. On March 29, he was detained during his work trip in Russia, in the city of Yekaterinburg. The next day the Lefortovo Court of Moscow arrested the American journalist for two months on charges of espionage, sending him to a pre-trial detention center. Since then, his holding period has been regularly extended, and nothing has moved on the merits of the case.

Evan’s parents, Ella Millman and Mikhail Gershkovich, say that they and Evan write to each other every week. He plays chess in letters with his father, and on March 8th had even managed to deliver flowers to his mother and sister. Evan shares a cell measuring 3 by 4 meters (9.8 x 13 ft.) with another prisoner. His parents describe the cell as “a very small, very isolated room with a small window.”  “We know that it takes a lot of courage and effort to stay focused, exercise, meditate, read books, write letters and inspire us to hope for the best,” Evan’s father shared with the press. Gershkovich’s close friend Peter Sauer, a correspondent for The Guardian, assures that Evan tries to keep himself occupied throughout the day and maintain a routine. “He reads, writes, and exercises, so by the end of the day he feels like he’s had a productive day,” says Sauer. According to him, in the letters he still sees “the same Evan – full of humor and curiosity.” Evan’s friend Polina Evanova, a correspondent for the Financial Times, says that the re-election of Vladimir Putin as president was “a tragedy for him”.

After Gershkovich’s arrest, the WSJ wrote that Russia’s president Putin “strongly hinted” that he was open to offers to exchange the journalist. However, there are no Russian prisoners in American jails on similar charges. In early February 2024, a former Fox News host, Tucker Carlson arrived in Moscow to interview Vladimir Putin. According to the WSJ, Carlson told the Russian president’s aides that he plans to “pressure” Putin to release Gershkovich “here and now.” According to Carlson himself, an official close to Putin called it “a great idea” that “could provoke a positive response.” In the interview with Putin, Carlson several times asked him about the fate of Gershkovich. The Russia’s president did not give a direct answer, but said that he “does not exclude” Gershkovich’s return home”, and then spoke about “a man who is serving a sentence in a country allied with the United States” and who “for patriotic reasons eliminated a bandit in one of the European capitals” referring to alleged former FSB officer Vadim Krasikov.

Krasikov was sentenced to life in prison and is serving his sentence in Germany. WSJ and several other Western publications have found that Germany and the United States have begun to discuss the possibility of a deal in which Berlin could give up Krasikov in exchange for Alexei Navalny, Evan Gershkovich, and former US Marine Paul Whelan, who is also accused of espionage and has already been sentenced by a Russian court to 16 years in a penal colony where prisoners are kept in hard conditions combining both penal detention and compulsory work. Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov then said that on prisoner exchange cases between Russia and the United States, certain progress is being made but it must “be carried out in absolute silence.” Peskov ignored a question about the date of Gershkovich’s trial.

On the anniversary of the detention of Evan Gershkovich in Russia, President Joe Biden promised to continue working towards his return home. In a statement posted on the White House website, Biden said that “journalism is not a crime, and Evan traveled to Russia, doing his job as a reporter and risking his safety to shine a light on the truth about Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine.” The president also promised that the United States will continue to condemn Russia’s “horrific attempts to use Americans as bargaining chips.” According to Biden, Washington will continue to respond to these Russian actions. He added that “we will vigorously oppose anyone who attacks the press and harasses journalists. Speaking about Gershkovich and Whelan, more akin to hostages than prisoners, Biden promised that the United States “will not stop working to bring them home.”

Russia’s famous writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky once wrote, “To live without hope is to cease to live.”  With many others, I hope that one day we will bring them home.

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