Determined US Reporter Evan Gershkovich Jailed In Russia

Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal writer who has been imprisoned in Russia for a year, is awaiting a trial on espionage allegations that the White House claims are false but could land him in jail for decades.

The US-born son of Soviet emigrants spent six years covering Russia, including time with AFP, as the Kremlin made independent, on-the-ground reporting increasingly dangerous and illegal.

His arrest in March 2023 on spying allegations, the first against a Western journalist since the Soviet era, demonstrated that the Kremlin was willing to go further than ever before in what President Vladimir Putin refers to as a “hybrid war” with the West.

The Wall Street Journal and the White House angrily refute Russia’s accusation, which they regard as a ruse to secure the release of Russians detained in the United States.

President Vladimir Putin stated last month that he would want to see Gershkovich released as part of a prisoner exchange, but cautioned that specific “terms” were being considered.

The 32-year-old has been remanded in custody until at least the end of June and faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

‘You love this country’ 

Gershkovich continued to make regular reporting visits to Russia, despite the fact that hundreds of other foreign correspondents had left due to Moscow’s large-scale military effort in Ukraine.

His mother, Ella Milman, told AFP earlier this year that she was first pleased that he had established himself in a nation from which she and his father had left.

“It was amazing,” she said. “I told him I left this country and you love this country — and what a change.”

Gershkovich wrote extensively about how ordinary Russians perceived the Ukraine crisis, speaking with families of fallen servicemen and Putin detractors.

Breaking stories and getting individuals to talk became increasingly difficult, Gershkovich told pals prior to his detention.

But as long as it wasn’t impossible, he found an excuse to remain there.

“He knew for some stories he was followed around and people he talked to would be pressured not to talk to him,” Guardian correspondent Pjotr Sauer, a close friend, told AFP.

“But he was accredited by the foreign ministry. I don’t think any of us could see the Russians going as far as charging him with this fake espionage.”

‘Not losing hope’ 

Russia has kept information regarding his case secret, disclosing no specifics since his surprise arrest in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg on March 29, 2023.

Gershkovich’s first interaction with the outside world was a handwritten letter to his parents in Russian.

“I am not losing hope,” it read.

For months those notes were his only form of contact with the outside world, bar visits from lawyers and US diplomats.

Detained in pre-trial detention, he held on to his sense of humour.

“Mom, you unfortunately, for better or worse, prepared me well for jail food,” he wrote in one letter.

The reporter stays in Moscow’s notoriously solitary Lefortovo prison, where he shares a cramped cell with another inmate.

His sister claimed she could envision her gregarious brother “making friends” in prison.

After one court appearance in January 2024, he was observed laughing and smiling with his escort, a balaclava-clad police who was handcuffed to him.

Every day, he goes for an hour-long walk in a small jail yard, tries to stay fit through exercise, and eats fruits and vegetables given by friends to supplement his meager prison diet.

Family ties 

Gershkovich, the son of Jewish parents who moved to the United States in the 1970s due to Soviet tyranny and anti-Semitism, grew up in New Jersey.

When he came in Russia as a new journalist with the English-language magazine The Moscow Times, he quickly adapted to the position.

Gershkovich quickly made a name for himself by breaking major news on the outlet’s minimal budget.

He spent a year reporting for The Moscow Times and then AFP, where he covered a Russian opposition politician standing for election from prison, huge wildfires in Siberia, and how Moscow minimized the effects of the coronavirus outbreak.

Friends think his personality—open, talkative, and exceedingly sociable—improved Gershkovich’s reporting.

He “could make any source comfortable, because they always felt he deeply cared about the story”, Sauer said.

His parents say they are counting on a “very personal” promise from US President Joe Biden to bring him home.

“For me it’s devastating to know how much he’s missed, how much time he’s lost,” his sister Danielle told AFP.

“I miss him more and more every day.”

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