19.3 C
New York

The long struggle to free Evan Gershkovich from a Moscow prison


On March 29, 2023, Evan Gershkovich was on assignment in Russia when he was arrested by security forces and accused of being a spy, a charge vigorously denied by Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal, and the U.S. government.

Look around the Wall Street Journal offices in Manhattan, and you’ll see Gershkovich, the hostage, everywhere – on buttons, cards, shirts, and screens that stop you in your tracks.

Emma Tucker, the Journal’s editor-in-chief, said that – unlike the Iran hostage situation, when the U.S. government told families to avoid publicity and let the government quietly negotiate – her instinct was to draw attention to Gershkovich’s detainment. “Because it was so clearly outrageous,” she said. “He was accredited. He was doing his job. He had done nothing wrong. My sense of justice was offended by what had happened.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Russia correspondent Evan Gershovich has been detained in a Moscow prison for nearly a year, accused by the Kremlin of being a spy. 

CBS News

Gershkovich was the first reporter to be taken into custody like this since the Cold War.

When asked why him, Tucker replied, “It’s very hard to know. Is it because he works for the Wall Street Journal, which is a recognizable, famous American title? Is it because he’s of Russian heritage? I wish I knew.”

What is known is that Gershkovich is being held in a Stalin-era prison in Moscow. His pre-trial detention has been extended several times. Court appearances have been few but jarring.

American journalist Evan Gershkovich, arrested on espionage charges, stands inside a defendants’ cage at the Moscow City Court, June 22, 2023. 

Natalia KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images

“It was horrible,” Tucker said, of seeing Gershkovich in court. “There’s something so dehumanizing about those glass cages. I was surprised at the shock I felt at seeing it. So, goodness only knows what his parents felt when they saw it. So yes, it was a shock. At the same time, he was standing tall. He looked defiant. He smiled. So, mixed emotions.”

In her apartment, where her younger brother would crash on the couch, Danielle Gershkovich said his calling was never in question. “I think he was born to be a journalist,” she said. “He, I think, had always been seeking a life of adventure. And his travel, his writing. Working at the Wall Street Journal as a Russia correspondent was his absolute dream job.”

Children of Soviet emigres who spoke Russian at home, Danielle and Evan have always been close. Hearing that he was in custody was shattering.

Danielle Gershkovich.

CBS News

“I got a call from my mom,” she said. “And it’s just, my stomach fell out, you know? Your heart stops. It’s so hard to believe that something like that is actually real. And I remember my mom and I discussing the morning after: ‘Is that really Evan, that photo that came out?’ We didn’t want to admit for a moment that that was him.”

Stahl asked, “Did you think [detention] was a possibility? Russia a year ago had already become dangerous. Other news organizations were pulling reporters out.”

“I would say my whole family was nervous,” Danielle replied. “He would always remind us, he’s an accredited journalist.”

And, therefore, (supposedly) safe. “It’s very unprecedented,” Danielle said.

Of course, what was unprecedented has become almost routine under Russian President Vladimir Putin. Gershkovich is the latest American pawn on Putin’s geopolitical chessboard against the West.

Marine veteran Paul Whelan has been jailed in Russia for five years; Russian-American ballerina Ksenia Karelina was arrested in January, accused of treason for helping Ukraine; and basketball star Brittney Griner, imprisoned for nine months on drug charges, was finally freed in an exchange for a notorious arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death.”

Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who fled Russia in 2013, is one of Putin’s most fervent critics. When asked if he fears for his life, he replied, “Would it help?”

Kasparov was recently named by the Kremlin to its registry of people it considers to be terrorists and extremists. He calls it “a badge of honor.”  

Stahl asked, “Putin just gets stronger and stronger, it seems, rather than the other way, which you predicted once that he would be on the downswing?”

“Putin’s strength is very much result of [the West’s] weakness,” Kasparov replied. “Any sign of indecisiveness, any sign of hesitation feeds Putin with power. Because [he’ll say], ‘Ha, ha, yes, I can do this, I can do that. Nothing will happen.'”

He believes there is no chance that Gershkovich would be acquitted of charges. “Putin treats Gershkovich as money or weapons,” he said. “This is one of the tools of him staying in power. So, he’ll be negotiating.”

Putin himself has made that clear. He said he was open to a prisoner swap involving Gershkovich, Whelan, and a deal for opposition leader Alexey Navalny right before he died in a Russian prison last month.

Roger Carstens, the U.S. Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs, said, “What I can tell you is that the United States has been negotiating with the Russians.” He did not deny that a swap was in the works, and it fell apart when Navalny died. “We had a strong offer that went at the end of last year,” Carstens said. “The Russians rejected it. I was rather disappointed, but it might not have been entirely a huge surprise. But our goal now is to keep working with partners, allies, and to find that combination that’s going to allow us to solve it.”

Stahl asked, “How many Americans are being held hostage in the world?”

“My numbers at one point were over 50,” said Carstens. “They’re now down in-between 20 and 30. We always hesitate to give out an exact number for various reasons. In the last three years, the Biden-Harris administration has brought back 46 Americans that were wrongfully detained or held hostage. It’s a team effort; it’s members of U.S. government, members on Capitol Hill, non-profits, NGOs, allies, partners, and even members of the media that all seem to work together to bring those people home.”

Carstens reiterated that Evan Gershkovich has never worked for the U.S. government. “He’s not a spy; he’s a journalist,” he said. “And journalism should not be a crime.”

Gershkovich spends 23 hours a day in his cell. Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Emma Tucker says he’s allowed to send and receive letters, as long as they’re in Russian. She described Gershkovich as “a resilient character. He’s an extrovert, he’s a people person.”

And his health? “I think his health is okay; his mom looks very closely whenever there are shots of him [on TV],” Tucker said. “I think there’s limits to how much exercise he can do. I can only imagine what the food is like. But he’s meditating. He’s practicing and getting ever better at Russian. He’s reading in Russian.”

And he even managed, from prison, to deliver something very special to his sister, Danielle: Flowers, which arrived for International Women’s Day on March 8. “He’s always thinking about us, and finding ways to make us smile,” Danielle said.

Stahl said, “From the minute I walked in here, your eyes keep watering. It’s hard for you to talk about, or not? Maybe it helps you?”

“Maybe it’s that bittersweet moment where I’m looking at his photos,” Danielle said. “I wish I didn’t have to do this, but talking about my brother is always … it makes me smile. I miss him so much.”

For more info:

Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Ed Givnish. 

See also: 

Detained: The heartbreaking ordeal of journalist Alsu Kurmasheva


Related articles

Recent articles