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

One year ago on Friday, Ella Milman and Mikhail Gershkovich received a chilling phone call from the managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. Their son, Evan, a foreign correspondent for The Journal who was on a reporting assignment in Russia, had missed his daily security check-in.

“We were hoping this was some kind of error, that everything is going to be fine,” the older Mr. Gershkovich recalled. But the stunning reality became clear: The Russian authorities had detained Evan and accused him of spying for the American government, making him the first American reporter to be held on espionage charges in Russia since the end of the Cold War.

Since his arrest, Mr. Gershkovich, 32, has been held in the notorious high-security Lefortovo prison in Moscow, the same facility holding the people accused in the deadly attack at a concert venue in the city this month. The Journal and the U.S. government have vehemently denied that Mr. Gershkovich is a spy, saying he was an accredited journalist doing his job.

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

“Every day is very hard — every day we feel that he is not here,” Ms. Milman said. “We want him at home, and it has been a year. It’s taken a toll.”

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

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

Recent public comments from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia about a possible prisoner swap could be a reason for some optimism, said Jay Conti, general counsel at Dow Jones, the parent company of The Journal.

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

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

“I don’t think it’s a secret that there aren’t a ton of high-profile Russians in U.S. custody, and so therefore it makes any potential deal that much more complicated,” Mr. Conti said. “I do think the U.S. government has been active in their efforts to try and bring Evan home, but it obviously takes a willing partner and takes putting a deal together in order to do that.”

While in prison, Mr. Gershkovich plays a slow-running game of chess with his father through the mail, and works his way through book recommendations from friends, his parents said. He also keeps track of people’s birthdays and milestone events, organizing through others for flowers to be sent, 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 about his son’s cell. “We know it takes a lot of courage and effort and strength to stay put together, to exercise, to meditate, to read books, to write letters, to encourage us to stay strong and hope for the best.”

Mr. Gershkovich exchanges letters weekly with his family, as well as friends and pen pals around the world. A group of his friends 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 relishes receiving them, his mother said.

“He’s fighting. He’s keeping his spirits up,” Ms. Milman said.

Mr. Gershkovich grew up in Princeton, N.J., the son of Jewish émigrés who had 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 also had an interest in people, and went on to study philosophy and English at Bowdoin College in Maine, graduating in 2014. Journalism seemed 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. He had a stint with Agence France-Presse before joining The Journal in January 2022, a job his parents said he loved.

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

The Wall Street Journal has worked hard to keep Mr. Gershkovich’s plight in the headlines, said Emma Tucker, the editor in chief. The newsroom displays a large photo of him, and colleagues wear “Free Evan” pins. The Journal’s homepage features updates about 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.

“We have to keep up the pressure,” Ms. Tucker said. “We refuse to let up.”

His arrest marked a particularly chilling moment in Mr. Putin’s clampdown on independent media and dissent. While hundreds of independent Russian journalists had been run out of the country, Mr. Putin until then hadn’t jailed any Western journalists on charges that would land them in prison.

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

Ms. Griner’s release at the end of 2022 and the imbalance of the swap — a basketball player caught with some hashish oil for an arms trafficker — raised concerns that Mr. Putin would target other Americans, realizing they could be used as leverage to secure high-profile, dangerous Russians caught in the West.

Mr. Gershkovich’s arrest followed a few months later. It has had wide implications for coverage of Russia, as many major newsrooms pulled their journalists out of the country and reassessed the risk of any reporting in the region. Another journalist, Alsu Kurmasheva, an American-Russian national working for the U.S.-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was detained in October when she traveled to Russia to visit her mother. She was charged with failing to register as a foreign agent and remains in detention.

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

“Before Evan’s case, foreign correspondents who may have been perceived as too critical of the Russian policies were denied extension of their visa or accreditation,” Ms. Said explained. “It became clear that the Russian authorities won’t stop at anything in their suppression of independent media.”

Mr. Gershkovich’s parents said they had poured their time into keeping the Biden administration focused on him, meeting with President Biden, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser. They traveled to Davos, Switzerland, this year for the World Economic Forum, 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 that they’re engaged and President Biden is committed, but we’d like to see a resolution as soon as possible,” Ms. Milman said.

A trial date is expected to be set for Mr. Gershkovich in the coming months, said Mr. Conti, the general counsel at Dow Jones. A trial would be held behind closed doors, with little transparency in the process.

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

“We have to be optimistic to keep going,” his father said. “We have no other skills to cope with this.”

Paul Sonne contributed reporting.

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