Evan Gershkovich: One WSJ Journalist’s Russian Story
Edited by Amy Ouyang
Who is Evan Gershkovich?
When I first heard the news of the WSJ American journalist recently getting arrested in Russia on charges of espionage, I had just finished wrapping up a research paper on the 8th floor of the library. It was Thursday, and I was looking forward to leaving my campus job and enjoying the free lunch I was promised in exchange for attending an on-campus book discussion on the dangers of Soviet Russian business ventures when I scrolled through the text and came across a familiar face on the thumbnail of a CNN video advertisement. My first thought was, “What’s Evan doing on the news?”
Evan Gershkovich and I first met in Moscow when he was covering a story for The Moscow Times on the celebration of Jewish holidays in the city. His story was a lot like mine – a young professional, enraptured by the unique and eclectic Russian lifestyle, and eager to live each day in the wonderful chaos that was Moscow. A constant adventurer, Evan had family roots in Russia and moved there in 2017 in pursuit of writing the truth in everything he published. His genuine curiosity, integrity, and ability to weave a story into something you experience, not just something you read, hit his audience in a way that made him stand out as a journalist.
While living in Russia, I met a lot of interesting characters. Many were Americans simply passing through, looking for a quick thrill and then moving on to the next adventure. Few barely took the time to learn basic conversational Russian. Evan was no such American.
Evan comes from a bilingual household and used his Russian to his advantage when it came to his 2017 move. He hung out with friends in Moscow’s underground bars, frequented the Russian sauna (banya), and dedicated his career to getting the story right. By leveraging his heritage and personal connection to Russia, Evan flourished in his environment. He spent the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic speaking with new medical students forced to perform beyond their capabilities after mere weeks of training to treat the wave of patients. He spoke with them about their fears, their responsibilities, and mental health, wanting to expose the realities that went well beyond other reports, especially those circulating in the Russian media.
The Arrest and the Consequences
After Evan’s arrest in Yekaterinburg, he was taken to Moscow, where he now awaits trial and sentencing, which is oftentimes conducted in secret and can take up to two years. He faces a 20-year sentence in a Russian prison. His sentencing comes at a crucial moment in US-Russian history, as tensions have dramatically escalated since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022. Once the news of war went public, Western journals immediately began pulling out their staff. Most international journalists are now reporting from abroad, opting to set up in neighboring countries such as Latvia and Lithuania. WSJ was one of the last publications to have reporters on the ground in Russia, but given Evan’s current situation, they have all since been evacuated from Moscow.
When asking the tough questions, such as who could the US trade in exchange for Evan Gershkovich’s safe return to the States, the options seem limited. Angela Stent, senior advisor to the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies, Professor Emerita of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, questions the feasibility of a timely trade. This all feels oddly reminiscent of the Griner-Bout trade the US faced in December last year. Stent noted the first person who came to mind for a Russia-US trade-off is University 1’s very own Sergey Cherkasov, aka Victor Ferreira, the graduate student recently discovered to be a Russian GRU operative. However, according to a source familiar with the matter, Sergey was extradited to Brazil and faces 15 years in prison under identity fraud and other related charges. The other option renders itself similarly improbable: Vadim Krasikov, who is currently being held in Germany for murder. Both cases are outside US jurisdiction, leaving the US with neither leverage nor power to ensure Evan’s release. And what a scary thought that is.
Evan and I have not spoken in a while, but I relate to him on many levels. Many have offered their condolences and well wishes for his swift and safe return to the US. Surprisingly enough, what pains me most is not his detainment. Russia is historically inhospitable towards international journalists, even more so at times of war and under Putin’s, particularly repressive regime. But Evan integrated himself so completely, became part of the fabric of the nation, and, if released, won’t ever be able to return to the life he has there. To have a nation turn its back on you, the same nation that turned its back on your parents, for nothing more than a politically-motivated spectacle…that’s what I consider the highest cost.
News of Evan’s detainment has reverberated across the United States and has made a significant international impact. Not only does his situation cause concern for journalists everywhere, but it has sparked reactions from top journals and publications around the world. For now, we hope for his safety as we wait for more news. From what I can tell, his pre-trial human rights attorney has been able to visit him while he remains in Moscow prison and has noted on his Telegram channel that Evan is in high spirits and continues to smile and joke around about his current predicament. His arrest may be a blow to all of us who believe in the importance of a free and independent press, but his humor and positive energy will continue to be a bright light throughout this nightmare of a reality.
Stay safe, Evan. We’ll see you soon.