one year in russian prison espionage evan gershkovich
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich looks out from a defendants’ cage at the Moscow City Court last month. This Friday marks one year behind bars for him. (Photo by Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images)

365 Days in the Life of Evan Gershkovich

One year after the WSJ reporter was arrested for ‘espionage’ in Russia, his friends tell The Free Press he feels ‘deep responsibility’ for the country he loves.

On the morning of March 29, 2023—one year ago this Friday—Simon Brooks woke up to 18 missed calls and a slew of text messages. “The texts were like, ‘Is this real?’ ” Brooks told me, “and I immediately knew, and I was like, ‘Dude, Evan.’ ”

He meant his best friend, Evan Gershkovich, who had roomed with Brooks at Bowdoin College in Maine, moved to Russia, became a Wall Street Journal reporter, and was supposed to be Brooks’s best man at his upcoming wedding.

The same Evan Gershkovich, now 32, who had been arrested a few hours earlier in Russia. 

“I remember being like, ‘Okay, this is a misunderstanding,’ ” said Brooks, who runs a media company in Los Angeles called Phony Texts. “Everyone else was in panic mode. I was just like, ‘There’s no way. It’s either a publicity stunt, or they’re trying to send a message, and this is going to be resolved quickly,’ and then I got in contact with his mom, and that’s when I realized, Okay, this might be a process.”

Brooks recalled that, at his wedding at a ranch in Santa Barbara a few months after his friend’s arrest, “everyone kind of talked about Evan. It was very hard.”

Gershkovich, who was based at the Journal’s Moscow bureau, had committed the crime of reporting on a regime that does not care for the free press or for reporters. While he was on a reporting trip to Yekaterinburg—which is just over 1,000 miles east of Moscow, straddling the border between Europe and Asia—he was arrested by agents working for the Federal Security Service, or FSB. 

The next day, Gershkovich was seen leaving a Moscow courthouse. He was charged with espionage. Russian officials said that Gershkovich, “acting on the instructions of the American side, collected information constituting a state secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex.” 

As the son of Russian Jews who had fled the Soviet Union in the late 1970s, Gershkovich was ideally suited to report on post–Soviet Russia: He spoke good Russian, and he had a strong, intuitive grasp of Russian culture and politics. But he also had the thoughtfulness and perspective of the outsider. His parents, both computer programmers, had met in New York before moving to Princeton, New Jersey. His first job in newspapering was at The New York Times—as an assistant to the public editor, Margaret Sullivan. This led to a job at The Moscow Times and ultimately the Journal.

In February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, and that made reporting on Russia, especially as a correspondent from an American outlet, more complicated. Most reporters left the country; everyone who continued reporting there did so with the understanding that the FSB was watching them more closely than ever. But Gershkovich kept returning to the country, covering the place that his parents had left, that felt like a part of him. 

“He felt this deep sense of responsibility as one of the few people who could report the facts on the ground in a deep and accurate way,” said Sam Silverman, another close college friend of Gershkovich, who lives in New York City.

In March 2023, Gershkovich traveled to Yekaterinburg to look into a story about the Wagner mercenary group that had taken part in hostilities in Ukraine, and he wanted to interview people at a tank factory in the city. He was arrested at a steakhouse, where he’d apparently gone for a late lunch.

Since then, Gershkovich has been in purgatory, awaiting trial. If he is found guilty, he could spend the next 20 years in prison. 

Last month, Russian president Vladimir Putin, in an interview with right-wing media personality Tucker Carlson, said of Gershkovich, “He was caught red-handed when he was secretly getting classified information”—offering zero evidence to support that. 

The State Department has repeatedly dismissed this charge. So has the Journal.

Putin added that he’d like to see Gershkovich released. “I do not rule out that the person you refer to, Mr. Gershkovich, may return to his motherland. By the end of the day, it does not make any sense to keep him in prison in Russia.”

But on Tuesday, Russian authorities extended Gershkovich’s detention until at least June 30, though no trial date has been set. Once again, just as every time he has appeared in court, Gershkovich was confined to a glass box where defendants are paraded in front of the cameras and court officials. He smiled a bit, but he looked pale and trapped—not unlike Alexei Navalny, who had appeared so many times in his own glass box before his death in prison last month.

Russians are fond of talking about how they abolished the death penalty in the nineties, as if this makes them morally superior to the Americans. But the thing is, life in a Russian prison is death in slow motion.

For now, the question is: What do the Russians want in exchange for Gershkovich? And is the Biden administration willing to give that up?

Emma Tucker, the Journal’s editor in chief, said in a recent joint interview with Gershkovich’s parents on ABC, “Evan will be released,” but explained that securing his release amounted to a complex game of chess. “You move one piece and you edge towards an end game, and then another piece moves and you take a backward step,” Tucker said. “It’s complicated to get there. There are a lot of different people and governments involved.”

Gershkovich’s parents, Ella and Mikhail, in the same interview, looked the way you might expect: scared, rigid, careful not to say the wrong thing. “We were happy that both governments have expressed willingness to negotiate,” Mikhail said, when asked what he thought of Putin’s comments about his son during his interview with Carlson. “We are confident they’re doing everything they can, and we want them to continue to do that.”

Sam Silverman said the last time he saw Gershkovich, in August 2022, the reporter had just flown in from Moscow and was planning to visit his family in New Jersey. 

“He was cognizant of some of the dangers he was in,” said Silverman, who runs a tourism company called BagelUp. “But this we never expected. He said, ‘You know, I’ve got an American passport, I’m an accredited journalist—nothing is going to happen to me.”

At the time, Brittney Griner, the WNBA star, was being held by the Russians for drug trafficking after she carried less than one gram of hash oil into the country. But Gershkovich was undeterred. After all, the last time an American journalist had been detained in Russia was in 1986—before the Soviet collapse. And that American reporter was released in a prisoner swap after just 20 days inside. 

But also, Gershkovich was unafraid of the unknown, said Michael Van Itallie, who met the reporter when they played on the same kids’ soccer team, coached by Gershkovich’s dad. After college, Van Itallie said, Gershkovich traveled in Asia, and he was in Nepal during the 2015 earthquake. (He wrote a great essay about that experience for The Bowdoin Orient.) 

Van Itallie recalled that, on one of his trips home while working at the Journal, Gershkovich got frustrated with his friends for voicing what he thought were stereotypical views of Russians and Russia—that they were cold and distant, that it was a scary place.

“ ‘You guys don’t get it,’ ” Van Itallie recalled Gershkovich saying. “ ‘This is a really cool culture.’ He really loved it there. He really loved his life there.”

Van Itallie added: “I think a lot of us were assuming it was a temporary thing, but he didn’t really see it that way. He really wanted to stay. I remember him saying, ‘I really feel like this is a great place for me to be.’ ”

Peter Savodnik is a writer and editor for The Free Press. He was based in Moscow from 2006 to 2008, and in Minsk in 2010, where he reported for GQ, The Atlantic, Wired, and other outlets. Read his Free Press piece “Why Is the American Right Pandering to Putin?” and follow him on X (formerly Twitter) @petersavodnik.

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