The night before my friend Evan Gershkovich moved to Moscow, in October 2017, he texted me: “Moscow tomorrow am!!! Tell all your friends there they must hang out with me or else!” The next day, when he landed, he sent an update: “Linda I’m here and it’s really cold!!!” But he was too excited to care about the weather. He fell in love with the place, and the people, immediately.
Over a week ago, Evan was detained while on a reporting trip to the Russian city of Yekaterinburg as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, where he has been working since January 2022. Accused of espionage by the Russian Federal Security Bureau, he is being held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison with minimal access to the outside world. He is the first American journalist detained in Russia in the post-Soviet era, and his colleagues at the Journal have forcefully argued that his arrest marks a “new era of hostage diplomacy.”
This week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Senator Bob Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, both asserted that Evan has been wrongfully detained by the Russian government. In a statement released on Thursday, Menendez referred to the “trumped up” charges on which Evan is held and urged the Russian government to give Evan access to U.S. consular officials. The denial of access is a blatant violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. In a rare joint statement released Friday, Senator Chuck Schumer and Senator Mitch McConnell demanded Evan’s immediate release.
Evan may be the latest in a string of Americans detained in Russia in recent years, but his case is fundamentally unlike all the others, for Evan was abducted simply for doing his job.
His arrest is more than just an assault on the freedom of the press: It is a signal of the grave new reality in which Russia is operating, in which all the old rules and norms no longer apply. Until recently, U.S. correspondents in Russia operated under the assumption that while the Kremlin might monitor their activities, Russian authorities would not target them in the same way that they have muzzled and jailed Russian journalists. Now, unfortunately, we know that is not true. To say that a line has been crossed is to understate the gravity of the situation.
The charges that Evan faces come with a penalty of up to 20 years in prison. He is now 31 years old. My mind does the math, but I refuse to write the grim possibilities down, to speak them into existence. I have to believe that we will get him home soon, but I also am all too aware — as is Evan, I’m sure — that the prognosis is not good. If, before the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, it may have been possible to try to reason with the Russian government, that is no longer the case. If there were once outside individuals — oligarchs, diplomats, businesspeople, cultural figures — who could possibly influence the Kremlin from within Russia, they are now few and far in between — too many have been exiled, silenced or co-opted. All this means that we have to look to new places, and to new partners, to advance his cause. Countries that retain active economic ties with Russia, such as India, Israel, Turkey, Brazil and South Africa may have more chances to raise Evan’s case. His arrest could be a signal that Russia is looking for another prisoner exchange, the same kind of trade that freed Brittney Griner. If that is the direction in which this is headed, it might work eventually. But it will probably be a long road.
For the past several years, Evan has been chronicling the gradual closing of a country that he came to love. In 2017, when he was offered reporting positions in Moscow and in Pittsburgh, he asked for my advice on how to choose between them. “Which one would you take, if you were Evan Gershkovich?” he asked. I told him to go to Moscow — I had seen so many colleagues start out as stringers for English-language newspapers abroad to go on to incredible careers — and I wished the same for him.
He moved to Russia to chase his journalism dream, but also because he believed it was important to capture life on the ground, to help Americans understand Russian culture and politics as intimately as he did. He wanted to write about the disappearing languages of Russia and its indigenous cultures; about Russian landfill closures and environmental degradation; about the arrests of journalists and dissidents who dared to speak out against the regime. During the Covid-19 pandemic, he helped me get in touch with Russian journalists who had been detained for their work for a story I was working on. It makes me ill to think that he is experiencing the same conditions that he was accustomed to reporting on.
We first met in college, where we traveled in the same circle of friends but were not, at first, that close. I distinctly remember bumping into Evan on the quad one day and hearing him speaking in Russian on the phone to one of his parents. After that, we bonded about being fellow children of Soviet emigrés in the U.S. — members of a subculture that was not, back then, terribly common at our small liberal arts college in coastal Maine. He worked as a cook at the on-campus pub as part of his financial aid package, and also as a staff writer covering arts and entertainment for the college paper, where I was an editor. He was still growing into himself as a writer — we all were — but he already had the winning combination of charisma, talent, kindness and humor that would propel him in the years to come.
In 2014, the summer after he graduated, he wrote to me from Thailand, where he was living on a reporting fellowship. He said he’d been reading my writing and asked for my advice about how to get a job in journalism when he came home. He would occasionally send me drafts of essays and pitches he was trying to place; he wanted to be a professional journalist more than anything and was stubborn and determined enough to make it happen. He was always hungry for advice and critiques, and positively exuberant about the possibility of being edited, which, in my opinion, is the mark of a truly good writer. “Don’t make fun of me but I’m here for the criticism!!!” was one of the messages he appended to a draft.
Several years ago, he asked me to take a look at an essay he’d written about surviving the 2015 earthquake in Kathmandu, where he’d been visiting toward the end of his fellowship year to help rural communities adapt to climate change. He had been in a café when the quake hit — a good Samaritan extracted him from behind a fallen bookcase — and spent the following three days working nonstop to feed hundreds of fellow survivors. In the essay he sent me, Evan referenced authors he had studied and admired, including George Saunders, Kathryn Schulz, Haruki Murakami and Leo Tolstoy, and quoted from The Death of Ivan Ilyich. The character he most related to, he wrote, was Schwartz, “the playful and lively guy who urges Piotr Ivanovich to not be despondent in the face of Ivan Ilyich’s death, who invites him over to his house for a card game that very night.” Schwartz, Evan wrote, was “joyful and playful, always, even in the face of tragedy and horror.”
So is Evan, as any of his friends will be quick to tell you. That’s why none of us were surprised to hear that he joked with the prison monitors who came to visit him at Lefortovo this week. It always cheered me to see his name pop up on my screen: “you up for a bit of banter on this Friday afternoon?” He’d message me with his anxieties, professional and personal — “stressed about FIFA”; “having trouble figuring out whom to pitch”; “I’m worried about my byline disappearing!” — and I’d share mine in turn.
In recent years, we’ve only kept in touch sporadically: He would request updates about my writing — he once promised to moderate a book event for me in Moscow — and told me: “I think you’d be proud of me — started meditating!” (Evan, when you read this: sorry.) In summer 2020, the day after my wedding, he messaged me from Moscow to say congratulations, adding that my husband’s salt-and-pepper hair was “looking FLY.” One of the benefits of marriage, he said, was that I’d “always have someone to kvetch to!”
I am scared for my friend. He’s great to kvetch to. The last time we really talked was over the summer, when he was heading back to Moscow to report. He was glad to be able to do so. He never for a minute regretted his choice to move to Russia and dedicate his career to covering the region. “100% the right decision to have come here,” he once wrote me. “Doing some stories I’m proud of.” Let’s make sure his byline does not disappear.
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