Evan Gershkovich: Hope one year after journalist’s arrest

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The call came in on the evening of March 29, 2023.

“We’ve lost Evan. What can we do?”

The editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal, Emma Tucker, had phoned Paul Beckett, the then-Washington bureau chief, to tell him their reporter, Evan Gershkovich, was missing.

Springing into action, Mr Beckett quickly alerted everybody he could think of – the White House National Security Council, the Pentagon and State Department.

As a foreign correspondent working in Russia for The Wall Street Journal, Evan had missed two of his required check-ins.

“We have very strict protocols for foreign correspondents in the field, especially in risky places,” Mr Beckett, the now Assistant Editor of the Journal, told news.com.au.

“When he missed two, we knew probably something bad had happened.

“And sure enough, it had.”

Hours later, Russia’s Federal Security Service announced they had arrested Evan and falsely accused him of being a spy, making him the first American accused of espionage since the Cold War.

Evan was arrested at a restaurant in Yekaterinburg, nearly 2000km outside of Moscow on March 29.

His arrest made headlines around the world and an image of him being hauled away is seared into the minds of friends and colleagues.

The 32-year-old, his employers, and the White House all vehemently reject the accusation.

He faces a maximum 20 years in jail if found guilty.

Looking back, Mr Beckett said the news of Evan’s arrest was both “baffling and frustrating” as he was accredited by Russia’s Foreign Ministry to work in the country as a journalist.

“It’s one of your colleagues out doing his job … So it’s a bit of a punch in the face to Evan, his family and his colleagues.”

Evan’s college friend and former roommate Jeremy Berke woke up to the shocking news after receiving an alert on his phone that a journalist had been arrested.

“All of a sudden, I went from being half asleep to wide awake really quickly,” he told news.com.au.

“I rushed from my bedroom into the living room of my small apartment and turned on CNN. And this image is seared into my mind. It’s Evan (on TV) with a yellow hood on and there’s a gloved hand on the back of his head, and he’s getting shuffled into what looks like a Russian police vehicle.”

It didn’t take long for Mr Berke’s phone to start blowing up with messages.

“Jeremy have you seen this? Is this really your friend? What’s going on?” the messages read.

“It was a really really chaotic day and we just didn’t know what to do,” said Mr Berke.

“I guess you kind of feel a bit helpless.”

A dedicated journalist

Evan had been living and working in Russia for six years before he was arrested.

The 32-year-old had grown up in New Jersey speaking Russian with his parents who emigrated from the Soviet Union to the US. In 2017, he moved to Moscow where he reported for the Moscow Times and the Agence France Press, before joining The Wall Street Journal in 2022.

Mr Berke described his friend of 14 years as the “most extroverted person you could ever possibly meet”.

“Everything that comes out of his mouth is funny and goofy but he’s also a really good listener. When you talk to him, he draws you in and he makes sure that what you’re saying you have his complete 110 per cent attention. So he’s a real people person, he’s really gregarious.”

While humorous, Mr Berke said his friend takes his work very seriously.

“He was so dedicated to learning more about Russia, to understanding the country, and also explaining what was going on in the country to us back home. I think he really took that mission very seriously.”

He said himself and Evan were aware of risks when he moved to Russia for work. But he “never expected” the 32-year-old would ever get arrested.

“It does lead you to kind of kick yourself when you (were saying to him) ‘this is going to be a great opportunity for you’. And then a year later, here we are.

“It’s sort of mentally difficult to understand that.”

A year on from Evan’s arrest, Mr Berke says a day doesn’t go by when he’s not thinking about him.

“I miss him a lot,” he shared. “It’s hard.”

Life inside a small cell

Evan is currently being held in Moscow’s notoriously isolated Lefortovo prison, which serves a pre-trial detention centre.

Mr Beckett said the prison is “notorious for isolating and disorienting its inmates”.

“Evan is in a small cell, with a cellmate for 23 hours a day. He gets out for one hour a day into a small courtyard that is about the same size as the cell.”

“He a very resilient young man. He has been exercising, he has been meditating, he’s been reading and he’s been writing letters and he’s been receiving letters.”

Mr Berke last received a letter from Evan in January.

The friends continuously keep in touch and share updates about each other’s lives, including what they’re reading and “sillier stuff” like what’s going on with New York Mets and New York Knicks.

“A group of (our friends) are also in a fantasy sports league, and we let him pick the draft order for us which was pretty funny. And so we’re just trying to keep his spirits up and insert jokes and levity, because that’s what we know how to do.”

Mr Berke said Evan’s parents, Ella Milman and Mikhail Gershkovich, also hear from him almost every two weeks.

He praised his mother and father for being “very stoic people” who have been “incredibly strong” in speaking up about Evan’s arrest on TV.

“They’ve really able to put their emotions aside and just continually advocate for him and continue to beat the drum in order to get Evan home and it’s one of the most impressive things I’ve seen.”

Mr Berke said his friends will be attending a social gathering on March 29 to mark one year since his detainment.

An extended prison term

This week, it was announced Evan’s prison term has been extended days ahead of the one-year-anniversary of his arrest.

The Moscow courts service said it had “extended the term of detention of Evan Gershkovich until June 30, 2024”, following a hearing in the Russian capital.

“This verdict to further prolong Evan’s detention feels particularly painful, as this week marks one year since Evan was arrested and wrongfully detained,” US ambassador Lynne Tracy said following the verdict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in February he would like to see Evan released as part of a prisoner exchange.

During an interview with conservative American TV commentator Tucker Carlson, Putin said talks between Russia and the United States about a possible swap were ongoing.

He suggested he wanted any deal to involve the release of Vadim Krasikov, a Russian jailed in Germany for killing a Chechen dissident.

Ms Milman told Good Morning America US President Joe Biden has also made a “promise to do whatever it takes” to bring Evan home.

In the meantime, Evan’s colleagues family and friends have been raising awareness about Evan’s story and holding onto hope he will eventually be released.

“We’re very hopeful. President Biden has promised Evan’s parents that he will bring Evan home. So we rely on that and we remain relentlessly optimistic. And at the same time, we try and do everything we possibly can to make it as short a time as possible,” said Mr Beckett.

“But the chances are it will be solved by government to government negotiations … So we’re convinced the more we speak about what’s happened to Evan, it will be easier to conclude those negotiations.”

Mr Berke said anyone can help raise awareness about his friend by posting about Evan on social media and reading his articles.

“Read his work and share his work. Look up his byline on the Journal and make sure that his words are getting shared and the stories he wants to tell are reaching the right people.”

The Wall Street Journal is also raising awareness in a number of ways including a 24 hour Read-a-Thon of Evan’s reporting and by sharing the social media hashtag #IStandWithEvan.

“It’s time to see this for what it is, which is the hostage taking of an innocent man,” said Mr Beckett.

“It’s time to resolve it.”

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