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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Journalist detained by Russia was reporting stories that ‘needed to be told’

Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was arrested in Russia on Thursday. A fellow reporter said they frequently discussed the risks they faced in covering the country.

By Katie Robertson

The reporting job in Moscow had everything Evan Gershkovich was looking for, his friends said: experience in a far-flung location with the chance to connect with his Russian roots.

Gershkovich, 31, an American journalist born to Soviet émigrés, moved from New York to Russia in late 2017 to take up his first reporting role, a job at The Moscow Times and, his friends and co-workers said, he quickly embraced life in Moscow.

“He had no hesitation; he was really ready to try something totally new,” said Nora Biette-Timmons, a friend from college and the deputy editor of Jezebel, adding, “I remember so distinctly how much he loved what he was doing.”

In January 2022, he was hired as a Moscow-based correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, a dream job, his friends said.

But on Thursday, in a move that intensified tensions between Moscow and the West, Russian authorities said that they had detained the journalist, accusing him of “spying in the interests of the American government.”

Russia has not provided any evidence to back up the accusations, and Gershkovich and his employer have denied the allegation. Russian state media said Gershkovich was being held at a prison in Moscow to await trial after being transported from Yekaterinburg, a city 900 miles away in the Ural Mountains where he was arrested. He is the first American journalist detained on espionage charges since the end of the Cold War and faces up to 20 years in jail.

Dozens of global news organizations have condemned the arrest and President Joe Biden on Friday called for Gershkovich’s immediate release. Top editors and press freedom organizations from around the world wrote to the Russian ambassador to the United States on Thursday, saying that the arrest was “unwarranted and unjust” and “a significant escalation in your government’s anti-press actions.”

The letter went on, “Russia is sending the message that journalism within your borders is criminalized and that foreign correspondents seeking to report from Russia do not enjoy the benefits of the rule of law.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago has drastically heightened the risks for journalists trying to report in the region. After the start of the war, many independent Russian outlets were shut down and Russian journalists were forced to flee. Western outlets that had operated bureaus in the country for decades moved their reporters out, and few Western journalists remain full time in the country today. Some reporters have continued to file stories from Russia by traveling in and out as needed.

In interviews, friends of Gershkovich described him as an extroverted journalist with an abiding love for Russia and its people, who was cleareyed about the risks facing him in his reporting.

Polina Ivanova, a correspondent who covers Russia and Ukraine for the Financial Times, said she met Gershkovich soon after they both arrived in Moscow in 2017.

“Evan is a completely gifted reporter and someone for whom journalism is incredibly natural because he is an amazing talker and charms everybody and is very funny,” she said.

Ivanova said that the pair frequently discussed the risks they faced in covering the country but that Gershkovich felt he should make every effort to report stories outside of Moscow.

Known to many of his American friends as “Gersh,” Gershkovich grew up in Princeton, New Jersey. His parents had emigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union, part of a wave of Jews who left in the 1970s. He spoke Russian at home and, in an article in the magazine Hazlitt in 2018, he reminisced about growing up with his mother’s Russian superstitions, including not spilling salt on the dinner table, and looking for ways to increase his connection with his heritage.

Gershkovich studied philosophy and English at Bowdoin College in Maine, graduating in 2014. He then lived in Bangkok for a year on a Princeton in Asia fellowship.

After college, Gershkovich moved to New York City and worked at The New York Times as a news assistant, handling reader emails for public editors Margaret Sullivan and Liz Spayd, from early 2016 until September 2017. He left the Times to take The Moscow Times job and get the reporting experience he craved. In 2020, Gershkovich started covering Russia and Ukraine for Agence France-Presse, then moved to The Wall Street Journal.

Jazmine Hughes, a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine who became friends with Gershkovich when he worked at the Times, described a message he sent her in December 2021 telling her the news about his new job at the Journal.

“Remember when we were in The New York Times cafeteria and you were convincing me to give journalism a shot for another few years and not give up just yet?” Gershkovich wrote to Hughes. “I just got hired by The Wall Street Journal. I’m the Moscow correspondent. I’m in the bureau. I did the thing. Look at us!”Hughes said in an email: “Getting the Moscow correspondent job was basically his too-big-to-dream job.”

Jeremy Berke, a former Insider reporter who now writes the cannabis industry newsletter Cultivated, said he and Gershkovich had been close friends since their freshman year at Bowdoin College and lived together for a time in the New York City borough of Brooklyn.

“Evan’s parents are Soviet émigrés, so he always felt very strongly about connecting with his roots,” Berke said.

“He felt like not only was this a moment in time in Russia where the country is very interesting but that he was a person who could really bridge the gap between U.S. audiences and Russia,” Berke added.

Berke said Gershkovich had made many friends in Moscow and built a life there before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

“He was getting invited to friends’ cottages; he knew where all the cool bars were,” he said. “He loved his life there.”

Joshua Yaffa, a writer for The New Yorker who first met Gershkovich five years ago in Moscow, wrote in an article on Friday that Gershkovich, like some other Western reporters, had relocated outside of Russia after the war began, but returned last summer because his accreditation was still valid.

“It seemed like the old logic might still apply: Foreigners could get away with reporting that would be far more problematic, if not off limits entirely, for Russians,” Yaffa wrote.

In recent months, Gershkovich had written articles about an artillery shortage hampering Russia’s war effort in Ukraine and an acquiescence to the war by most Russians. His last byline was Tuesday, on a story about Russia’s dimming economic outlook as it is squeezed by Western sanctions.

Emma Tucker, the editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal, said in an email to the staff Friday that the publication was working with the State Department as well as legal teams in the U.S. and in Russia to secure Gershkovich’s release.

“Evan is a member of the free press who right up until he was arrested was engaged in news gathering,” Tucker wrote. “Any suggestions otherwise are false.”

Berke said he had spoken with Gershkovich’s mother on Thursday and Friday. (Gershkovich’s family declined to comment for this article.)

“It’s really hard,” he said. “They left the Soviet Union and were very worried about him going back. So I think this hits close to home.”

Ivanova of The Financial Times said foreign journalists who had worked with Gershkovich were distraught about his detention. She and others have asked people to email letters of support, which they will translate into Russian, as required by Russian law, and send to Gershkovich in prison.

Ivanova said there were now very few Western journalists still traveling in to Russia.

“What he was doing was incredibly important,” she said. “It was a story that really needed to be told because we need to understand it.” She added, “It helps no one if Russia remains a black box.”

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