One Year Since Evan Gershkovich’s Arrest in Russia, a Friend Paints a Vivid Picture of Resilience Features
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One Year Since Evan Gershkovich’s Arrest in Russia, a Friend Paints a Vivid Picture of Resilience

One year ago today, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was detained in Russia. His arrest came amid a broader media crackdown and surging suspicion of the West, both of which have loomed heavily amid Moscow’s ongoing war against Ukraine.

On this grim anniversary, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken implored Russia to release Gershkovich and his compatriot Paul Whelan, who has been detained in Russia for upwards of five years. Referencing Moscow’s affinity for high-profile prisoner swaps, Blinken said: “People are not bargaining chips. Russia should end its practice of arbitrarily detaining individuals for political leverage and should immediately release Evan and Paul.” As of the time of writing, Gershkovich remains in pre-trial detention awaiting trial on unsubstantiated espionage charges. 

Jeremy Berke is a journalist who reports on cannabis policy, a business student at Columbia, and a close friend of Gershkovich. We caught up with Berke to learn more about Gershkovich’s rise as a journalist striving to bridge geopolitical divides, and what he’s been able to convey from his Russian pre-trial detention center. 

Can you tell us about your friendship with Evan?

Evan and I met in 2010. We both graduated from Bowdoin College. We weren’t very close right off the bat, but we were always in overlapping friend circles. We really hit it off during our junior year when some of our close friends went abroad, and we ended up stuck on campus together. And from then on, we were really, really close. It turned out we had a lot in common — from our Jewish upbringings to our similarly dry and sarcastic senses of humor. 

We both ended up moving to New York [a couple of years after college]. This was about 2015. I was working for Business Insider, and Evan was trying to figure out how to break into journalism while working in kitchens and catering and taking a bunch of other odd jobs. He eventually ended up at The New York Times, where he was assistant to the Public Editor. 

We ended up moving in together in a Brooklyn walkup along with several of our friends from college, and we did all the stuff guys in their mid-20s do — we partied, we watched sports. 

Tell us more about how he ended up in Moscow. 

Evan’s parents are Soviet immigrants. He grew up speaking Russian at home, and I think he always felt called to Russia. This was around 2016, and the country was changing in a lot of ways [Ed: Russia had annexed Crimea in 2014, and violence continued to simmer in Eastern Ukraine, resulting in multiple waves of sanctions and an ever-expanding geopolitical divide]. 

We spent a lot of late nights talking about whether he should make the move. … He felt like moving to Russia would offer good professional and personal opportunities. And he felt strongly about being a person who could bridge the gap between Russia and the US. He thought he was in a good position to do that as he was essentially fluent in Russian language and culture, and in American culture.  

And that really aligned with who he was as a person. When we were living in Brooklyn, he would always take us to Russian restaurants in Brighton Beach, ordering in Russian. He genuinely loved Russian culture and its people, and he was such an extrovert, that once he moved to Russia, he fit right in, quickly establishing a wide circle of friends. 

To me, that’s one of the biggest injustices about his arrest; he was never an enemy of the Russian people; he’s always loved them and wanted to tell their stories, and he was willing to put himself in harm’s way to do so. To see him treated like this by the Russian government is a major injustice … It is very easy for journalists to throw stones from outside of Russia, but to hear people’s stories for all their nuance and complexity, you need to be on the ground. 

How would you describe his approach to journalism? What has most impressed you about his work? 

Evan is really good at getting to the nuance and complexity of a story. I was honestly astonished to watch him grow as a journalist during his time in Moscow. He was good when he started out at The Moscow Times, and then when he moved on to the AFP. But when he got to The Wall Street Journal, that seemed to uncork something in him. From the quotes he was getting, to the people he was talking to, to the amazing places he was going. He was so dedicated to covering stories that he would do things like camp out by a forest fire for three days to talk to the locals about how it was affecting them. He went to parts of the Caucuses and Georgia that were very hard to access. 

He was very mission-driven; he was driven to bridge these gaps and to tell Russian people’s stories with genuine depth and complexity. This is one of the things I most admire about him, and again, what makes his detention so unfair. 

I can’t speak for him, but I know him very well, and he was never motivated by any sort of animosity — either toward the Russian government or the Russian people. He just wanted to understand them, tell their story, communicate their story. Journalists make their own private determinations about the people in power who they cover, of course. But Evan was never driven by activism — he was a journalist above all. What he wanted was the story. Oftentimes the truth would shape out in a way that had negative implications for the Russian regime, but his goal wasn’t to go to Russia and take down [Russian President Vladimir] Putin; he just wanted to understand what was happening, why Russia was getting so closed off, and what that meant for regular people. That was his whole goal. 

Evan was arrested a little over a year after Russia invaded Ukraine. Did he tell you much about how the security environment changed during that period? 

He was accredited [Ed: For foreign journalists to work in Russia, typically they need to be accredited by the Russian government — a daunting bureaucratic process that includes vetting and monitoring by minders], but was forced out of the country when the invasion began. He then started taking weeks-long reporting trips back into the country.  

The last time I saw him was the October after the invasion started. He came to the US and stayed on our couch, and he was telling us about being tailed along with other reporters during his reporting trips — that he even started to recognize the people who were tailing him. And it wasn’t because they were friendly, by any means, or they were communicating with him. I told him I hoped he was being careful, and he brushed it off, saying everything was fine. But in hindsight, I realize those conversations were eerie — almost premonitions. 

What do you know about his arrest? 

The circumstances of his actual detention are still a little fuzzy. I know there are details I don’t know about, and I also understand now that some of the risks he was taking were a bit extreme. But that’s just him — if he had a story idea, he was going to pursue it to the nth degree and nothing was going to stop him. That’s what made him such a good journalist, though — his inability to be deterred.

Would I have taken those same risks? Probably not, but I don’t have the same sort of personal pull to tell the story that he does, so I completely understand what he was doing. He wasn’t naïve about the risks, but he didn’t expect them to turn into this. 

What can you tell us about the ensuing legal battle? 

[Ed: Berke noted that he could not go into detail, but offered to provide updates in broad strokes.]

The Dow Jones [Ed: The Wall Street Journal’s parent company] has a legal team in the US that has been working on lobbying in Washington, DC, at the State Department, and with people in positions of power that may be able to have an impact on the situation. He has a legal team in Russia too, though their mainly responsible for making sure he’s ok in prison. They visit him, and deal with the intricacies of the Russian legal system, and help get him food and clothes and other necessities. 

But in terms of the legal proceedings, he is still awaiting trial, so from a strategy perspective, there’s nothing his team can really do right now. Russia holds all the cards. It’s really a political situation; not a legal situation. [Ed: Regarding media reports of possible prisoner swaps], when two countries aren’t really communicating with each other, that complicates matters. A lot of moving parts need to fit perfectly into place to get prisoners home in these situations.

How have you managed to keep up with Evan since his arrest? 

Anyone can write him letters, though they have to be translated, written on a physical piece of paper by friends of Evan’s — other journalists in Moscow, and then he can respond in Russian using pen and paper, with his friends then translating the responses and emailing the English translations. It works, even if it is a bit of a broken game of telephone, which makes the letters feel a bit stilted. I mean, it’s [2024]; it’s a bit awkward for two 31-year-old guys to become pen pals. 

How is he doing now? 

He’s okay. Despite the circumstances, he’s holding up. He fills his time with reading, watching TV, cooking — lots of pasta sauces. If anyone could mentally detail with the situation and find ways to keep themselves going through it all, despite the indeterminate time period, it’s him. He’s probably befriended the prison guards. He can really draw anyone to him; he has a supernatural ability to do that. 

You’ve really painted a picture of an optimistic, resilient reporter. Do you think this will help him re-acclimate once he is released?  

I think if anyone has the strength and courage to get through this, to be undimmed and to continue their mission of reporting once this is all over, it’s him. But this is a very, very difficult situation, so the longer it goes on, the more we worry about how it will be for him to reintegrate into society. … You can’t expect anyone to become a super hero after an experience like this. Mental health can be precarious, as we all know, so we know it will be a process.

How can readers support Evan?

Supporters can write to Evan and support his cause by visiting the Free Evan Gershkovich website. They can also donate funds to his defense via GoFundMe