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Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich marks 1 year in Russian prison

NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images

(LONDON) — Friday marks a year since Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested in Russia. The first American reporter to be imprisoned by Moscow since the Cold War, he remains trapped in jail while the United States struggles to find a deal with Russia to free him.


Gershkovich, 32, has now spent 12 months in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison on espionage charges that his newspaper, dozens of leading international media organizations and the U.S. government have denounced as false. He has pleaded not guilty.

The fight to free Gershkovich has become a cause championed by defenders of press freedom around the world, as well as a grueling personal battle for his family. His detention has also changed how international media cover Russia, with most leading outlets no longer basing correspondents in the country.

In an interview this week with ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Gershkovich’s parents expressed hope that the Biden administration‘s efforts to have their son released, saying from prison he is also striving to keep their spirits up.

“I think if you let the pessimism in … the game is over,” Ella Millman, Gershkovich’s mother, told George Stephanopoulos in the interview. “And our saying in the family is we’re moving forward. Moving forward.”President Joe Biden has said bringing Gershkovich home is a top priority, and his administration has indicated it is continuing to negotiate with Russia to try to find a deal to release him.Gershkovich, who had worked as a journalist in Russia for several years and was accredited by the Russian foreign ministry, was detained by the FSB domestic intelligence agency last March while on a reporting trip in the city of Yekaterinburg. FSB officers seized him as he sat in a steak restaurant.

Since then, he has been kept mostly in a two-person cell in Lefortovo, a former KGB jail, awaiting trial. A court this week extended his pretrial detention for a fifth time. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison.

A native of New Jersey, Gershkovich worked for The New York Times as a news assistant before moving to Russia in 2017 to work first for The Moscow Times and later Agence France-Presse. His parents were Soviet Jewish émigrés, who left Russia in 1979, and Gershkovich grew up speaking Russian, later becoming fascinated with the country. He joined the Wall Street Journal in January 2022.

“Our main focus at the Journal has been to keep Evan’s story front and of mind, to remind people that an innocent journalist is behind bars, in prison of doing his job,” the Journal’s editor-in-chief Emma Tucker said in the “GMA” interview.

Gershkovich is one of several Americans seized by Russia in recent years — among them the WNBA star Brittney Griner — as part of an apparently intensifying campaign of hostage-taking. A former Marine, Paul Whelan, has been imprisoned since 2018 on espionage charges the U.S. and his family say are fabricated. Another U.S. journalist, Alsu Kurmasheva, working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has been in detention since October, charged under a law used to censor criticism of Russia’s military. Press freedom groups have condemned her arrest and joined RFE/RL in calling for her release.

Griner was released in a prisoner exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in December 2022.

In recent months, Russian officials have indicated that they view Gershkovich as a bargaining chip, hoping to exchange him for Russians held in Western countries. President Vladimir Putin, in an interview in February, said he wanted a deal with the U.S. to free Gershkovich. Putin signaled he may want to trade Gershkovich for Vadim Krasikov, a Russian man jailed in Germany as an FSB assassin.

The U.S. in December said Russia had rejected an offer that would have freed Gershkovich and Whelan.

President Biden has met with Gershkovich’s parents. He mentioned Gershkovich and Whelan in his State of the Union address in March, saying, “We’ll work around the clock to bring home Evan and Paul,” as Gershkovich’s parents sat in the audience.

“We were happy that both governments have expressed willingness to negotiate,” his father, Mikhail Gershkovich, told Stephanopoulos. “We are confident that [the White House is] doing everything they can, and we want them to continue to do that.”

The U.S. and the Kremlin have both indicated that talks about a deal are ongoing. Those close to the late Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who died in prison last month, have claimed there were discussions for a possible trade that would have freed Navalny, as well as Gershkovich and Whelan, in exchange for the Russian assassin, Krasikov.

The Wall Street Journal this week reported Biden and Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz had discussed such a trade but that Navalny had died before it could be proposed to Putin. Navalny’s team has accused Putin of killing Navalny to prevent the trade.

Tucker, the Wall Street Journal’s editor-in-chief, this week expressed confidence that a deal can still be reached.

“Evan will be released, but it’s complicated to get there,” she said. “There are a lot of different people and governments involved. So I think, you know, we just have to be patient, and optimistic.”

The Wall Street Journal has been leading an international campaign among his colleagues and friends to keep attention on Gershkovich’s case, including holding runs for him and 24-hour “read-a-thons” of his work. Time Magazine this month put Gershkovich on its front page.

Gershkovich is able to send and receive letters from prison, keeping in contact with friends and family, who say he retains his characteristic humor. He has even been arranging via others to have gifts delivered for friends’ birthdays and other occasions. The Journal has encouraged people to send letters to Gershkovich via its site.

“He remembers his friends’ birthdays. We received flowers from him for International Women’s Day on March 8,” his mother told ABC News. “He really cares. He wants to thank people for their care about him, for keeping his story front and center.”

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