Inside a Moscow prison, Evan Gershkovich is waiting. He is joking about how the TV in his cell doesn’t carry the matches of his beloved Arsenal F.C., his friends say. And as the American journalist accused of spying remains imprisoned for what could be months or years, he is reading.
“Life and Fate,” a novel about a Soviet society torn apart by war, is one of the books he has, his friends say, as he is held in Lefortovo prison days after Russia’s Federal Security Service arrested the Moscow-based Wall Street Journal reporter and charged him with espionage. Gershkovich, along with the Journal and the U.S. State Department, has denied Russia’s accusations of spying. His appears to be the first case of Russia arresting a foreign journalist and accusing him of espionage since the end of the Cold War.
“It’s deeply ironic he’s reading that book in jail now,” said Pjotr Sauer, a friend of Gershkovich’s and a journalist who covers Russia and Ukraine for the Guardian.
Since Gershkovich was arrested during a reporting trip in the city of Yekaterinburg in the Urals in late March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has denounced the espionage charges against the “wrongfully detained” journalist, who could face up to 20 years in prison if he’s convicted.
“There is no fair trial in Russia, period,” said Joey Reed, the father of Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who was detained in Russia in 2019 and released last year in a prisoner exchange. “That’s what Evan and his family are up against.”
Gershkovich, 31, was honored this week by the National Press Club with its highest award for press freedom for his “dedicated and courageous” reporting in Russia. President Biden has urged Russia to “let him go,” and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) issued a rare joint statement Friday, demanding Gershkovich’s release.
Friends and colleagues who spoke to The Washington Post emphasized how they’ve come together to do whatever they can to help free Gershkovich — a high school soccer star in New Jersey, a philosophy major in Maine, a curious reporter in Russia.
“We miss him,” said Polina Ivanova, a Financial Times correspondent covering Russia and Ukraine who is one of Gershkovich’s friends. “And we’re waiting for him.”
‘He was the leader’
Born Oct. 26, 1991, in New Jersey, Gershkovich grew up speaking Russian with his parents, who left the Soviet Union as part of the Jewish migration wave, he said in a 2020 interview published by his alma mater, Bowdoin College. Around the early 1980s, his parents, Ella and Mikhail, fled for the United States and met in Detroit. They married and later settled in New York and New Jersey, where they raised Evan and his elder sister, Dusya.
Even though the family was a long way from Russia, his mother practiced superstitions from the motherland in their home, such as prohibiting whistling or opening umbrellas indoors and forbidding setting keys or wallets on the dinner table. He acknowledged in Hazlitt magazine that while he “actively broke” his mother’s Russian rituals, they were “a reminder of a home I’m in danger of forgetting.” He found himself eating macaroni with butter instead of cheese, and watching the Soviet cartoon “Nu, pogodi!” instead of Nickelodeon’s “Hey Arnold!”
One of the early bridges between his Russian heritage and American life was soccer, and it wasn’t long before he started playing youth league and following the English Premier League. Thatcher Foster, one of his oldest friends from Princeton, N.J., still smiles when thinking of them growing up together, playing soccer starting at age 7 and eventually listening to “angsty teen music” around weekend bonfires in high school until 3 a.m.
“He was the leader,” said Foster, who now lives in Brooklyn.
In 2009, Gershkovich’s senior year at Princeton High School, penalty kicks were about to decide a game at a tournament for the boys’ soccer team in Mercer County. Wayne Sutcliffe, his coach, didn’t hesitate to turn to his four-year varsity letterman and captain in a crucial spot. Gershkovich delivered, burying not one but two penalties in the lower right corner to give them a win in a season that ended in a state championship.
“He was really at his best under pressure,” Sutcliffe said.
An endless curiosity
After graduating from high school, he attended Bowdoin, a private liberal arts college in Brunswick, Maine. While Gershkovich played on the men’s soccer team for a year, he focused on his studies as a major in philosophy and English, and worked as a cook at Jack Magee’s, the campus pub. By his sophomore year, he moved into an on-campus residence known as Ladd House, where he deepened bonds with roughly 20 classmates who would become his core group at the small school.
“He was friends with everyone from every sort of group,” said Nora Biette-Timmons, a friend from Bowdoin and deputy editor at Jezebel who worked with Gershkovich on the student newspaper. “He also had an innate curiosity that helped him realize that journalism could satiate his endless curiosity.”
Matt Mathias lived with Gershkovich in Ladd House and eventually at an off-campus house on Cleaveland Street their senior year, the home of deep conversations among friends. When it was suggested that they do a road trip through the South after graduation in 2014, one that would include party spots such as New Orleans and Nashville, Gershkovich recommended a detour through the Mississippi Delta that initially puzzled Mathias. Gershkovich was curious about a part of the country he hadn’t visited.
“We spent the night in Greenville, Mississippi, and we went to this convenience store and ate pickled pigs’ feet,” said Mathias, of Portland, Maine. “And, frankly, it was the highlight of our entire trip and it was because of Evan.”
‘I’m a journalist, I just do my job’
Gershkovich’s path to Russia wasn’t a straight one. He worked for an environmental rights nongovernmental organization in Southeast Asia and a catering company in New York before landing at the New York Times as a news assistant. He accepted a job at the Moscow Times, an English-language newspaper, in 2017 that would bring him to Russia and kick-start his international reporting career.
His friends and colleagues say he loved his life in Russia, where the man they lovingly refer to as “Vanya” — derived from a Hebrew name meaning “God is gracious” — thrived personally and professionally. He spent his weekends chatting up friends and strangers in the banya, or sauna; mused about starting a side business to bring New York bagels to Moscow; and watched American content that kept him connected to where he was raised — “Seinfeld,” “Succession,” New York Mets games, Instagram videos of people chopping food at a ridiculous speed.
Gershkovich and his journalist friends would rent a cabin outside Moscow as their own writers’ retreat to get away from the craziness of covering the covid-19 pandemic’s toll on Russia and the war in Ukraine — skiing in the winter, picking mushrooms in the fall, barbecuing in the summer. Friends spoke of the joy he had in cooking fish tacos and preparing Olivier salad, a traditional Russian dish served around New Year’s Eve.
“I have to say that he makes the salad better than my mom,” Ivanova said, laughing.
In January 2022, after a year with Agence France-Presse, Gershkovich joined the Wall Street Journal. It was less than two months before the invasion started, and Gershkovich was well aware of the risks of reporting in Russia, his friends say.
“We discussed his risks and we thought the worst-case scenario was that maybe [Russia] would cancel his accreditation,” said Masha Borzunova, an independent journalist who debunks Russian propaganda on YouTube. “We knew that Russia could start criminal cases against anyone, but that it was impossible to start a criminal case against a foreign journalist who worked in Russia and had accreditation. Evan always said to me, ‘I’m a journalist, I just do my job.’”
Added Ivanova, “He was telling the story of the war to the world that was honest and true.”
Gershkovich himself saw and felt the fear that had further seeped into the pores of Russia, a place he loved so much that had seen its dark mood stomp out the light: “Reporting on Russia is now also a regular practice of watching people you know get locked away for years,” he tweeted in July.
About eight months later, he was arrested.
reporting on Russia is now also a regular practice of watching people you know get locked away for years
— Evan Gershkovich (@evangershkovich) July 12, 2022
Where is Gershkovich?
Ivanova, Sauer and Borzunova knew something was wrong when they didn’t hear much from Gershkovich after the morning of March 29. When Sauer got a call from Gershkovich’s father asking whether he knew where his son was, the Guardian journalist felt sick.
On the other side of the world, Biette-Timmons was half-asleep and didn’t have her eyeglasses on when she saw her friend’s last name pop up on as a notification on her phone. She thought it was her friend texting her to catch up, but it was a push alert reporting Gershkovich’s arrest.
“I collapsed, honestly,” she said.
Borzunova kept getting the same message from friends: Where is Evan? After she arrived at Ivanova’s apartment, they looked at their screens in disbelief as they watched a video of Gershkovich being escorted into a Moscow courtroom with a hood over his head.
“I cried a lot,” Borzunova recalled. “I felt like there was a big black hole inside me.”
More than a week after his arrest, friends from all stages of his life have come together to support Gershkovich and his family, working with U.S. government officials on what can be done for his release, sharing photos and stories of their friend on a website and Twitter account created in his honor. Some of his friends are ordering and reading “Life and Fate” in what’s become a #FreeEvan book club.
After Gershkovich met up with Ivanova and Sauer in Hanoi in late February and early March, to eat all the noodles and learn about the local culture, the American journalist was planning the next adventure in a life that’s been full of them.
“Obviously,” Sauer said, “I could not think it would be the last time I would see him for a while.”
Gershkovich had plans to hang out with Sauer, Borzunova and others in Berlin this weekend. Instead, he’ll be in his cell, waiting and reading, wondering what the next chapter will be.