Evan Gershkovich’s friends were worried about him.
“What are you doing?” his college roommate Simon Brooks asked him as they carpooled from New York City’s JFK Airport to a wedding in the Hamptons in the summer of 2022, months after Russia invaded Ukraine. “This is scary.”
But to Gershkovich, reporting on Russia for the Wall Street Journal was a dream job—an opportunity to help Western readers understand the country where his parents were born. “‘Look, if there were no international journalists reporting in Russia, then Russia would just be telling everyone that everything is okay,’” Brooks recalls Gershkovich responding. “The reason why you know it’s scary and you know it’s dangerous is because of journalists telling the truth.”
After they arrived at the wedding, Gershkovich’s friend Amanda Zalk asked him if he was afraid to go back to Russia. “I’m not scared,” she says he told her. “My American citizenship protects me. I’m an accredited journalist.”
Gershkovich’s citizenship and credentials didn’t protect him. On March 29, he was arrested on dubious charges of espionage while reporting a story in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, becoming the first American journalist imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges since the Cold War. (The Journal and the U.S. Government vehemently deny that Gershkovich is a spy; President Biden, members of Congress from both parties, and news organizations around the world, including TIME, have condemned his arrest and called for his immediate release.)
Read More: The Real Reason Russia Arrested Evan Gershkovich.
Now, with Gershkovich in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo prison, friends back home are grappling with how the achievement of his American dream could lead him into such a nightmare. Gershkovich is so gregarious, one jokes, that he resembled a golden retriever; a former roommate says he had a habit of banging pots and pans early on weekend mornings to rouse friends to hang out. Now he faces an uncertain fate almost entirely alone, in a prison infamous for its isolation.
“Our friend, a normal guy from New Jersey who grew up and went to college and followed his dreams just like any American kid is told to do, is now imprisoned now for an unknown amount of time,” says Zalk. “The world feels so much scarier and so much more random.”
Images of Gershkovich and friends in the U.S. provided by friend Jeremy Berke.
Born in the U.S. to Soviet Jews who fled Russia in the 1970s, Gershkovich enjoyed a typical soccer-filled childhood in suburban New Jersey. The family spoke Russian at home and retained some cultural superstitions, raising Gershkovich with a sense of Russian identity that he later sought to deepen. Friends in Brooklyn recall that he would frequently take them to Russian sections of Brighton Beach, where they would drink vodka at beachside restaurants as he’d practice his language skills.
Gershkovich went to Bowdoin College, where he made a close-knit group of friends before graduating in 2014. He soon landed a job at The New York Times, where he worked as an assistant to the public editor at the time, Margaret Sullivan, in a role that involved sorting through correspondence and helping her determine what to cover. Sullivan recalls Gershkovich as a hardworking assistant with good judgment, “a serious person who has serious ideas about journalism but is also great to be around because he’s cheerful and optimistic and upbeat.”
Friends from his tenure at the Times recall him as eager to use his fluency in Russian to report ambitious stories. In 2017, he decided to move to Russia and take a job at the Moscow Times to put that plan into action. After a stint at Agence France-Presse, he was hired by the Journal in Jan. 2022, just weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine. “He seemed so excited, so gobsmacked, so genuinely shocked at how well the journalism work had been going,” says Jazmine Hughes, a writer who has been friends with Gershkovich since his days as a Times assistant. “This is exactly what he’s always always wanted to do.”
“This was a calling,” says Jeremy Berke, a college friend who lived with Gershkovich in Brooklyn. “There was a huge need for people like him to go to Russia and communicate the stories of Russian people to a western audience in a way that made sense.” Over more than five years in Russia, he carved out a beat covering the changes in Russian culture—the shifts that came with generational change and economic trends. As the war broke out and dragged on, his coverage evolved as well. His last story, published just a day before his detention, was about how the war in Ukraine was straining the Russian economy.
Gershkovich knew the risks associated with being an American reporter in Russia. Two friends say he told them he was being followed by the FSB, Russia’s main security and counter-intelligence service and the modern-day successor to the infamous KGB. The Journal reported that on at least two instances, he was followed by security forces or filmed by unidentified men. “He was like, ‘This is just normal,” Berke recalls Gershkovich telling him. “He was not naive.” But friends don’t recall any sense of elevated risk in the days before his arrest. Brooks exchanged messages with Gershkovich joking about Brooks’s upcoming bachelor party.
News of the arrest quickly spread through a community of normal American 30-somethings who had never thought much about high-stakes international diplomacy. “When you hear from a kid who lived in your freshman dorm who you haven’t talked to in 10 years, and he’s calling you at 4:30 in the morning, you know something’s up,” recalls Brooks. “It felt like going through the looking glass,” says Berke.
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On April 7, Gershkovich was formally charged with espionage, according to Russian state media. He faces up to 20 years if convicted; acquittals in such state-run show trials are rare. While he has been able to meet with his lawyers, U.S. officials were still wrangling over consular access as of last week, a delay that National Security Council spokesman John Kirby called “inexcusable.” Down the line, it’s possible that he could be the focus of a prisoner swap, such as those the U.S. and Russia recently conducted which freed the basketball star Brittney Griner and the former Marine Trevor Reed.
For now, Gershovich’s uncertain fate is an “unimaginable horror” for his family, as his friend Amanda Zalk puts it. “They left the Soviet Union because they didn’t want to be imprisoned as Russian Jews,” Zalk says, “and here their son is in a Russian prison, 30 years later.”
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