The commanding officer of the Russian troops in Lyman (Ukraine) must have felt a mixture of surprise and terror. It was September 2022 and Kiyv’s troops had the small Russian-occupied town in eastern Ukraine under siege during last summer’s counteroffensive. The Russian soldiers were unable to resist the onslaught. The poorly coordinated and poorly equipped men were being surrounded by the Ukrainians thanks to artillery provided by the West. Casualties numbered in the dozens. There was nothing left to do but retreat when suddenly the phone rang. A call from Moscow over an encrypted line. It was not a government official in charge of the invasion or a senior general with first-hand knowledge of what was happening on the ground. It was Vladimir Putin himself. And his orders were clear: “Do not retreat.”
This episode became the start of a report that Evan Gershkovich and three other colleagues would use to reconstruct the bubble of disinformation that the Russian president has allegedly been living in since the beginning of the war. Gershkovich, the Moscow correspondent for the U.S. daily newspaper The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), was arrested on March 29 and charged with espionage by the FSB (the Russian secret service, successors to the Soviet KGB). Since then, he has been held in solitary confinement in a cell that is 12 square meters in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, built during the Stalinist period and reserved for foreign agents and dissidents. The U.S. government has declared him “unjustly detained,” forcing the State Department to create a specific office to secure his release, and his arrest has provoked reactions from dozens of media and human rights organizations also demanding that he be freed. After nine weeks in prison, his newspaper is campaigning around the world for his freedom.
We held a roundtable in Madrid discussing press freedom and the work of journalists in conflict zones. We discussed the case of Evan Gershkovich - unjustly imprisoned in Russia. #IStandWithEvan pic.twitter.com/0wnAhsE2Xd— David Luhnow (@davidluhnow) May 31, 2023
The WSJ is clear about what Russia is seeking with the arrest of its journalist. “Evan’s thing has nothing to do with his job. He may have been a bit exposed, but he was no different from any other correspondent,” says David Luhnow, director of the WSJ’s London bureau, who last Wednesday participated in a seminar entitled “Journalism in Conflict Zones. Ukraine-Russia”, organized by the journalists’ association Laboratorio Larra, in Madrid.
“I think his arrest comes after a very cold calculation: an American journalist had to be arrested because he has a strategic value for Russia; according to them, the US is the main enemy,” Luhnow maintains. The editor believes that, with the imprisonment of Gershkovich, Moscow wants to get a “two-for-one.” On the one hand, “they have turned him into a pawn, a hostage to negotiate, to make a transaction. They want to use him, to exchange him for other people.” Something that has already happened with basketball player Brittney Griner, who, after cannabis oil was found among her possessions, was detained and later exchanged for arms dealer Viktor Bout.
“But, at the same time, they intend to freeze international coverage of their country,” the editor continues. “Russian journalists can no longer cover their country; they cannot do independent journalism,” Luhnow recalls. “Attacking a foreign journalist is the line they have decided to cross so that foreign media, which until now could do so, will no longer have a presence there; many have already left because it is not known what variables the Russian government has in mind. The next victim may be one of your reporters.”
“The irony is that they have imprisoned one of the reporters who loved Russia the most,” Luhnow explains. “His intention was to explain the world from the Russian point of view,” he adds. The intention of Luhnow and others at the newspaper is to prevent the daily news from burying the Gershkovich case. “What we’re trying to do is keep the focus on Evan, something that can influence diplomatic pressure on Russia,” the WSJ’s top European bureau chief continues. “But we also do it for him, because people who have been in similar situations always say that the hardest thing is not knowing what’s going on outside and believing that the world has abandoned you.”
Belgorod, September 14, 2022
Belgorod and its region, just 40 kilometers from Ukraine’s eastern frontier, is one of the favorite targets of drone and sabotage attacks by paramilitaries loyal to Kiyv in response to the massive Russian bombardment of its territory. But on September 14, 2022, when Evan Gershkovich went there, the news in that Russian city was that Kharkiv, across the border but barely an hour’s drive away, had been recaptured by the Ukrainian army after being seized by Russia in February. The breakthrough made Belgorod a destination for hundreds of Ukrainian migrants (more than 1,300) who had worked for the occupying authorities in the east of the country and feared being tried as collaborators. They arrived in the city disoriented and disappointed by what had happened. Stunned. “People believed the Russian troops when they told us, ‘We will not leave you,’” said one of these migrants. “We don’t understand what happened,” he added.
The correspondent now imprisoned in the sinister Leftovo prison is a reporter. Someone who moves to a place and relates what he sees. His articles are full of quotation marks representing the testimonies of anonymous people who, despite the repression of the Russian regime, dared to talk to him. His colleague Drew Hinshaw, who covers Central Europe for the WSJ and has co-written several articles with Gershkovich, describes the journalist’s character: “He’s a guy who goes down very well in Russia. The language may be very formal, but he learned it in his family, from his parents, which made him very approachable.” Hinshaw recalls how on occasion, at official press appearances, he made his Russian colleagues laugh. “There were these ministers or important people and when it came time for Evan’s turn to speak, he seemed to speak with the sass of a child. People laughed,” he says. “He’s a normal guy, he’s a soccer fan and loves music, maybe that would make him a nice person in anyone’s eyes.”
Gershkovich, like any other correspondent in Russia, was aware that his phone was tapped, according to Hinshaw. His editorial colleague explains that, since the war in Ukraine stopped going well and the Russian army had to retreat eastwards, he felt increased pressure — something that also happened with colleagues from other media. “He once told me he was aware that he had been followed, but he didn’t think anything of it,” Hinshaw recalls. The journalist never thought he could be arrested. “He had official permission from the Russian Foreign Ministry, so he thought that if the Kremlin didn’t like his work, the most trouble he might have would be getting his accreditation withdrawn at the next renewal, so he would have to leave the country.”
His imprisonment is surrounded by paradoxes that have to do with the conflict he covered and the work he left to publish. Gershkovich is the son of a Russian father (born in St. Petersburg) and a Ukrainian mother (from Odessa), who both emigrated to the United States in 1979, but the language spoken at home was always Russian. When the FSB agents went after him, he had just finished a report on Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mercenary group, which, despite fighting side by side with Russian forces in Bakhmut, is in open conflict with the Russian military leadership and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. But at the time he was arrested, he was already preparing other information about Paul Whelan, the former U.S. Marine arrested in Moscow in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison for alleged espionage while attending a wedding. Unbeknownst to him, Gershkovich was to meet the same fate.
Pskov, March 1, 2023
The war in Ukraine is now well underway and Russia had to retreat into the east and south of the country months ago. This eastern Russian city on the Estonian border, with a population of about 210,000, is the headquarters of the 76th Airborne Assault Division of the Russian Army; the special forces unit that was responsible for occupying the Ukrainian city of Bucha, near Kiev, and responsible for one of the most infamous massacres of the invasion with at least 340 civilians killed. Almost a year has passed since that tragedy, and in Pskov, a depressed city where for most people, the army is practically the only way out, soldiers’ coffins are still being brought home. Gershkovich reported from the city on how, despite the tragedy, support for the invasion remains firm. Even among the relatives of the military dead, it is strong. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine is working.
Three months after that feature, WSJ journalists are traveling the world to ensure that the daily news about the war does not cause one of their own to be forgotten. Every Wednesday, in commemoration of the day of the week on which he was arrested, a wave of tweets calling for his release is sent from his colleagues’ computers. His bosses speak at events and give interviews to the world’s biggest media outlets to keep his name in the headlines, while his colleagues turn up to every news location with pins reading #IStandWithEvan. In the German office, one of Evan’s colleagues translates letters from readers in different countries into Russian — the only language admitted by his jailers — so that he does not feel alone and receives the solidarity that, according to Luhnow, keeps him strong. “Letters have reached him from Cuba, Iran, and China. Even from the highlands of Mexico,” says the editor.
The way his friend Hinshaw keeps him company is by reading the same books he does. “He is now reading Life and Fate by the Ukrainian writer Vasily Grossman. We read it at the same time and then, when I finish it, I will send him a letter to comment on it,” explains his colleague. Like Gershkovich, Grossman covered a conflict — World War II — in Russia and Ukraine. Written in 1952, his masterpiece was banned by the Soviet regime for its criticism of Stalinism. A draft of the book was kept secret, and could not be published until 1980. Hinshaw is waiting for his friend, Evan, to tell him what his next read is going to be. “I’ll do the same with the next novel.”
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