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How Evan’s love for Russia landed him in prison

The annals of history are filled with mostly pretty bad years, but 1991 was one of those rare good ones.

It was the year in which the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was finally and formally dissolved and the Cold War came to an end.

The mood of optimism was everywhere and inescapable; We “watched the world awaken from history,” as British rock group Jesus Jones sang in their hit “Right Here, Right Now.”

Future Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was born in 1991 to Russian émigré parents who settled in New Jersey.

Over the course of Mr. Gershkovich’s 32.5 years, the optimistic mood that was so strong in the 1990s gradually faded and then disappeared completely.

On Friday he will spend a full year in a Moscow prison as he faces possible criminal proceedings on bogus espionage charges.

Meanwhile, the Russia he covered slides further into repression and crime, with figures who oppose leader Vladimir Putin being silenced and killed.

It is a place where U.S. citizens can suddenly be arrested and used as bargaining chips in a larger, broader geopolitical battle.

According to Paul Beckett, a colleague of Mr. Gershkovich at the Wall Street Journal, the detention of U.S. citizens has become “a business for Putin broadly.”

“There is an element of hostage-taking that gives Putin the opportunity to maneuver the U.S.,” Beckett said.

The detentions of U.S. citizens were “horrible,” he said, but the arrest of a foreign journalist also had “a massive chilling effect on reporting on Russia.”

“Every American reporter who was [in Moscow] Left [after Mr Gershkovich’s arrest]and most of the U.S. news organizations that had offices there left,” he said.

“Now you see that many major American news organizations are reporting on Russia from Warsaw, Berlin, Tbilisi and Dubai; These are all Moscow correspondents in exile. The independent Russian media have also left; they are also in Berlin. It has had a huge chilling effect and essentially paves the way for Putin’s propaganda to take hold.”

Other experts agree.

Anton Troianovski, Moscow bureau chief of the New York Times (one of the few remaining), warned in a recent Vanity Fair article: “The idea that it is dangerous to talk to Western journalists is very very, very deeply rooted “many, many Russians now”.

In an interview with US broadcaster Tucker Carlson last month, Putin gave hope to Mr Gershkovich’s supporters, hinting that he would “possibly return to his homeland” – but stressed that the negotiations must remain secret.

This insistence on secrecy can put friends and supporters of an imprisoned person in a terrible situation, as they do not know whether to advocate for their release or hope that “quiet diplomacy” will achieve the desired result.

For the Journal, “quiet diplomacy” was not an option after Mr. Gershkovich was arrested by the Federal Security Service in Yekaterinburg on March 29, 2023, while researching a story about the private military outfit Wagner Group.

“They publicly accused our man of being a spy, so we had to come back very, very loudly,” Mr. Beckett said.

“And very early on someone who knows this stuff very well told us that there are times when you have to be loud and there are times when you have to be quiet and this is the time when you Must be loud.”

This volume has not decreased in a year. The hashtag “I Stand With Evan” is still widely shared on social media; Ella and Mikhail, Mr Gershkovich’s parents, were guests of honor at US President Joe Biden’s recent State of the Union address; and the issue reached an increasingly rare feat in American politics when the House of Representatives unanimously supported a motion denouncing the arrest.

But with the U.S. presidential election approaching, some observers fear this could end any chance of Mr. Gershkovich’s quick release.

“I would be very surprised if we see any movement in the Evan Gershkovich case by the end of the US presidential election,” Dr. Jessica Accuer, Lecturer in International Relations at Flinders University.

“There is no love lost between President Putin and President Biden, and there is no motivation for President Putin to show any kind of goodwill ahead of the US election.” And if Donald Trump becomes president, it will be very valuable for Putin to have one “To have a card in his hand that he can then use.”

Mr. Beckett told the Wall Street Journal that Mr. Gershkovich’s family and friends “are relying on President Biden’s promise to Evan’s family to bring him home.”

“We know we won’t be privy to all the details, but we remain optimistic,” he said.

Mr. Gershkovich himself remains in isolation in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison.

Despite having just one hour of daylight a day on a tiny farm, Mr Beckett said he had access to letters from family and supporters and his writing showed his sense of humor had not deserted him.

Reports from lawyers and American Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy, who regularly visit him, indicate that he is “doing well under the circumstances.”

“He’s working very hard to keep himself well,” Mr. Beckett said.

“I’m sure there’s a lot we don’t see, but he still managed to maintain his balance and we’re very grateful for that.”

For Mr. Beckett, one of the many tragedies of the situation is that Mr. Gershkovich was a true Russophile.

“You have some foreign correspondents hanging around the embassies and internationally. Evan went and because his Russian was so good, he listened to Russian punk bands, he played on Russian soccer teams with Russians, and he loved hanging out in the pub with Russians.

“He just got involved and felt a great love for Russia and the Russians. In that respect he was a perfect foreign correspondent.”

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