US journalist marks a year in a Russian prison as courts keep extending his time behind bars

For Evan Gershkovich, the dozen appearances in Moscow’s courts over the past year have fallen into a pattern.

Guards take the American journalist from the notorious Lefortovo Prison in a van for the short drive to the courthouse. He’s led in handcuffs to a defendants’ cage in front of a judge for yet another hearing about his pretrial detention on espionage charges.

The proceedings are always closed. His appeals are always rejected, and his time behind bars is always extended. Then it’s back to Lefortovo.

Gershkovich was arrested a year ago Friday while on a reporting trip for The Wall Street Journal to the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg. The Federal Security Service, or FSB, alleges he was acting on U.S. orders to collect state secrets but provided no evidence to support the accusation, which he, the Journal and the U.S. government deny. Washington designated him as wrongfully detained.

The periodic court hearings give Gershkovich’s family, friends and U.S. officials a glimpse of him, and for the 32-year-old journalist, it’s a break from his otherwise largely monotonous prison routine.

“It’s always a mixed feeling. I’m happy to see him and that he’s doing well, but it’s a reminder that he is not with us. We want him at home,” Gershkovich’s mother, Ella Milman, told The Associated Press.

Although Gershkovich is often seen smiling in the brief appearances in open court, friends and family say he finds it hard to face a wall of cameras pointing at him as if he were an animal in a zoo.

Ahead of the most recent one on Tuesday, Milman was particularly interested to see him. She was waiting, she said, for “a big reveal” — Gershkovich’s cellmate had given him a haircut.

But the hearing itself offered no new revelations on his case: He was ordered to remain behind bars pending trial at least until June 30 — the fifth extension of his detention.

When Gershkovich was arrested a year ago — the first U.S. journalist taken into custody on espionage charges since Nicholas Daniloff in 1986 at the height of the Cold War — it came as a shock, even though Russia had enacted increasingly repressive laws on freedom of speech after the invasion of Ukraine.

“He was accredited by the Russian Foreign Ministry. There was nothing to suggest that this was going to happen,” said Emma Tucker, the Journal’s editor-in-chief.

The son of Soviet emigres who settled in New Jersey, Gershkovich moved to Russia in 2017 to work for The Moscow Times newspaper before being hired by the Journal in 2022.

“He absolutely loved it,” Milman said of her son’s life in Moscow.

He threw himself into work and became close friends with other reporters. They spent evenings, weekends and holidays together — at traditional Russian saunas, cycling around Moscow or having barbecues in the countryside.

Those friends are now among the most vocal advocates for his release.

“For us, it’s got to the level where if we can see Evan smiling in the courtroom — that stuff that brings us a lot of happiness. It’s reassuring that he’s still not been broken by it,” said Washington Post correspondent Francesca Ebel.

His supporters say that is remarkable, given that Gershkovich is being held in Lefortovo, a notorious czarist-era prison used during Josef Stalin’s purges, when executions were carried out in its basement.

Gershkovich is not allowed phone calls and wakes up “every morning to the same gray prison wall. … To think that he’s been doing that every day for the past year is just horrible,” said his friend, Polina Ivanova of the Financial Times.

He’s allowed out of his cell for a hour a day to exercise. He spends the rest of his time largely reading books in English and Russian and writing letters to friends and family who try to make sure he stays up to date with current affairs and gossip.

That includes following his favorite English soccer team, Arsenal, which is having one of its best seasons, even though scores usually get to him about two weeks late. Gershkovich can see only limited highlights on Russian TV but is kept up to date by his friend, Pjotr Sauer of the British newspaper, the Guardian.

“He is very happy about how Arsenal is playing but obviously upset he can’t see it for himself,” Sauer said.

Mikhail Gershkovich writes his son about chess strategy because his cellmate doesn’t like the game. They also discuss artificial intelligence because “he wants to be current when he comes back,” his father said.

No one knows when that might be.

The Biden administration is seeking the release of Gershkovich, who faces 20 years in prison. Russia’s Foreign Ministry has said it would consider a prisoner swap — but only after a verdict in his trial, which has not yet begun.

U.S. Ambassador Lynne Tracy, who was in court again Tuesday for his latest hearing, said the charges against Gershkovich “are fiction” and that Russia is “using American citizens as pawns to achieve political ends.”

Since invading Ukraine, Russian authorities have detained several U.S. nationals and other Westerners, seemingly bolstering that idea.

President Vladimir Putin has said he believed a deal can be reached to free Gershkovich, hinting he would be open to swapping him for a Russian national in Germany who fits the description of Vadim Krasikov. He is serving a life sentence for the 2019 killing in Berlin of a Georgian citizen of Chechen descent.

U.S. officials made an offer to swap Gershkovich last year that was rejected by Russia, and the Biden administration has not made public any possible deals since then.

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, Gershkovich wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that “reporting on Russia is now also a regular practice of watching people you know get locked away for years.”

Fluent in Russian, Gershkovich knew the risks and, after his arrest, knew “right from the very start that this was going to take a long time,” Ebel said.

The Journal’s Tucker said she is “optimistic that 2024 will be the year Evan is freed but I’m also realistic,” noting that any negotiations for a swap are taking place against a “very febrile” backdrop.

That includes tensions with the West over the war in Ukraine, the recent attack on a Moscow concert hall and the U.S. presidential election.

Friends and family say Gershkovich is relying on his sense of humor to get through the days. Tracy said outside court Tuesday that he has displayed “remarkable resilience and strength in the face of this grim situation.”

From behind bars, he has organized presents for friends on their birthdays as well as sending flowers to important women in his life for International Women’s Day earlier this month.

“He is telling people not to freak out,” said Milman, noting that her son is a source of great pride for the family.

But as he enters his second year of detention, the strain on them is showing.

Every day, Milman said, “I wake up and look at the clock.”

“I think about if his lunchtime has passed, and his bedtime,” she said. “It’s very hard. It’s taking a toll.”

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