Hours before Russia’s federal security service, the FSB, came for him, my best friend, Evan Gershkovich, sent me a text. How will Arsenal, the football team we both passionately supported from childhood, perform after the international break? he asked. Was Gabriel Jesus finally ready to start his first game after injury? I texted back. Evan’s reply never came. His phone had gone silent.
Hours later, he would be arrested on a bogus espionage charge in Ekaterinburg during a reporting trip for his newspaper, the Wall Street Journal.
Details of the charges and evidence are being kept secret, but he is to be detained until 29 May. The only photos of Evan show him being dragged from a van into Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo prison. Some reports said that his sweater was pulled over his head as he was led out of a restaurant by FSB agents in order to slow news of his arrest.
The awful events of last Thursday would make Evan the first American journalist to be arrested and accused of spying in Russia since the cold war. And they would also show that no journalist, even a foreign reporter with accreditation from the government, was safe in the country any more.
After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Evan had bravely volunteered to return to Russia, a country that he had reported on for years, to show how it was changing in the wake of an unjust war.
Reporting on Russia is now also a regular practice of watching people you know get locked away for years
He did not think that he would be arrested. But he was also never naive about the risks that he was facing. In a tweet last summer, he wrote: “Reporting on Russia is now also a regular practice of watching people you know get locked away for years.”
It feels surreal now for his friends to have to report on his arrest. I first met Evan in September 2018 as I walked into the small office of the Moscow Times, a local English-language newspaper. Although I had almost no experience in journalism, Evan kindly took me under his wing and taught me the basics of the job.
Evan himself had arrived in the Russian capital a year earlier. A fluent Russian speaker, born to Soviet émigrés and raised in New Jersey, he left a comfortable job at the New York Times to fulfil his longtime dream of working as a reporter in Moscow. He wanted to be on the ground, he told me later, “where the action happens”.
Evan was always generous with his help and never jealous of others’ work (somewhat rare traits for a journalist). He made sure I felt at home in our small bureau in Moscow. After the coronavirus outbreak, we teamed up and covered the pandemic’s dramatic impact on Russia. He received international recognition for his series of stories that revealed how the authorities were systemically underplaying the pandemic’s true toll on society.
We quickly clicked outside work too, spending much of our time in the city’s banyas or skiing at a dacha outside Moscow that we rented with a group of other journalists.
He said he felt privileged to be able to report from inside the country when many of our Russian colleagues had to flee
But he made sure to venture outside the reporter’s bubble. He got to know struggling artists, successful businessmen and others in between. Nobody was too big or too small for his attention and care and his boundless curiosity was reflected in his work.
From covering forest fires in Siberia to anti-government protests in Moscow, Evan went out of his way to provide the reader with vivid, compassionate and painstakingly fact-checked stories.
His deep understanding of Russia and skilful prose quickly became evident to all. He was soon offered work at Agence France-Presse and then, later, at the Wall Street Journal, his dream job.
Like many journalists, Evan left Russia following the outbreak of the Ukraine war, temporarily settling in London. But, over the summer, he went back. He had a Russian visa and journalistic accreditation that were still valid and he felt it was his professional duty to report on arguably the biggest story of our generation.
I would try to see him as much as I could during his trips back from Russia. He said he felt privileged to be able to report from inside the country when many of our Russian colleagues and friends had to flee. As long as he could report from there, he said, he would continue to do so. As a journalist, I found it hard to disagree.
Countless times during his career Evan will have covered the conditions inside the Lefortovo jail where he will spend the next two months in a cramped cell. Now I spend my days and nights wondering how he feels stuck inside.
As the immediate media storm following his arrest passes, it will be of paramount importance to keep Evan in the spotlight and to push for his immediate release.
For years, Evan did everything he could to tell the story of modern Russia. It is now our turn to keep the light shining on him. I want to have my friend back.
Pjotr Sauer is a Russian affairs reporter for the Guardian
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