The commanding officer of the Russian troops in Liman (Ukraine) must have felt a mixture of surprise and terror. It was September 2022 and Kiev's troops were besieging this small town in eastern Ukraine occupied by Russia in the middle of last summer's counteroffensive. The Russian soldiers were unable to resist the onslaught. These men, poorly coordinated and poorly equipped, were being surrounded by the Ukrainians thanks to the artillery provided by the West. Casualties numbered in the dozens. There was no choice but to retreat when, suddenly, the phone rang. A call from Moscow over an encrypted line. He was neither one of those responsible for the invasion nor a senior general who knew firsthand what was happening on the ground. It was Vladimir Putin himself. And his orders were clear: "Don't back down."
This episode served Evan Gershkovich and three other comrades as the start of a report to reconstruct the bubble of disinformation in which the Russian president supposedly lives since the beginning of the war. Gershkovich, the correspondent of the American newspaper The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in Moscow, was arrested on March 29 by the FSB (the secret services heirs of the Soviet KGB) and accused of espionage. Since then he has been held in solitude in a 12-square-meter cell in Moscow's Lefortovo prison, built during the Stalinist period and reserved for foreign agents and dissidents. The US government has declared him "unjustly detained", forcing the State Department to create a specific office to work for his release and his arrest has provoked reactions from dozens of media and human rights organizations demanding his release. After nine weeks in prison, his newspaper is campaigning globally for his release.
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 seeks with the arrest of its journalist. "Evan's is not about his work. Maybe he exposed himself a little, but he was not very different from any other correspondent," says David Luhnow, director of the London bureau of the WSJ, who last Wednesday participated in Madrid in the seminar entitled "Journalism in conflict zones. Ukraine-Russia", organized by the Larra Journalism Laboratory in Madrid.
"I think his arrest comes after a very cold calculation: an American journalist had to be detained because for Russia he has a strategic value; according to them, the United States is the main enemy," Luhnow maintains. According to the publisher, with Gershkovich's imprisonment, 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 it to exchange it for other people," something that already happened with the basketball player Brittney Griner, arrested after finding cannabis oil among her belongings, and later exchanged for the arms dealer Viktor Bout.
"But, at the same time, they intend to freeze the international coverage of their country," the editor continues. "Russian journalists can no longer cover their country; they can't 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, stop having 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 jailed 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 the rest of the newspaper is to prevent everyday news from burying Gershkovich's case. "What we are trying to do is keep the focus on Evan, something that can influence diplomatic pressure on Russia," continues the director of the WSJ's main European office. "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 left you alone."
Journalist Evan Gershkovich in an image from his website.
Belgorod, 14 September 2022
Belgorod and its region just 40 kilometers from the northern border of Ukraine, appear these days in the media as one of the preferred targets of drone attacks and sabotage from paramilitaries loyal to Kiev in response to the massive Russian bombing of its territory. But on September 14, 2022, when Evan Gershkovich went there, the news in that Russian city was that Kharkiv, on the other side of the line but a scant hour's drive away, had been retaken by the Ukrainian army after its capture by Russia in February. The advance made Belgorod a destination for hundreds of Ukrainian migrants (more than 1,300) who had worked for the occupation 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. Astonished. "People believed the Russian troops when they told us, 'We won't leave you,'" said one of these migrants. "We don't understand what happened," he added.
The correspondent now imprisoned in the sinister prison of Leftovo is a reporter. Someone who moves to a place and tells what he sees. His chronicles are full of quotation marks. From 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 signed several articles with him, explains that facility. "He's a guy who in Russia is very nice. Russian can be a very formal language, but he learned it in his family, from his parents, which made him very close." Hinshaw recalls how on occasion, in official press appearances, he caused laughter among his Russian colleagues. "There were these ministers or important people and when the time came when it was Evan's turn to speak, it seemed that he spoke with the impudence of a child. "He's a normal guy, he's a football fan and loves music, maybe that would make him a nice person for anyone."
Gershkovich, like any other correspondent in Russia, was aware that his phone was tapped, according to Hinshaw. His writing partner explains that, since the war in Ukraine stopped going well and the Russian army had to retreat in the direction of the east of the country, he felt a greater 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 care," Hinshaw recalls. The journalist never thought he could be arrested. "He had official permission from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so I thought that if the Kremlin didn't like his job, the biggest problem he could have is that his accreditation would be 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 with the work he left unpublished. The son of a Russian father (born in St. Petersburg) and a Ukrainian mother (from Odessa), both emigrated to the United States in 1979, but the language that was always spoken at home was Russian. When the FSB agents came for him, he had just finished a report on Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin's group of mercenaries who, despite fighting side by side with Russian forces in Bakhmut, maintain a public confrontation with the leadership of the Russian army and with the Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu. But at the time he was arrested, he was already preparing other information about Paul Whelan, the former US marine arrested in Moscow in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison for alleged espionage when he attended a wedding. Gershkovich, without foreseeing it, has suffered the same fate as him.
David Luhnow, moments before his meeting with EL PAÍS. Andrea Comas
Pskov, 1 March 2023
The war in Ukraine is already well advanced and Russia has had to retreat for months to the east and south of the country. This eastern Russian city attached to Estonia, of about 210,000 inhabitants, is the headquarters of the 76th Air Assault Division of the Russian Army, the special forces unit that was responsible for occupying the Ukrainian city of Bucha, near Kiev, causing one of the most sadly known massacres of the invasion with at least 340 civilians killed. Almost a year has passed since that tragedy and in Pskov, a depressed city in which the army is practically the only job for the majority of the population, they do not stop carrying coffins of soldiers. Gershkovich sees in situ how, despite the tragedy, the population's support for the invasion continues to be closed. Even among the relatives of the dead soldiers, it is closed. The Kremlin's propaganda machine works.
Three months after that chronicle, WSJ journalists travel the world so that the daily news about the war does not cause their own to be forgotten. Every Wednesday, in commemoration of the day of the week he was arrested, a wave of tweets calling for his release comes from his colleagues' computers. Their bosses star in events and give interviews to the most important media in the world so that their name remains in the headlines, while their colleagues come to each coverage with pins that read #IStandWithEvan (I'm with Evan). One of his colleagues in the Germany office translates letters for him 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 Luhnow says keeps him strong. "He has received letters from Cuba, from Iran, from China... Even from the Mexican highlands," says its editor.
The way his friend Hinshaw keeps him company is by reading the same books as him. "Now he is with Life and Fate, by 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 partner. Grossman, like Gershkovich, covered a conflict—World War II—in Russia and Ukraine. Life and Fate, his masterpiece written in 1952, was banned by the Soviet regime for its criticism of Stalinism and could not be published until 1980 from a secret draft. Hinshaw waits for his friend Evan to tell him what his new reading will be. "With the next novel, I will do the same."
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