Waiting for Evan, Putin’s ‘bargaining chip’ in Russian jail

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Danielle GershkovichImage source, National Press Club

One year ago Danielle Gershkovich got a call from her mother. She could hardly believe the news.

Her younger brother, Evan, a reporter with the Wall Street Journal, had just been arrested: he was the first US journalist in Russia since the Cold War to be charged with espionage. The maximum possible punishment: 20 years in prison.

“It’s been a really difficult year,” Danielle tells me by video call from Washington. “The uncertainty is very hard to deal with.”

Writing letters helps. The jailed American journalist has been sending plenty from prison.

“The best way to support one another is to keep things light,” Danielle says. “We have a lot of sibling banter back and forth, a lot of teasing with love.

“I recently asked him if it’s OK for me see the Dune movie, the sequel. I felt guilty about seeing it, because he can’t.

Evan and Danielle

Image source, National Press Club

Evan’s ordeal began one thousand miles from Moscow in the city of Yekaterinburg. On a reporting trip there, he was detained by the FSB, Russia’s domestic security service. The Russian authorities say the American was “caught red-handed” with “classified information”. He, his employer and the US authorities fiercely deny the spying charge.

Locked away in a Russian jail, Evan is still managing to surprise his family.

“On International Women’s Day he arranged for the women in his life to receive bouquets. We want him to focus on himself and there he was taking care of us. He supports the people in his life. We really miss him.”

Since Evan Gershkovich’s arrest, here in Moscow we have had few opportunities to see him.

True, he has made several court appearances in the last 12 months. And sometimes the media is allowed in to film him.

For no longer than a minute.

For us, that is just enough time to get a rough sense of how Evan is holding up.

For Evan, it is a chance to spot some familiar faces.

Evan during trial

Image source, Reuters

But when Evan appeared in court this week no journalists were let in. No explanation was given. Instead, the Moscow City Courthouse filmed and released its own footage of the American journalist as he stood in the courtroom in a glass cage.

That video was just six seconds long.

At the end of the hearing a judge ruled that Evan Gershkovich must stay in pre-trial detention.

“It’s just complete, total and utter nonsense. Evan is not a spy. He’s a journalist,” Emma Tucker, editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal, tells me.

“Like a lot of reporters a year ago, people were already wary about reporting from Russia. News outlets had begun to withdraw correspondents. They were treading very carefully. So, the arrangement with Evan was that he was based in London and was going in [to Russia] for two or three weeks at a time, and then coming out again.

“He’d been writing a lot of interesting reports on the state of the Russian economy in light of the Ukraine war. This was the sort of piece he was doing.”

Evan Gershkovich is being kept in Moscow’s Lefortovo jail. Built in Tsarist times, it has held some of Russia’s most high-profile inmates over the years, including political prisoners and dissidents. During the Great Terror of Joseph Stalin, torture and execution were commonplace. Former inmates have spoken of an unnerving sensation of total isolation.

“He is managing. He is in good health,” says US ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy, one of the few people allowed to visit Evan in Lefortovo.

“One of the things that has really struck me is how important correspondence has been for him. Corresponding with his family, friends and people he has never met before has really energised him. It gives him focus and something to work for in terms of the day when he gets out.”

Evan with family

Image source, National Press Club

The US government has designated Evan Gershkovich “wrongfully detained.”

“The insinuation that he was somehow engaging in some kind of criminal activity is just flat-out false,” insists Ambassador Tracy. “The message is: release him now.”

Referring to Evan Gershkovich last month, Vladimir Putin said that he would “like him to go home eventually. I say this sincerely.”

But there is a “but”.

From the unsubtle hints Moscow’s been dropping, it is clear that the Kremlin wants something – or rather someone – in return. That someone is thought to be FSB security service officer Vadim Krasikov, who is serving a life sentence for murder in Germany.

Lynne Tracy, US Ambassador to Russia

The Russian authorities barely hide the fact that they see Evan Gershkovich as a bargaining chip.

“I think it’s pretty clear that [Evan] was picked up in order to be traded,” believes Emma Tucker.

“It’s often referred to as hostage diplomacy, which I absolutely hate because there’s nothing diplomatic about what’s going on. Evan is a hostage. He is a bargaining chip. Putin is holding him as currency. And that is just the brutal reality of it. It makes it very difficult for governments to know how to approach this. Because there’s a lot at stake here, including what might happen in the future.”

“Russia is stockpiling Americans in its jails in order to be able to trade them at a later date,” says Emma Tucker.

And Russia knows that America trades.

One example. In December 2022 Washington and Moscow carried out a prisoner exchange, trading US basketball player Brittney Griner, who had been sent to a Russian penal colony for having cannabis oil in her luggage, for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Paul Whelan and Alsu Kurmasheva

Image source, AFP/Reuters

Among the Americans currently in prison here is former marine Paul Whelan. In 2020 he was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in a penal colony. As in the case of Evan Gershkovich, US officials have designated Mr Whelan “wrongfully detained”.

Last year Alsu Kurmasheva, a journalist with Prague-based Radio Free-Europe-Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), was arrested in Russia. Ms Kurmasheva holds American and Russian passports. She was making a short trip to Russia to visit her ailing mother.

She was initially fined for failing to declare her US citizenship. But the accusations grew more serious. She has now been charged with spreading “false information” about the Russian armed forces over a book she helped to edit, which contains criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If convicted Alsu Kurmasheva could face up to 15 years in prison.

Her friends and family maintain the case against her is politically motivated. They are calling on the US authorities to designate her, too, “wrongfully detained”.

The ordeal of those behind bars is shared by their families.

“To me, this will always be about my brother, getting him home,” Danielle Gershkovich tells me. “He’s an innocent man. His friends and family miss him so much. But, of course, it’s also about journalism and freedom of speech. The world needs him too.”

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