A year in detention: Russia must release Evan Gershkovich

Today marks one year since Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was wrongfully detained in Russia on falsified espionage charges. He is currently weathering a blatantly unjust detention in Russia’s notorious Lefortovo prison in anticipation of a trial date that has yet to come. Gershkovich’s pretrial detention has so far been extended five times, including in a ruling just this week, condemning him to another three months behind bars.

Gershkovich’s year in captivity is an important reminder of the Kremlin’s still-escalating disregard for humanitarian and political norms at home and beyond its borders. US Ambassador to Russia Lynne M. Tracy called the extension of Gershkovich’s detention this week “particularly painful,” no doubt referring to the double hit of the blatant falsehood of Russia’s accusations against him and the future this portends for a journalist described by his friends and colleagues as “a great person” and a “great journalist” with an undeniable and inspiring passion for his profession.

Journalism is not a crime, and Putin cannot be allowed to collect foreign citizens as blackmail to support his ongoing violence in Ukraine.

Gershkovich’s calling, his colleagues have explained, is ensuring that the world is informed of the realities of Russia under President Vladimir Putin. He felt a particular responsibility to tell the stories left unpublished by other journalists forcibly silenced by the Russian government through detention or exile. As conditions for reporting from Russia continued to deteriorate under the Kremlin’s years-long efforts to shroud reality under its own propaganda, Gershkovich persevered. He was motivated by an understanding of the importance of his work and his commitment to “get the story right,” as he would tell his friends and colleagues.

Gershkovich embodies what Putin apparently fears: He is a journalist working to uncover the truth, to show the world for what it really is.

In his countless acts to deform the Russian judiciary, legislature, security forces, and other instruments of the state to his will, Putin has made it clear that he has little regard for the truth or for the rules and strictures that create a free society. He continues to exercise unimaginable levels of violence against Ukraine in his ongoing war of aggression, murdering its people, targeting its critical infrastructure and cultural heritage, and forcibly deporting its children. Within Russia, he has honed tactics for silencing critics and amassing power, including his use of the foreign agents and “undesirable organizations” laws that have impaired countless independent media outlets and civil society organizations. These same laws have been used to throw activists and members of the free press behind bars.

Gershkovich exemplifies what has largely motivated the Kremlin’s use of restrictive legislation with impunity: He is a journalist who works to bring light to the truth, one with global connections and a passion for freedom and justice. Thus, without gaining something significant from the United States or its allies, Putin and his government will likely have little intention of setting Gershkovich free, despite his clear innocence and the absurd nature of the charges against him.

Gershkovich is also not alone as a foreign citizen suffering at the hands of the Kremlin. Others detained in Russia include Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, who has been in pre-trial detention since October 18, and Paul Whelan, who has been in Russian custody since 2018 serving a sixteen-year sentence. Los Angeles resident and dual US-Russian citizen Ksenia Karelina was detained in Yekaterinburg on January 28, and a Russian court denied her appeal on February 29.

The Wall Street Journal has done extraordinary work to bring attention to Gershkovich’s plight—and to his resilience. Other organizations, such as the Washington Post through its Press Freedom Partnership, have raised awareness both of Gershkovich’s detention and of other members of the press who remain in captivity. In advocating for Kurmasheva’s release, RFE/RL has also called attention to other journalists in prison in Russia, including Gershkovich.

Russia should release Gershkovich and others unjustly held without cause at once. While it is unlikely the Kremlin will do what is right any time soon, Gershkovich’s struggle for freedom reminds us that he and the free press have a remarkable ability to persevere. This in itself undermines the Kremlin’s intentions to silence the truth forever and gives us hope for the improbable. In the context of Russia’s war, it is also important to remember that, as Jeane Cavelier of Reporters without Borders has stated, “journalists must not be used as bargaining chips in Moscow’s war against Kyiv.” Journalism is not a crime, and Putin cannot be allowed to collect foreign citizens as blackmail to support his ongoing violence in Ukraine. Gershkovich’s tenacity and resilience should motivate the global community to act with urgency and intention to secure his release.

Mercedes Sapuppo is a program assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. Follow her on Twitter @MKSapuppo.

Further reading

Image: Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich stands inside an enclosure for defendants before a court hearing to consider an appeal against his pre-trial detention on espionage charges in Moscow, Russia, September 19, 2023. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina