Russia arresting my friend Evan Gershkovich for spying is insulting and absurd

Evan Gershkovich - AFP via Getty Images
Evan Gershkovich - AFP via Getty Images

A natural-born reporter, Evan Gershkovich felt he had missed out on Russia’s golden age when he moved to Moscow in 2017.

The Kremlin has become out of bounds for journalists and the Russia story had fallen off the front pages.

Now Evan, who turned 31 in October, is in the news himself after he was arrested on suspicion of espionage making him the first American journalist arrested in Russia since 1986.

I have known Evan, or Vanya as his Russian friends call him, for five years as a kind friend and an excellent reporter. He loved journalism, and a mere suggestion that he may have been spying on Russia is insulting and simply absurd.

I first met Evan at a press conference for a Communist property mogul-turned-opposition presidential candidate.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor of a room chock-full of reporters and cameramen, Evan, with his disarming smile, asked the moustachioed candidate about taking on Putin at the polls.

The question, asked in an unnaturally colloquial form of Russian, made others smile -  it was one of Evan’s first news conferences, he was nervous and his Russian was still not up to scratch.

Just a few months earlier, the 26-year-old moved from New Jersey to Moscow to try his hand at foreign news reporting. Both of his parents were Russian speakers from the Soviet Union, and Evan was born just a few months before the Soviet empire collapsed.

Evan Gershkovich - EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA
Evan Gershkovich - EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA

Generations of award-winning journalists started their careers at the Moscow Times, a daily newspaper founded in the 1990s.

Evan, who grew to love playing ice hockey and going to the Russian banya in winter, was eager to follow in the footsteps of the reporters at the publication who came before him but unlike in the Moscow Times’s heyday, Russia was no longer a welcoming place for members of the press.

The Kremlin was becoming introspective. Decision-makers in the government no longer wanted to talk to reporters. And ordinary Russians, brainwashed by two decades of anti-Western propaganda, were increasingly hostile to foreigners and wary of speaking out in public as repressive laws started to target dissent.

A new addition to Moscow’s increasingly demoralised and jaded foreign press corps, Evan stood out for his enthusiasm and boundless curiosity.

He had never been to the former Soviet Union before he moved to Moscow, and his parents’ home country was a terra incognita to him.

At the Moscow Times, the cub reporter wrote about opposition protests in the provinces and the grass-roots environmental movement in the capital.

With the Kremlin ratcheting up restrictions on foreign press, Evan ended up being one of the rare English-speaking correspondents in Moscow that international newsrooms were desperate to poach.

By the age of 31, Evan was forging an impressive career having worked at the AFP news agency and most recently as one of the staff correspondents at the Wall Street Journal in Moscow.

War censorship laws

Evan was excited about a new job that promised more creative freedom and an opportunity to travel around Russia for stories.

Just a few months later, Russia invaded Ukraine and promptly adopted war censorship laws that essentially criminalised independent reporting of the war.

Like most of Moscow’s foreign press corps, Evan left for abroad.

But Russia’s foreign ministry soon started issuing new press visas and press credentials, making it look like foreign nationals were welcome to report there.

Evan, who was recently based in London, travelled to Russia a few times in the past 12 months, documenting, among other things, a lethargic Moscow drowning its sorrow in drinking and partying.

The news flow in Russia was monotonously grim.

“There are two kinds of news stories in Russia these days: someone’s been arrested, something’s been shut down,” Evan tweeted last summer.

Little did he know that nine months later, Evan himself would become the story.