‘He’s not broken’: a year later, Evan Gershkovich is still in Russian prison | Russia

Friday marks the grim first anniversary of the day when masked Russian officers grabbed Evan Gershkovich, an American journalist, at a steakhouse in Yekaterinburg where he was waiting to eat on a reporting trip.

Gershkovich, a 32-year-old reporter for the Wall Street Journal, has not seen a day of freedom since. He has been held in the infamous Lefortovo prison on the outskirts of Moscow, where the Soviet author Alexander Solzhenitsyn was once detained.

A half century later, Gershkovich is there on the grounds of spying charges that are entirely unsupported by evidence. Despite that glaring absence, a Moscow court held a closed hearing this week to grant the Federal Security Service (FSB) approval to hold the journalist another three months.

Gershkovich’s year in Lefortovo and the worldwide effort to free him, has served as a constant reminder of the dangers of being a reporter, especially on the territory of capricious authoritarian regimes like Vladimir Putin’s.

Putin himself makes little effort to disguise the fact that Gershkovich was seized for use as a bargaining chip. In February, the Russian leader told the far-right US commentator Tucker Carlson that “an agreement can be reached” in a prisoner swap, and Putin dropped a heavy hint on who he wanted in return: a Russian hitman and FSB colonel, Vadim Krasikov.

Putin’s demand complicated the efforts to free Gershkovich. Krasikov has been held in Germany since 2019 for the assassination of a Chechen rebel, Zemlikhan Khangoshvili. Krasikov followed Khangoshvili on bicycle as he rode through Berlin’s Tiergarten park, before shooting him in the back and then twice in the head as the Chechen lay bleeding.

The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, discussed the possibility of a swap with Joe Biden at a White House meeting in February, and Scholz reportedly made clear that perhaps the only way to make such a deal palatable to Germans would be to include the jailed Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny.

A potential deal emerged involving Navalny, Gershkovich and another American held by Russia since 2018, Paul Whelan, who was in charge of security for a Michigan-based car parts manufacturer. Whelan was grabbed by the FSB while in Moscow for a wedding and is being held in a Russian penal colony on spying charges that his family and the US state department say are groundless.

The potential exchange deal however, collapsed in a matter of days with Navalny’s mysterious death in an Arctic prison on 16 February, raising questions over whether the charismatic opposition figure had been killed to take his release permanently off the negotiating table. After securing another presidential term in a highly orchestrated “election”, Putin confirmed that Navalny had been part of a possible prisoner swap.

Whatever the facts of Navalny’s death, it has left Gershkovich in his cell in Lefortovo.

“It is a Stalin-era prison. It’s the only prison under the FSB and it’s basically designed to isolate you and to break you down,” the journalist’s mother, Ella Milman, said.

Political prisoners are also held at Lefortovo, as well as the terror suspects arrested after the Crocus City Hall attack on 22 March, but the jail is set up so that the inmates never encounter each other.

Gershkovich spends his days in a three-by-four metre cell which he shares with another prisoner, who cannot be described in any way according to Lefortovo’s rules. The modest space is furnished with two steel-frame beds, a toilet, wash basin and a small television. He spends all day in those confines except one hour in a small covered courtyard.

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Pjotr Sauer, a close friend of Gershkovich and the Guardian’s Russia affairs reporter, said that the Wall Street Journal reporter makes sure he remains busy and engaged with a daily regimen.

“He has a set routine from the time he wakes up. He reads, writes, works out, exercises, so he feels by the end he has had a productive day,” Sauer said. Lefortovo’s history as a jail for political prisoners means it at least has a well-stocked library of Russian literary classics.

Gershkovich keeps his spirits up by closely following the so-far promising season enjoyed by Arsenal, his favourite sports team, and more importantly by staying in constant touch by post with his family, friends and some of the thousands of strangers from around the globe who have written him letters of support.

Through his lawyers, who are allowed to visit twice a week, or other contacts, he makes sure flowers are delivered to friends on their birthdays, and writes at least once a week to his family and close friends like Sauer.

“I still see the same Evan in his letters – full of humour, full of curiosity. He’s still very much part of our lives, very much in touch with what’s going on in the world,” Sauer said. “He’s not broken, either physically or mentally, but you know, a year is really tough.”

You can support Evan Gershkovich by writing him a letter at FreeGershkovich@gmail.com

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