Russia opens secret trial of Wall Street Journal's Evan Gershkovich

In his nearly 15 months in Moscow's infamous Lefortovo prison, Evan Gershkovich explored Russian literary classics like “War and Peace” and played chess slowly by mail with his father in the United States. He tries to stay fit during the hour of exercise he is allowed each day.

Friends who correspond with him describe Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter, as positive, strong and rarely discouraged, despite facing the official wrath of President Vladimir V. Putin's Russia.

“He may have ups and downs like everyone else, but he remains confident in himself, in his rightness,” said Maria Borzunova, a Russian journalist and friend of Mr. Gershkovich.

Mr. Gershkovich went on trial Wednesday, facing up to 20 years in prison on espionage charges that he, his employer and the U.S. State Department vehemently deny.

He appeared in court in the main industrial city of Yekaterinburg, east of Moscow, where he had originally been detained and where he was recently transferred after more than a year of confinement in Moscow.

Shortly before the proceedings began, reporters filmed Mr. Gershkovich, his head recently shaved, standing in a glass cage in the courtroom. After several hours, the court set the next hearing in the case for August 13, according to Russian state news agency Tass.

At the heart of Mr. Gershkovich's ordeal is a void: the absence of any evidence made public by Russian authorities to support their claim that he was a spy. Nor is any likely to emerge from his trial, which has been declared secret, with any observers barred from participating and his lawyers unable to reveal publicly anything they learn.

“We think this is a show trial based on false accusations, so the proceedings will be farcical,” Almar Latour, the publisher of the Wall Street Journal, said in an interview. It is impossible to predict how the trial will affect efforts to secure Mr. Gershkovich's release, he added.

In a statement Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow said officials were present at the courthouse and had brief access before the proceedings began. “We have been clear from the beginning that Evan has done nothing wrong and should never have been arrested,” the statement said. It called for his immediate release.

In Russian trials, conviction is largely a foregone conclusion, especially when, as in this case, the Kremlin intervened. The judge who heard the case boasted to a local news outlet that he had acquitted only four defendants in a career spanning decades. .

For more than five years, Mr. Gershkovich, an American citizen who grew up in New Jersey, wandered around Russia as a reporter, learning to love the country, friends say. The Foreign Office has repeatedly reissued his reporting credentials.

Now he could be Kremlin cannon fodder for a prisoner exchange, as has recently happened to other imprisoned Americans. In arranging such an exchange, Russia insists that a process must first be completed, ostensibly putting both sides on equal legal footing.

“He is a Kremlin hotshot and they want to exchange him,” said Pyotr Sauer, a journalist for The Guardian newspaper and a close friend of Gershkovich.

In April 2022, Russia exchanged Trevor Reed, an American convicted of assaulting Russian police officers, for a Russian pilot imprisoned on cocaine trafficking charges into the United States. In the most high-profile recent case, in December 2022, the United States exchanged a known arms dealer, Victor Bout, for Brittney Griner, an American basketball star jailed for cannabis possession.

Asked in a television interview in February about Gershkovich's fate, Putin said negotiations were ongoing, but mentioned the need for further concessions. He suggested he might be willing to swap the journalist for Vadim Krasikov, a Russian sentenced to life in prison in Germany for the brazen 2019 murder of a former Chechen separatist fighter in a central Berlin park.

A senior Russian diplomat said negotiations were being conducted through a dedicated secret channel.

Mr. Gershkovich, 32, was arrested in Yekaterinburg, just east of the Ural Mountains, in March 2023. Prosecutors, in their vague statements about the case, said “on instructions from the CIA” and “using scrupulous conspiratorial methods ”, “was gathering secret information” about a factory that produces tanks and other weapons.

Mr. Gershkovich was part of a group of young Western and Russian journalists based in Moscow. They took their role of explaining Russia to foreigners seriously: constantly working to improve their command of the language, traveling extensively and sharing a traditional weekend cottage in Peredelkino, a village on the outskirts of Moscow known as a haven for writers.

Mr. Gershkovich, raised by Soviet emigre parents, adopted the name Vanya and enjoyed Russian rituals such as saunas and mushroom hunting, along with sports including soccer and skiing, friends said. His family was not available to comment on the trial, said Ashley Huston, a spokeswoman for the Journal.

But the climate for journalists in Russia has become threatening with the country's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The Kremlin has passed draconian laws that limit how the war could be described and has shut down numerous media outlets independent Russians. Gershkovich was among many journalists who left the country, but he returned periodically to assess how the conflict was changing Russia.

Given that no Western correspondent had been accused of espionage since Soviet times, the prospect of incarceration seemed worrying but remote. Gershkovich's arrest crossed a line, Borzunova said, making clear that all journalists, not just Russians, were at risk.

“We thought the official accreditation meant something,” he said, “but it doesn’t.”

During his imprisonment, Mr. Gershkovich met with his lawyers, and the American ambassador, Lynne Tracey, was allowed occasional visits. The State Department declared him “unjustly detained.”

His friends sprung into action with a letter-writing campaign to keep him in touch with the outside world. They set up the herculean task of translating them into Russian, to gain approval from prison censors.

The initiative attracted more than 5,000 letters from around the world, written by everyone from grandmothers to elementary schoolchildren. Many described the difficult experiences they had endured, said Polina Ivanova, a reporter for the Financial Times.

Mr. Gershkovich's friends were inspired in part by his consistently high morale. In preliminary hearings, standing in a cage for the defendants, he usually greeted his fellow journalists with a smile and sometimes held his hands in the shape of a heart.

He maintained a sense of humor, suggesting in letters to friends that prison gruel was no worse than some of his childhood meals. Mr. Gershkovich, who once worked as a clerk in the New York Times newsroom, had briefly worked as a cook before turning to journalism. His friends prepare weekly packages to make up for the lack of fruit and vegetables in Russian prisons, adding sweets for his birthday.

He returned the favor, making sure to send them birthday or holiday wishes. He asks friends to update him on their lives, even encouraging them to send him separate letters describing the same social events. “Like a real journalist, he wants different sources,” Mr. Sauer said.

A voracious reader, Mr. Gershkovich scoured the prison library for some of the voluminous and seminal tomes of Russian literature, including Tolstoy's “War and Peace” and Vasily Grossman's “Life and Fate.” He also reads poetry and works on people behind bars.

His time in prison honed his command of the language. “When he arrived he knew childish Russian, there was no slang, now it's lyrical, beautiful,” Mr. Sauer said.

From the moment Mr. Gershkovich was arrested, his friends said they had expected a long ordeal, given the experience of others.

Paul Whelan, an American accused of espionage, has been in prison since 2018. Marc Fogel, a US citizen who taught at the Anglo-American school in Moscow, was found guilty of drug trafficking and sentenced in 2022 to 14 years in a penal colony. Alsu Kurmasheva, editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and dual Russian-American citizen, faces an extended sentence on various charges.

“We realized that it would be a marathon,” Borzunova said, “that the issue would not be resolved quickly, that we had to prepare to tell this story for a long time, that he was a hostage of the Russian regime, that he was detained for his work.”

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