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  • Stan Brooks

The Unseen Side of Imprisoned WSJ Reporter Evan Gershkovich: A Personal Account

It was far too early that Thursday morning, the last one of March. I had a particularly restless sleep and something told me to check my phone. My youngest son was traveling alone, backpacking through New Zealand, and we hadn’t heard from him in a couple of days.


The quiet breathing of my wife and two dogs mixed with the morning birds. There was a calm to the dark room, if not my thoughts.


A few news alerts appeared on the lock page, but no text messages from my boy down under. I was about to turn it off and let it rest on the nightstand while I tried catching another hour of shut-eye.


Something.


Some word.


Some fragment caught my eye and I stopped. I read the first alert at the top of the screen. It was from the New York Times. Wall Street Journal reporter arrested in Russia.


I didn’t need a wakeup call or alarm. I bolted upright. My heart began to race.


Please don’t be Evan.


Please don’t be Evan.


My first-born son Simon decided to attend college in Maine; Brunswick, to be specific. That’s three thousand, one hundred, twenty-five and one-quarter miles from our home. In September of 2010, my wife, Tanya, and I flew to Boston and drove our son north to begin his college experience. We were terrified and emotional. He was our first to leave the nest and was going to be a long way away. We moved him into his dorm room. It was a picture-perfect day on the stunningly bucolic campus. We met his roommates and a few kids moving in on his floor. I’m sure one of the kids we met that day was a bright-eyed, out-going soccer player from New Jersey. And he was Jewish. He was the other Jewish kid on the floor besides Simon.


Once settled in, it was clear that the moment had come for us to leave. We walked silently to the rental car. Tanya gave him a long hug. She began to cry. Simon was barely keeping it together. Our hug was brief, at best, as we both knew we had reached an eleven on a ten-point fragility scale. Simon walked quickly back to his dorm. Tanya and I drove a half mile, pulled the car over and sobbed for twenty or thirty minutes.


I made a trip to visit Simon a few months later and discovered he had become very close to the soccer player from Jersey. They shared the same love of sports, had the same sense of humor and insatiable curiosity. It was hard not to like Evan Gershkovich from the first time you met him. His smile was infectious and he loved life. Despite having to work two jobs to pay for his tuition, in addition to hours and hours on the soccer field, you always felt like Evan had the world by the tail. He had a gift to gab and wanted to be a writer, preferably a journalist that could travel the world.


For the next four years in Maine, Simon and Evan were inseparable, always roommates, and became the best of friends. Every visit Tanya and I made to campus always started with a trip to Evan’s room or a meal with him. We learned that he was the son of Russian immigrants that had both fled the Soviet Union when Russian Jews left en masse in the late 70s to find a better way of life, that his first language was Russian, and that he was a true romantic. Any visit with Evan included a heartfelt discussion on the state of his love life. Their sophomore year he and Simon wrote a screenplay together. It was clear, back then, both of them could really write. I’m still not sure they loved getting my notes.


Whenever he traveled west, Evan stayed at our home, and when he got his first job interning at the New York Times, he gave me a tour of their offices, sneaking me into places he wasn’t supposed to take guests.


“What the hell. Let’s go up there. What’s the worst thing that can happen? They’ll kick us out? It’s not like they’re gonna fire an intern over it.”


I remember when Evan got his first article published. I found a back and forth set of correspondences from 2017 where we talked about our excitement for his initial human interest columns that ran in the Paper of Record. That same month I was headed to his hometown, on a college tour with my youngest, and Evan wrote me an impressive dissertation on the joys of Hoagie Haven in Princeton. We made sure to try it and, not surprisingly, it was a little piece of culinary heaven. The name was accurate.


Please don’t be Evan.


Please don’t be Evan.


Simon and Evan texted almost every day they were apart. As Evan’s journalism career took off, I kept tabs on him through my son. We learned about him leaving the New York Times and getting a job in Russia working for The Moscow Times, about commuting to Paris when he got promoted to a job for Agence France Presse during Covid. And we heard in January of last year that he got his dream job, living in Russia and reporting for the Wall Street Journal.


We told Simon how terribly worried we were for him, being in Russia during this frightening time. It was still a scary place to be Jewish and Evan was not shy about his heritage. Simon worried too—and shared that with Evan.


“Don’t worry. I’m an American journalist. They will leave me alone.”


We learned that it terrified his parents, Ella and Mikhael, that their son had returned to the country they fled in fear. But Evan was determined and fearless. Simon said he made great friends there and had fallen in love many times along his journeys. No surprise there. We were hoping we might see Evan at my son’s wedding in August.


Please don’t be Evan.


My prayers went unanswered that early Thursday morning. It was Evan.



On March 29, Simon and Evan were on a group text, discussing Simon’s ideas for a bachelor party and making each other laugh. A few hours later, Evan entered a restaurant in Yekaterinburg and was arrested by the Russian Federal Security Service. His phone was turned off, and Wall Street Journal staff were unable to locate him.


I woke up Tanya, we quickly turned on CNN. It was the lead story. To our utter horror, there was that sweet kid we adored being led into a van, his head down, under arrest. We called Simon. He already knew. Most of that day we walked around in shock. Friday, the three of us got on the phone with Evan’s mom, Ella. Her voice trembled and wavered. At times she was so monotone, it was almost robotic. She hadn’t slept since they got the news. She cried all the time.


The news only got worse. He was arrested for “espionage,” which we knew was preposterously false. If convicted he might spend twenty years in a Russian prison. We had to stop each other from going down the internet rabbit hole about Russian prisons. It‘s too bleak to fathom.


It’s been two weeks since Evan was taken. Someone from the American consulate has seen him. We know that he’s safe, healthy and being treated well—for now. We have been able to send messages to him and hope to hear back at some point. We know that the American who visited him was able to bring him warm clothes, a blanket and even a Passover box with matzah and other traditional items. Like other Jewish families across the world, we placed an empty chair at our Passover Seder and said a prayer for Evan’s release.


And we’ve mobilized. All of Evan’s extended friends, family and associates have called their Senators and Congress people. A GoFundMe page has been started to help Evan’s family and pay for every effort to bring him home. There is a website and hashtag being used to keep Evan’s story alive on social media. We must never let up until Evan is safe. Whatever it takes. Evan is the bright light in every room, the searchlight shining into the darkest corners to share the truth. We need to bring him home.

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