PHS Alum Evan Gershkovich ’10 Detained in RussiaApril, 2023
On March 30 2023, the Federal Security Bureau (FSB) of Russia arrested Wall Street journalist and PHS alum Evan Gershkovich ’10, marking the first Russian detainment of an American journalist on espionage charges since the Cold War. On Monday, April 10, the U.S. State Department deemed Gershkovich as “wrongfully detained.”
FSB arrested Gershkovich while he was on a reporting trip to Ekaterinburg, Russia. The next day FSB pressed charges of espionage, claiming that Gershkovich was “collecting classified information from a Russian military complex” and “acting on instructions from the American side.” He was ordered into pre-trial detention until at least May 29.
“The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich,” the Journal said in a statement on March 30. “We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family.”
Pjotr Sauer, The Guardian’s Russian affairs reporter and Gershkovich’s close colleague, had been talking to him the same morning he was arrested. To Sauer, Gershkovich is an “extremely social [and] kind” person who would be “the kind of guy that you … bring to a party”.
After Sauer received a call from Gershkovich’s parents asking about his whereabouts that evening, he was unable to contact Gershkovich that night.
“I obviously got worried right away… He's a colleague of ours, he's a friend of ours, we know he's not a spy…We as journalists are trying to talk as much as we can about him, and write as much as we can about him so the world knows,” Sauer said.
In the Princeton community, Gershkovich was known as a well-rounded student at PHS and the captain of the boys varsity soccer team. In addition, he had been a Tower news and features and sports staff writer.
“It has been a difficult morning for Princeton High School alumni, particularly the many PHS soccer players who were close to Mr. Gershkovich,” A PPS press release said. “He is remembered by his peers as being an outstanding student and an exceptional athlete during his time at Princeton High School.”
Gym teacher Wayne Sutcliffe coached Gershkovich for four years on the boys varsity soccer team and shared a memorable moment from the 2009 Mercer County Tournament semifinals that attests his leadership and resilience.
“It was a really tight game and eventually it had to go to penalty kicks. After five kicks, it was still a tie, so it went into sudden death penalty kicks,” Sutcliffe said. “The manager can choose anyone he wants to take the sixth kick and we chose him. He took the same kick in the same spot [as the first time] and converted. We blocked their kick and won the game just like that.”
Growing up in a bilingual household that spoke both Russian and English, Gerskovich also brought his love for his Russian heritage to the student body at PHS.
“In the 90s, everybody watched Nickelodeon and there was a little cartoon called ‘Hey, Arnold’ that a lot of kids watched. But he watched a Russian cartoon and then he would share that with other guys on the soccer team and his friends. That's something that you couldn’t [easily] access in those days,” Sutcliffe said.
When Gershkovich first went to work in Russia six years ago for The Moscow Times, the political climate was more cordial towards the west. Over the years, he captured the changes that were occurring, but did not ever think to sacrifice his journalistic integrity.
“He said that I’m just one of the few [American journalists] left [in Russia]. I know he felt that it was his duty to report. He loved Russian people and he still does,” Ella, Gerkovich’s mother, said in an April 15 Wall Street Journal interview.
On April 13, Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, told U.S. media that Russia could be open to a prisoner swap—but only after Gershkovich stands trial. What seems to be yet another prisoner exchange situation almost mirrors how WNBA Basketball player Britney Griner was detained in December 2022 and was eventually released in exchange for arrested Russian arms trader Victor Bout.
Gerkovich’s arrest is also part of a growing trend where journalists are being targeted and used by authoritarian countries such as Russia and Iran. Sauer explained that the journalism community feels threatened and outraged by Gershkovich’s arrest.
“It's becoming harder to do journalism, to be honest… it seems like journalists are being used more as pawns [and] arrested, kidnapped, etc… The profession is getting harder,” Sauer said.
PHS Alum Thatcher Foster ’10, Gershkovich’s childhood friend and soccer teammate, created freeevangerkovich.com, alongside Gershkovich’s family and other friends.
“It's been amazing how much support there is and how many people want to help. But it's a hard [situation] to help. So I think the website is a really important place for people to stay updated on statuses and provide support, write letters, and also support his family [with the] GoFundMe,” Foster said.
While Gershkovich’s immediate release is unlikely, Sutcliffe urges onlookers to maintain an optimistic outlook.
“Evan was always at his best under pressure. So, if I know Evan, and even though I haven't seen him in a long time, I have to think that he's a resilient guy, and that he's okay,” Sutcliffe said.
Students can amplify Gershkovich’s story by using #IStandWithEvan or #FreeEvan. Letters to Gershkovich can be sent to FreeGershkovich@gmail.com.