Friends, Faculty, Experts Discuss Ongoing Detainment of Evan Gershkovich ‘14

By Tom Porter
“For those of you who knew Evan, you’ll remember how much he was the life of the party,” commented Jeremy Berke ’14, recalling his gregarious classmate and friend Evan Gershkovich.
gershkovich panel at 2024 reunion in Studz

Berke was among the featured panel guests at a Reunion Weekend 2024 event to honor the Wall Street Journal reporter who has now clocked up more than fourteen months behind bars in Moscow, facing unsubstantiated espionage charges.

Also on the panel were Sam Silverman ’14 (another of Gershkovich’s close friends), Senior Lecturer in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies Reed Johnson, and reporter Caitlin Ostroff, a WSJ colleague of Gershkovich.

Silverman said Gershkovich, who grew up in a Russian-speaking household with Soviet émigré parents, was the first person he met at Appleton Hall as a first-year and the two quickly became fast friends.

“I remember the very first week hearing him talk to his parents on the phone and speaking in Russian, and at that moment I started to understand who he was as a person and what Russia meant to him,” he said.

The thing that stood out to Silverman most about his friend, however, was when “he scored the game-winning goal in the semifinals as a freshman year soccer player to lead Bowdoin to the championship!”

One of Gershkovich’s greatest traits, added Silverman, is his empathy toward other people.

“He immediately tries to make a connection with you, to understand who you are and [relate to you], which I think is what makes him such a good reporter and journalist.”

It was Gershkovich’s journalistic impact, particularly his efforts to portray what ordinary Russians are thinking, that likely made him a target of the Kremlin, observed Russia scholar Johnson, who recalled how Gershkovich took part in an alumni panel with Bowdoin students in 2019.

“Evan’s reporting was seen as a threat because it pierced the most important myth of the Kremlin, which is that there is universal support for the war.”

Counting on Justice

Evan Gershkovich counter on monitor in Smith Union

The plight of jailed Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich ’14 is never far from the thoughts of many on campus, and it’s now front and center for those who pass through Smith Union.

gershkovich with soccer ball in 2010
Gershkovich as a varsity soccer player in 2010

Since Vladimir Putin first came to power in 2000, said Johnson, free speech in Russia has been steadily eroded, with independent media outlets being degraded and attacked.

“Now it’s got to the stage when someone can be imprisoned for merely liking a social media post critical of the conduct of the war,” he remarked.

Relations between the US and Russia are even worse today than during much of the Cold War, said Johnson, with the result that there are no longer cultural or educational exchanges between the two nations.

“Even at the height of Cold War there were always exchanges, which were instrumental in helping us understand each other better. Currently there are virtually no American students studying in Russia, which is a first.”

Bowdoin students studying Russian abroad, he explained, will go to Russian-speaking areas of the former Soviet Union, such as Kazakhstan or Georgia.

Meanwhile, the panel observed, efforts remain ongoing to keep Gershkovich’s plight front and center. Members of the Bowdoin community are among those writing letters of support to Gershkovich, which he is able to read in his Moscow jail.

“In the offices of The Wall Street Journal, Evan’s face is everywhere,” said Ostroff. The newspaper holds frequent events to highlight his plight and his journalism, she added, while a webpage is dedicated to Gershkovich.

It’s all about keeping his story in the public consciousness and keeping the pressure on Washington and, more importantly, on Moscow, in the hope Gershkovich’s release can be secured.

Meanwhile, the Bowdoin graduate of 2014, known for his sense of humor, his empathy, and, for some, by his ability to kick a soccer ball, remains a pawn of the Russian judicial system, now in his fifteenth month behind bars with no trial date in sight.

Gershkovich in the news: In the latest development, Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly says the US administration is taking "vigorous steps" to try to secure the release of Gershkovich, adding that such questions could only be resolved on the basis of reciprocity, according to Reuters. Read more.

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