The news broke on March 30 that Evan Gershkovich, 31, a Wall Street Journal reporter based in Moscow, was arrested by Russia’s Federal Security Service, which accused him of being a U.S. spy.
It was the first time an American journalist has been detained by Russia since the end of the Cold War. Condemnation by the U.S. government and media outlets was swift.
But for former classmates and professors of the man affectionately known as “Gersh” while he was attending Bowdoin College in Brunswick, the reaction was one of fear and sorrow for their old friend. Many described him as extroverted, funny, kind-hearted and a deeply curious person, with an abiding passion for his work as a journalist.
“Evan is incredibly gregarious, and also incredibly perceptive, and I think that’s one of the things that make him a great journalist,” said Nora Biette-Timmons, a journalist for the website Jezebel, who edited Gershkovich at the student newspaper Bowdoin Orient and became a close friend. “It’s heartbreaking. It’s so scary.”
Stories collected over the past week for FreeGershkovich.com, a website set up by friends and supporters, reveal a likable fellow, quick with a joke or kind word.
They range from simple moments like flipping burgers during shifts working at the campus pub to memorable experiences like canoeing through gale force winds in the summer in Maine to playful razzing over Gershkovich’s love of perennially losing teams like the New York Jets and the New York Mets.
“The situation is grave,” said Linda Kinstler, who also was an editor at the Bowdoin Orient when Gershkoich wrote for the paper. “But Evan is an incredible guy, with an amazing sense of humor. I heard he was joking with the prison monitors that came to visit him earlier this week. I just hope he knows that he has a huge circle of friends and supporters who are doing everything we can for him.”
Bangor Daily News reporter Callie Ferguson, who is spending a year producing stories for the New York Times as part of its Local Investigations Fellowship program, attended Bowdoin at the same time as Gershkovich. Though she hadn’t talked to him in several years, Gershkovich was among the first to message her with congratulations last month after it was announced she was named an investigative fellow.
Three weeks after their text exchange, Gershkovich was detained.
“I felt so sick with horror when I heard about him, and it was especially eerie having just talked to him three weeks earlier for the first time in so long,” Ferguson said. “I wasn’t close with Evan, but I remember thinking how kind it was to send me that note after all those years.”
Gershkovich, 31, is the son of Soviet emigres who left in the 1970s to flee persecution for their Jewish faith. They eventually settled in New Jersey, where they had two children, elder Dusya and younger Evan. According to a Wall Street Journal profile, Gershkovich grew up between two worlds: his Russian life at home and his American life at school.
Gershkovich attended Bowdoin from 2010 to 2014, where he played soccer, studied English and philosophy, and amassed a tight-knit network of friends, including Biette-Timmons, who later was a roommate of his.
She said Gershkovich was often the center of attention in the house they shared with others — for no other reason than he was naturally charismatic.
“I remember when I lived in a house in Brunswick with him during his senior year, and he was the person that always wanted to hang out,” she said. “He was always the person that would want to sit on the patio and just chat for as long as you could. He just has that natural charisma.”
As a fellow child of Soviet Jewish immigrants, Kinstler, now a writer for The Economist, said they bonded over their shared experience growing up within that culture.
One of the reasons Gershkovich took his first job in journalism in Russia, writing for the English-language newspaper the Moscow Times, was to connect with his roots, she said. He later wrote for Agence-France Presse before moving to the Wall Street Journal in late 2021.
“I think to be the child of that situation means you inherit a certain kind of outlook, and also a natural curiosity about the country your parents came from,” Kinstler said. “When Evan went to Russia in 2017, he was following that curiosity. He already had the language. He wanted to enrich his understanding of himself, as well as the place he was reporting on.”
Brian Purnell, associate professor of Africana studies and history at Bowdoin, taught a class that Gershkovich took as a freshman. Earlier this week, Purnell walked by a table in the Bowdoin student center run by the school’s Russian department, where anyone could write a message of support to Gershkovich for the department to translate and send along.
All messages sent to Russian prisons must be written in Russian, or else they will not be passed along to the prisoner.
“People are talking about this on campus, because this is someone that we know,” Purnell said. “Evan is not a celebrity. He’s not a politician. He’s a working journalist. He’s a regular person. Who knows how many journalists have been detained around the world? It should be terrifying for anyone who cares about a free society and the right to freedom of expression.”
Biette-Timmons said it was hard to reconcile the two facts that Gershkovich has suddenly become a public figure for the terrible situation he’s found himself in, and that he’s a friend she’s grown close to over the years.
“I am excited to sit down with him in a pub after he’s finally released and hear his stories,” she said. “I just want to sit down and talk with him. He’s a great talker. And he’s the kind of guy that would probably just rather ask about you, and your life updates, rather than talk about himself.”
Purnell said that as a member of the Bowdoin community and as a Maine resident, he’s both proud of Gerskovich, and horrified that he is being held in prison for doing his job.
“Mainers should be proud of the fact that the institutions in this state produce graduates who promote those values of truth and free expression. He honed his skills here at Bowdoin, and we are incredibly proud of that,” Purnell said. “And we should be horrified that someone that came out of one of this state’s institutions is sitting in a prison cell for that.”