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“Journalism is not a crime” panel gathers friends and colleagues in honor of Evan Gershkovich ’14

September 29, 2023

Amira Oguntoyinbo
JOURNALISM IS NOT A CRIME: Professor of Government and Asian Studies Henry Laurence, Linda Kinstler ’13, Professor of English Brock Clarke and Paul Beckett discuss Evan Gershkovich ’14 and his detainment in Russia at the “Journalism is Not a Crime” event. Their conversation ranged from the difficulties journalists in Russia face to Gershkovich as an individual.

On Tuesday, the Brunswick and Bowdoin communities gathered in Pickard Theater in support of Evan Gershkovich ’14, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), who has spent six months under Russian detainment on charges of alleged espionage.

A panel of Gershkovich’s friends and peers discussed details surrounding his detainment, Gershkovich as an individual and the risks journalists currently face, especially when working as foreign correspondents. The panel included writer and Executive Editor of The Dial magazine Linda Kinstler ’13, the Washington Bureau Chief of the WSJ Paul Beckett and Professor of English Brock Clarke, who taught Gershkovich when he was a student at the College. The discussion was mediated by Professor of Government and Asian Studies Henry Laurence and began with opening remarks by President Safa Zaki.

Beckett was first told of Gershkovich’s arrest in a phone call with WSJ Editor-in-Chief Emma Tucker and immediately began making phone calls to government agencies, including the State Department and National Security Council. The publication faced challenging decisions concerning how to navigate the situation as both a news publication and as an advocacy group on Gershkovich’s behalf.

When initial news of his detainment broke, many of Gershkovich’s friends, including Kinstler, evaluated what the next steps could be and what part they could play in bringing him home.

“The morning that his face was all over the newspapers around the world, all of his friends got in touch,” Kinstler said. “And then we coordinated with the people in the United States and the people abroad to have an Evan campaign and get the word out about his detention and keep the pressure involved on all parties involved since then.”

The panelists emphasized how Gershkovich made friends wherever he went, including in Russia, where he was closely connected to the community he was covering.

“Unlike some foreign correspondents who move to a country and hang out with diplomats and international business people and try and get as close to the powerful as they can but really don’t have much affinity for the people they are covering, he had a tremendous … love of Russia, which meant that he would go and listen to Russian punk bands … and play on Russian soccer teams,” Beckett said.

Beckett also spoke to the importance of Gershkovich’s reporting in Russia.

“Nobody really pays a huge amount of attention to Russian casualties in Ukraine aside from the numbers,” Beckett said. “But he did, and he went to the places where those bodies were being brought back and wrote extraordinary living stories about it.”

Gershkovich began reporting for the WSJ in December 2021 after writing for the Moscow Times and the New York Times. Beckett noted that Gershkovich is one of few journalists on staff that dedicated their career to covering Russia long before the war in Ukraine began. His identity as the son of Soviet immigrants influenced his passion for Russia both as a student at Bowdoin and throughout his career.

“He would be one of the very, very rare people who would, knowing the dangers, nonetheless put himself in a position where he was going to find the sorts of stories he was finding [and] part of that is his deep commitment to all things Russian,” Clarke said. “He worked for the Moscow Times before the [Wall Street] Journal because it began to seem as something that was absolutely essential to his sense of self … He seemed like he was committed to the whole project as a person and as a journalist.”

Kinstler emphasized that Gershkovich was aware of the risks of reporting in Russia before being detained.

“I was, at one point, reporting on the detentions of Russian journalists, and he very helpfully pointed me to individuals whose relatives had been locked up, and so he’s extremely aware of the risks and realities of how these things work,” Kinstler said.

Clarke recalled asking Gershkovich several years ago if reporting in Russia was worth the risk and getting a confident response.

“I had coffee with him right before he left for Russia … and it wasn’t a pacific place then either, and I said, ‘Are you sure about this?’ And he just looked at me and was like, ‘Sure, I’m sure,’” Clarke said.

Gershkovich’s family and friends have been able to maintain some contact with him through letters. His family has been able to attend some of the hearings in Moscow.

“Obviously when he does get out, we don’t want him to have an indefinite amount of time to catch up on, so we’re trying to keep him in the loop as much as we can and give little bits of gossip about his world and everything that’s kind of going on,” Kinstler said. “And we can send him books, which has been really lovely. He got a signed edition of David Grann’s ‘The Wager.’”

Siara Soule ’26, who attended the panel, enjoyed learning more about Gershkovich’s character.

“I feel like I got more insight into who he was as a person,” Soule said. “And I think the panel helped me understand that he was part of the student body here and made me feel grounded in the Bowdoin community.”

Two students at the panel asked Beckett to comment on the case of Julian Assange and mentioned the WSJ’s op-ed page’s support of Assange’s prosecution for leaking government-classified documents. Beckett declined to comment.

“I’m here to talk about Evan,” Beckett said.

Laurence hopes the event reminded people of Gerskovich’s humanity and connection to Bowdoin.

“I think that we were all reminded that he is a living, breathing human being,” Laurence said. “He is someone you [would] likely be friends with and that, I thought, brought home the injustice and unfairness of his kidnapping, essentially, by the Russian state. So it was the personal stories that really reached me because I knew that I knew the background. But I felt like I knew Evan better, and that was good.”


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