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Friends on staying in touch with Evan Gershkovich ’14 after one year in detention

March 29, 2024

Ada Potter

Yesterday marked one year since the Russian government detained Evan Gershkovich ’14. In interviews with the Orient, alumni and staff spoke about communicating with the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reporter, what they know about his condition and the importance of calling attention to his imprisonment.

Gershkovich’s friend and fellow journalist Nora Biette-Timmons ’14, now based in Berlin, said that friends and family remain able to send letters to and receive responses from Gershkovich, whose detainment was recently extended time, to the end of June.

Gershkovich’s friend and former roommate Jeremy Berke ’14 said that Gershkovich’s friends write their letters in English and send them to a group of people in Russia, mostly Gershkovich’s colleagues, who translate the letters into Russian and send them to Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, where he is being held. After Gershkovich replies in Russian, the group of translators sends back an email of the English translation and a picture of the handwritten letter. A prison monitor reads both incoming and outgoing letters, though Berke believes the letters are mostly unredacted.

Berke added that Gershkovich and his friends mostly discuss light-hearted topics in the letters.

“We’re very careful about what we put in the letters…. We don’t really talk about much that’s super serious,” Berke said. “We try and inject some levity. We use inside jokes, we talk about sports—things just to help Evan stay connected to the outside world while he’s in prison and just to [let him] know that we’re all also okay, and we’re taking care of each other through this process.”

Gershkovich even picked the order of the draft for his friend group’s fantasy basketball league in one of his letters, Berke said.

“There’s a big group of us—most of us Bowdoin [graduates]—and we’re in a fantasy basketball league. We had Evan pick our draft order this year, and so we got a kick out of that,” Berke said. “We hear a little bit about his day-to-day—what kind of TV shows he’s watching on Russian television, how he’s keeping himself sane, how he’s exercising, what books he’s reading and stuff like that.”

Biette-Timmons said Gershkovich’s letters indicate that he’s kept a sense of humor.

“He’s still very much cracking jokes,” Biette-Timmons said. “One of the things people have started doing is sending him various gossip updates, either about people in our personal lives or celebrities.”

While their communication with Gershkovich is often easygoing, Berke spoke candidly about the challenges of speaking out about Gershkovich’s detention.

“With situations like this that are happening to a close friend, you tend to feel quite helpless,” Berke said. “For our own sake and our own sanity, I think what we know how to do is talk about how to humanize Evan and make sure the world knows what a good friend he is.”

Linda Kinstler ’13, who spoke at the College’s “Journalism Is Not A Crime” panel last September, said in an interview with the Orient that it is important to maintain awareness of Gershkovich’s case so that the U.S. government continues to negotiate with Russia for his return.

“I think the best thing that everyone can do is just continue thinking about him and even mentioning him,” Kinstler said. “The more the general public is aware of his unjust detention, the more elected officials feel that it is something that has to be on the top of their radar, the more they can pressure the government to aggressively pursue a [prisoner] swap.”

Gershkovich’s case remains a topic of discussion in the College’s official media and among some faculty and staff, especially Executive Director of the Office of Safety and Security Randy Nichols.

Nichols met Gershkovich a few times during the reporter’s time at the College and often mentions him in his public communications. He ends his email signatures and security reports with the number of days Gershkovich has been in prison; he dedicates his weekly WBOR radio show to Gershkovich; a “free Evan” sticker sits on the back of his phone case.

Nichols remembers the joy that Gershkovich brought to Bowdoin.

“I’ve always thought of him as an exuberant, active, engaged, force-of-nature type of guy,” Nichols said, recalling an email exchange with Gershkovich from 2012 with amusement.

Nichols emailed Gershkovich the night after a hockey game in Watson Arena, where Security removed Gershkovich and his friends from the arena for their use of profanity and for banging against the ice rink’s glass wall. Nichols warned Gershkovich that Security would ban him from hockey games for the rest of the season if he repeated the behavior. Gershkovich wrote back with a profuse apology.

“I appreciate the warning rather than the immediate disbarment,” Gershkovich wrote. “I was much too enthused for the start of the season yesterday evening, and it won’t happen again…. I apologize for the disorder that I caused.”

Since Gershkovich’s arrest, Biette-Timmons said that the press environment in Russia has become much more hostile. The kinds of stories that Gershkovich wrote for WSJ, Biette-Timmons noted, are no longer being written.

“What [Gershkovich] was reporting on, [Russian authorities] did not like it, and they made that very clear,” Biette-Timmons said, referencing his arrest.

Kinstler, who has researched and written extensively about Eastern Europe, added that while reporting from within Russia has become more difficult for foreign correspondents, it hasn’t stopped, citing New York Times reporter Valerie Hopkins, who was able to ask Russian President Vladimir Putin about Gershkovich’s future at a press conference.

For Biette-Timmons, continuing to promote Gershkovich’s story is part of a global movement in support of free press and the release of other journalists in similar situations beyond Russia.

“It’s not just about Evan,” she said. “Evan’s cause is highlighting the cause of all journalists who are unjustly detained.… It’s really important that there’s been such a concerted public effort on this cause for the broader case of press freedom around the world, especially in undemocratic countries.”

Editor’s note, at 12:02 p.m. on 03/29/2024: This story has been updated to reflect more accurately how well Randy Nichols knew Gershkovich. A previous version of this story said that Nichols met Gershkovich “several times during and after the reporter’s time at the College.” It now says he met him “a few times during the reporter’s time at the College.” 


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One comment:

  1. Nicholas Gess, '77 says:

    Thank you to the Bowdoin Orient and to Evan’s fellow journalists around the free world for keeping a bright light shining on his captivity. His captors hope that the passage of time will dim public concern, but it hasn’t. That his friends, teammates, colleagues and acquaintances from Princeton High School, Bowdoin, and the Wall Street Journal as well as other pubs have banded together is a testament to the power of reporting.

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