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The Fight to #FreeEvan: Putin, Politics, and the Perilous Road Ahead

By Gabe Silverstein

Ten months after the 33-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested under espionage charges by Russian police in Moscow, #FreeEvan is trending yet again. Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin was interviewed in the Kremlin by Tucker Carlson – a massive, yet controversial and dangerous feat. Gershkovich was the first American reporter to be arrested for espionage since 1986, causing many to be concerned for Carlson’s safety. In the 127-minute conversation, President Putin conveyed his perspective on the current state of Russian-American affairs, providing important insight into Gershkovich’s future, and the war in Ukraine.  

Any politically active journalist would be enthralled by the opportunity to report as Carlson had at the Kremlin: the heart of global conflict. This exciting opportunity, however, must be compared to the perilous environment endured by Gershkovich while imprisoned for his criticism of Putin’s government in the press. When asked about the future of Gershkovich’s detainment, Putin said “We [Russia] have done so many gestures out of goodwill and decency that I think we have run out of them,” referring to releasing Gershkovich.  

A native of Princeton, New Jersey, and captain of the Princeton High School soccer team, Gershkovich was more than decent and goodwilling. Former PHS Varsity Soccer coach Wayne Sutcliffe, longtime advocate for Evan, spoke candidly about his experiences with Evan, and what characteristics got him to this point in life. In an interview with Consider Magazine, Sutcliffe said he “never saw Evan have a bad day. He is very resilient and very technical.” In Russia, Gershkovich wasn’t just a journalist. He was representing the Western world’s freedom of speech on the front lines. When questioned about Gershkovich’s leading personality traits, Sutcliffe told Consider that “he was always the hardest working player – a brave leader that showed full transparency, honesty, and passion.”  

Gershkovich was clearly destined for big things, but bravery and resilience alone won’t beat Putin. What might it take for President Putin to make another “gesture out of goodwill and decency,” and let Evan return home? Last week, in the interview with Carlson, Putin made it explicitly clear that the US and other NATO allies continuing to pressure Russia and support Ukraine is the cause for prolonged war. Concurrently, Washington is considering a hefty aid package to Ukraine and allies in the Middle East. If the US passes this bill, relations between the US and Russia may only deteriorate further. A rejection of this bill, and ones like it, would lead to Ukraine's demise and boost confidence for Russia. Putin has publicly likened his pursuit of reclaiming Ukraine to the conquests of 18th century Russian Tsar Peter The Great. This comparison leads many to believe that Putin’s war in Ukraine won’t cease, and may only worsen. For Gershkovich, that likely means a prolonged sentence; For Gershkovich supporters, a withdrawal from Ukraine would mean Putin has “no use for him.”  This disturbing objectification begs the question, should the US be doing more to bring him home?

In 2022, WNBA player Brittney Griner was released ten months into a nine-year prison sentence for possession of marijuana products. She was swapped for a convicted Russian war-lord, aptly nicknamed “The Merchant of Death.” This trade, made by President Biden, was met with widespread criticism and controversy. Many thought this trade was unfair, and that Biden was giving into Putin too easily.  I asked Suttcliffe his thoughts on the trade. Sutcliffe, along with Gershkovich’s family, have always been aggressive in advocating for his release. While passionate, Sutcliffe is also rational in his support. “Because Evan is a journalist,” Sutcliffe continued, “he wrote pieces for the Wall Street Journal that were critical of the Russian war effort. He poses more of a threat than a WNBA player.” This reasoning, a practical analysis, is a testament to the valor displayed by Gershkovich, Carlson, and other journalists who set forth into similar faces of political adversity.  

As we approach an election, and Gershkovich’s detainment persists, there are a few things to consider. While the US fights battles across the world and struggles to deal with many domestic needs, a way out of the war in Ukraine is not only possible, but plausible insofar as bringing prisoners like Gershkovich home is a priority. To make matters worse, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was recently found dead in a Moscow penal colony, a peculiar happenstance as Putin’s administration continues to thrive.  Approaching a presidential election, Donald Trump has insisted on ending the war in Ukraine, claiming it would take as little as one day (WSJ).  This declaration has led to Ukrainian President Zelensky and other Ukrainians being “fearful of the prospect of Trump’s return to office” (CNN).  This comes as Biden has been calling for increased aid to Ukraine, which has also struggled to come through due to Republican push-back. That said, it is evident that the two major party leaders in the US, as of now, will do little to help #FreeEvan.


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