Gershkovich is the first American journalist to be detained on espionage charges in Russia since the Cold War.
His supporters are demanding his release from Russian custody as the US journalist is currently held in Lefortovo prison, an infamous former KGB detention center located in Moscow.
Former prisoners and those who visited the notorious Russian prison recalled harrowing experiences of isolation — a stark contrast to the life the US journalist was living in New York and Russia before his arrest.
Born to Soviet-born Jewish émigrés in New Jersey, Gershkovich went to grade school in Princeton, New Jersey, before going on to study philosophy and English at Bowdoin College.
Friends of Gershkovich said The Journal reporter could go from being a “goofball” to being “intensely serious about his work.”
Jake Golden, who has been friends with Gershkovich since they were 7-year-old boys playing on the same soccer team in New Jersey, described Gershkovich as “a little bit Columbo.”
“He’s a goofball, but he’s incredibly perceptive,” Golden said.
Mike Van Itallie also went to high school and college with Gershkovich and was on the same soccer team as him and Golden. Though they weren’t physically together as time went on, Van Itallie said Gershkovich made the effort to span the difference, once offering him emotional support when Van Itallie’s father died in 2021.
“To be there for me, even being halfway across the world and not being in close touch every day, that just speaks to the type of guy and the type of friend that he was that he is,” Van Itallie said.
Childhood friends of Gershkovich described the journalist’s adventurous spirit.
Van Itallie said he could rely on Gershkovich to go on “crazy adventures” that everybody else called ridiculous.
He recounted the biking trips that he would go on with Gershkovich, including a three-day trip through Long Island and Connecticut.
Gershkovich took his passion for soccer to his adult life, playing at Bowdoin and enjoying watching matches with his favorite club, the Arsenals.
Jeremy Berke, who attended Bowdoin College with Gershkovich and later lived with him in New York, said Gerskovich was a big fan of the London football club, so much so that when they lived together, he would get up at 7 a.m. on weekends to watch the matches.
Berke recalled Gershkovich’s early morning antics “would make enough noise that we would start to get up, too.” He said Gershkovich would try to wake his roommates and “lure” them out with breakfasts to share the experience.
“He just has this infectious personality and he wants to share everything with you if you’re in his orbit,” Berke said. “He has a really unique way of drawing people in that I think few people in the world share.”
After Gershkovich graduated from Bowdoin, where he studied philosophy and English, he worked as a news assistant at The New York Times and a reporter for the Moscow Times and AFP before joining the Journal to cover Russia and Ukraine.
Berke, Golden, and Van Itallie described the moment their worlds were turned upside down after hearing of Gershkovich’s detainment.
Van Itallie described the moment he found out about Gershkovich’s arrest as a “nightmare scenario” where “our reality has totally changed.”
“We just got a bunch of texts or, you know, we looked at our phones first thing in the morning on that Thursday, the 31st I think it was, and we were just like, ‘Oh my God, is this really happening?'” he said.
Golden recalled a similar moment of disbelief when he found out. While grappling with COVID symptoms, he said he got a text at four in the morning saying Gershkovich had been arrested in Russia.
“I’m like dealing with the fact that I’m physically disoriented, and this happens and it’s like, ‘This a dream, right? Like this can’t be real,'” he said.
“That then becomes the framework through which through which we’re living, right?” Golden continued. “When something like this hits, your whole reality shifts.”
Gershkovich’s friends and family, US politicians, and fellow journalists are calling on Moscow to release him.
A bipartisan group of 70 members of Congress wrote a letter to the detained journalist, condemning Russia for violating his “basic human rights,” adding that the Kremlin “has stolen” a part of his life.
“We commend you for your tireless efforts to report on hard-hitting subjects, uncover the truth, and shine a light on the lived experiences of the Russian people,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter obtained by the Wall Street Journal.
The letter continued: “Through your courageous journalistic endeavors, you have eloquently demonstrated how free speech and freedom of the press are the cornerstones of democracy around the world.”
The congressional letter still has to be delivered to Gershkovich in Lefortovo prison.
Leaders at The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post also ran a joint ad slamming Russia’s “wrongful arrest” of Gershkovich “for no other reason than newsgathering, Axios reported.
The Biden administration is reportedly seeking high-level Russian spies for a potential prisoner swap for Gershkovich and former US Marine Paul Whelan.
The Biden administration is casting a wide net across the globe for high-value Russians who could potentially sway Moscow in a prisoner swap, CNN reported, citing three sources familiar with the search.
According to the report published Thursday, the administration’s efforts span a number of countries, including Brazil, Norway, and Germany, which has Vadim Krasikov, a former colonel from Russia’s domestic spy agency, in its custody.
Last month, President Joe Biden called on Moscow to release Gershkovich, saying his administration is “working every day to secure his release.”
During the annual dinner for the White House Correspondents’ Association in April, the president praised the US journalist’s “absolute courage” and his efforts to “shed light on the darkness” in Russia.
“Journalism is not a crime,” Biden said in a speech, adding that Gershkovich and journalist Austin Tice, who was kidnapped in Syria in 2012, “should be released immediately, along with every other American held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad.”
“I promise you I am working like hell to bring them home,” Biden said.
Gershkovich is being held in Lefortovo, one of Moscow’s most notorious prisons.
Lefortovo serves as a pretrial detention center that has “held thousands of accused spies, dissidents, writers, rebels, and all other manner of political prisoners and hardened criminals,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
Former prisoners recounted their harrowing experiences of isolation and desperation at the infamous former KGB lockup.
Marina Litvinenko, the wife of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko, who was held in Lefortovo for eight months, told The Journal that the prison is “the most isolated place to be.”
“This is the torture,” she said.
“They wanted him to be broken,” Litvinenko continued. “They wanted to catch a bigger fish. They wanted to break a person to say whatever they wanted him to say.”
Andrei Soldatov, a journalist and security analyst who once visited Lefortovo for questioning, echoed the sentiment, saying “You cannot see anybody, and you are completely alone.”
“There is not a noise, nothing. … It really makes you crazy,” he told the Journal.
A Marine Corps veteran who was held at Lefortovo described it as the “most sinister” he experienced in his three years in Russian custody, The Journal reported.
US Marine Corps veteran Trevor Reed described the 9-by-12 foot prison cells as “scary clean,” compared to other facilities that were covered in so much graffiti that he barely had enough space to carve “US Marine Corps” and “Fuck Putin” on them, The Journal reported.
Reed also remembered the jarring isolation he experienced.
“Why don’t I hear anyone? Why don’t I see anyone?” Reed recalled asking himself during the four days he spent at the prison. “This place was so locked down, I don’t even know if I had yelled out that other prisoners could have heard me. … Whenever you move in the prison you’d see no one at all.”
While in custody, a Russian prison monitor said Gershkovich is spending his time reading a famous anti-Soviet novel by a Ukrainian Jew.
Though Gershkovich remains largely cut off from the rest of the world as he’s held at Lefortovo, he still managed to make a statement by reading the 1950s novel “Life and Fate” by Ukrainian Jew and war correspondent Vasily Grossman.
The book, which equated the crimes of Nazis in Germany to those by the Soviet Union, was confiscated by the KGB in 1961 and went on to be censored for decades.
Aside from the apparent jab at the Kremlin’s crackdown on free speech, Gershkovich’s other choices in reading material also include letters from his friends, family, and supporters.