‘There are no holidays in Russian jail’: Two US journalists spend Thanksgiving imprisoned

‘There are no holidays in Russian jail’: Two US journalists spend Thanksgiving imprisoned

FILE - Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich stands in a glass cage in a courtroom at the Moscow City Court in Moscow, Russia, on Oct. 10, 2023.

The Gershkovich family is accustomed to having Thanksgiving without their son, journalist Evan Gershkovich, since he has lived abroad as a reporter for several years. But this year, his absence at the Thanksgiving table weighs particularly heavily because Gershkovich is jailed in a Russian prison.

“Having a Thanksgiving with Evan there would have been a huge treat. But, of course, this Thanksgiving, it’s just hard,” Danielle Gershkovich, Evan’s sister, told VOA. There’s “a literal, physical darkness,” she said.

As millions of people across the United States and the world celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday, two American journalists — Gershkovich, as well as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Alsu Kurmasheva — are spending the holiday jailed in Russia on charges that are widely viewed as groundless and politically motivated.

“It is shameful these Americans are spending Thanksgiving in a Russian prison, rather than celebrating at home with their families,” Daniel Kanigan, deputy spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, told VOA in a statement.

Gershkovich, a Russia correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, has been detained since March on espionage charges that he, his employer and the U.S. government vehemently deny. The U.S. government has declared Gershkovich wrongfully detained.

Gershkovich’s pretrial detention is set to expire on November 30. Originally set to expire in May, his pretrial detention has already been extended twice.

Paul Beckett, an assistant editor at The Wall Street Journal who is leading the newspaper’s effort to secure Gershkovich’s release, predicts his colleague’s pretrial detention will be extended for another three-month period.

Alsu Kurmasheva

Meanwhile, Kurmasheva, an editor with the Tatar-Bashkir Service of VOA’s sister outlet RFE/RL, has been detained since mid-October on charges of failing to register as a “foreign agent.” She and her employer reject the “foreign agent” charges, which are often used to target the Kremlin’s critics.

Based in Prague, the dual U.S.-Russian national traveled to Russia in May for a family emergency. Kurmasheva’s passports were confiscated when she tried to leave the country in June, and she was waiting for her passports to be returned when she was detained last month. She will be held in pretrial detention until at least December 5.

Russia’s Washington embassy did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.

On a typical Thanksgiving, Kurmasheva joins her family and friends “for a bountiful meal with gratitude for the love and support we’ve experienced throughout the year,” her husband, Pavel Butorin, told VOA in a statement.

“This Thanksgiving, jailed in Russia, Alsu will be receiving prison food through a small window in her cell,” said Butorin, who is the director of Current Time TV, a Russian-language TV and digital network led by RFE/RL in partnership with VOA.

“Alsu is not a criminal. She deserves to be with family and friends on her favorite American holiday, not confined in a prison cell,” Butorin said. “We love her and miss her at our Thanksgiving table.”

Butorin has previously called on the U.S. government to declare Kurmasheva wrongfully detained, which would open additional government resources to help secure her release.

“We are also closely following the detention of Alsu Kurmasheva and remain deeply concerned about the extension of her pretrial detention,” said Kanigan, from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. “The Department of State continuously reviews the circumstances surrounding the detentions of U.S. nationals overseas, including those in Russia, for indicators that they are wrongful.”

In his statement, Kanigan also renewed calls for Russian authorities to immediately release Gershkovich, as well as Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine serving a 16-year sentence for espionage. Like Gershkovich, Whelan has been declared wrongfully detained.

A different Thanksgiving

For the Gershkovich family, Thanksgiving is usually a casual affair, according to Danielle Gershkovich, who said they focus on spending time together as a family, especially when her brother managed to travel home from work for the holiday.

“Especially the more time we were apart from one another in college and Evan being abroad, it was an excuse to have family dinner together,” she said.

Evan is an amazing cook, she said, so he and their dad would “do something extravagant,” Danielle said. “My mom and I got to reap the rewards and clean up after.”

This Thanksgiving, some of Gershkovich’s journalist friends, whom he met while working in Russia, are traveling from Europe to the Gershkovich home in New Jersey to celebrate the holiday together, she said.

Danielle said her family is able to stay in touch with Evan through letters. Their correspondence is full of jokes, she said, adding that she has also taken to giving her brother tarot card readings through their letters in an effort to keep him entertained.

“He’s working really hard to keep himself in good spirits. I’m just so amazed by him,” she said. “I don’t think I could be staying as strong as I am — or my parents either — if it weren’t for seeing him. If he can do it, so can we.”

As part of The Wall Street Journal’s campaign to secure Gershkovich’s release, assistant editor Beckett said the outlet is asking people to save a seat at their Thanksgiving table “to remember Evan and what he is going through in Lefortovo Prison.”

“It’s always tough when you have a colleague in such dire straits. I think it’s going to be more poignant, more immediate and more moving to know that he’s there on a holiday,” Beckett told VOA. “There are no holidays in Russian jail.”


Russia Thanksgiving Evan Gershkovich Alsu Kurmasheva

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