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Parents of Evan Gershkovich say his arrest revives painful memories of being Jewish in Soviet Union

In their first interview, Ella Milman and Mikhail Gershkovich say their son’s imprisonment is ‘totally crushing’

The parents of journalist Evan Gershkovich spoke publicly for the first time since their son’s arrest, saying his imprisonment in Russia brings back painful memories of growing up Jewish in the Soviet Union.

Gershkovich’s mother, Ella Milman, told The Wall Street Journal in a video interview that as a child in St. Petersburg before the fall of the communist government, her parents tried to hide their religion from those around them.

“My mother would put what were called soldier’s blankets, so thick, like two of them in the windows, to light up the candles so other neighbors wouldn’t see we were Jewish,” she said.

Gershkovich reported for The Moscow Times and Agence France-Press in Russia before being hired by The Wall Street Journal. He was among the few American journalists who remained in Russia after the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. 

He was arrested March 29 and accused by Russian officials of spying, a charge denied by the U.S. government. His mother said she sensed that his situation began to change after he published a detailed report on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s thinking on the invasion in December.

A mother’s worries

“I think when that article came out about Putin in December, it got me worried a lot. My mood was changing,” she said. But he “felt like it was his duty to report,” she added. “He loved the Russian people. He still does.” 

Still, Evan’s arrest came as a shock to his parents, who were among 2 million Soviet Jews who fled that country. Mikhail is originally from the Ukrainian city of Odesa while Ella is from St. Petersburg. She described receiving the news of her son’s arrest as “totally crushing. That experience all came back from the Soviet Union.” 

The video described the family as “survivors” of the Holocaust, Stalin-era repression and antisemitism. His parents left in 1979 and ended up working together in New York City, ultimately settling in New Jersey where they raised Evan and his sister, Danielle. His mother recalled saying to him: “This is the country that I left. This is the country that you love.”

The kids were raised bilingual in English and Russian and were brought on a visit to Russia in 1999. 

Mikhail said the ordeal has hit him hard. Despite trusting his son’s judgment, he felt he should have done more to warn him of the dangers of living in Russia. 

“Of course it makes things more difficult for me now,” he said, “because I feel like I failed as a father.”

‘Hopefully, he’s writing’

Danielle, who last saw her brother at her wedding, said Evan has their parents’ strength. 

“Hopefully, he’s writing. I know he’s reading. I was hoping he could make friends, I know that’s probably a silly thing to say, but I could see him making friends in there.”

Former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, in a video calling for Gershkovich’s release, recalled his own incarceration in the Lefortovo prison where the Journal reporter is being held, saying it’s one of the “most isolated” prisons in the world. 

Since his arrest, numerous campaigns have been launched to bring awareness to Gershkovich’s imprisonment, including one launched by Wall Street Journal colleagues to have Jews set an extra place at their Passover seder tables in his honor. Danielle said those efforts have been “strangely helpful.”

“It’s terrifying refreshing the news and seeing article after article, but it’s also great seeing his face.”

His mother said one of the “American qualities” they’ve picked up is to “be optimistic, believe in happy endings, and that’s where we stand right now. But I am not stupid. I understand what’s involved. But that’s what I choose to believe.”

Correction: Corrects the spelling of Gershkovich.

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