A year ago, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was a free man. Now, he's spending Christmas Day languishing in a Moscow prison, away from but not forgotten by his family, friends and colleagues.
Gershkovich has been considered wrongfully detained by the United States since late March, when he was first arrested while reporting in Yekaterinburg, the fourth-largest city in Russia, and accused of espionage. He has captured international attention and become a symbol of the dangers of journalism in an authoritarian nation. As of Monday, he's been confined in the notorious Lefortovo prison for 271 days, repeatedly denied appeal and facing near-certain conviction in Russia's closed court system.
The Biden administration and Wall Street Journal have called the spying charges absurd and demanded his release, while working behind the scenes to bring him home. Meanwhile, those close to him have organized letter-writing campaigns to keep his spirits up and maintained a steady drumbeat of social media awareness to keep Gershkovich's plight in the public consciousness. Through the dark circumstances, they say Gershkovich has maintained his good humor and physical fitness.
In a memo last week obtained by Fox News Digital, Wall Street Journal editor Emma Moody said there were cautious signs of optimism and encouraged staffers to continue to raise awareness of his situation.
"As the holiday season gets into full swing, we are persistently aware that Evan is sitting in a Russian prison, unable to spend the holidays with his friends and family," she wrote. "We are encouraged by recent comments from both the U.S. and Russia, indicating they want to do a deal. Let’s hope that happens sooner rather than later. In the meantime, we can share Evan’s story far and wide and do our part to raise awareness of his case."
Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed Gershkovich, who turned 32 in October, and fellow imprisoned American Paul Whelan during his annual press conference earlier this month and signaled a deal for their release was possible.
"You say, why don't they return to their homeland? Then shouldn't they not commit crimes on the territory of the Russian Federation?" Putin said. "But this is all rhetoric. It's not that we would refuse to return them. We didn't refuse. We want to reach an agreement, and these agreements must be mutually acceptable and suit both parties."
Whelan, an ex-Marine who has been held by Russia for five years on spying charges, has criticized both the Biden and Trump administrations for not getting him home. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said at his own press conference this month that the U.S. is "very actively working" to get that done. Last year, the Russians swapped WNBA player Brittney Griner for arms dealer Viktor Bout.
The Wall Street Journal has dispatched Washington bureau chief Paul Beckett to focus solely on Gershkovich's release, which he told Fox News Digital entails in part trying to "create a landscape that would allow the U.S. government to negotiate with the Russians to get him home." Beckett has a long background of reporting overseas that made him a good fit for the assignment.
"I think there's an assumption that these always end in prisoner swaps at some point, and we're looking for ideas to suggest, is there something else that might prompt Russia to give him back that wouldn't just be one of these slightly unsavory exchanges?" he said.
His assessment of the state of play regarding Gershkovich's safe return is that there is "movement" but he continues to brace for a long slog. Needless to say, it's been a difficult time for the venerable newspaper.
"It's a real body blow," Beckett said. "It just sucks. It sucks over the holidays. This is the time of year when you take stock of where you work, and you take stock of how you're doing as an institution and your colleagues around you, and there's just a glaring hole there, which is Evan's not here. So that's very tough."
In an appearance on "FOX & Friends" earlier this month, his mother Ella Milman and faster Mikhail Gershkovich called on the Biden administration to keep its promise and get him home.
The White House said it's pursing "every avenue" to get that done.
"Evan’s family is going through something unimaginable. As we work to secure Evan’s release and the release of fellow American Paul Whelan, we are regularly in contact at senior levels with the Russian government about these cases. We have made multiple proposals, and we are constantly discussing this issue with third countries who can assist. Not a week goes by without intensive activity. We will not let up and will continue to pursue every avenue to bring them home," a White House spokesperson told Fox News Digital earlier this month.
It didn't respond to an additional request for comment.
Gershkovich's colleagues continue to miss Evan and hope for his return. Close friend Polina Ivanova of The Financial Times, along with The Guardian's Pjotr Sauer and journalist Maria Borzunova, traveled to spend Thanksgiving with Gershkovich's parents and sister Danielle, while keeping a seat open for Evan.
"Everybody goes through ups and downs considering the challenges he's facing, but it's getting into a cold and dark winter in Moscow," Ivanova told Fox News Digital after his pre-trial detention was extended into late January.
For his courage and grace under pressure, Gerskovich has been bestowed with numerous accolades, including the Lovejoy Award for Courage in Journalism and the Poynter Institute's Media Person of the Year.
The Wall Street Journal and others have encouraged supporters to "Save a Seat" for Gershkovich at their holiday tables, keeping one spot empty to remind them of his absence.
"We’re saving a seat for him," Moody wrote. "Hopefully for not too long."
Fox News' Danielle Wallace and Brian Flood contributed to this report.