Ella Millman jumped when her cellphone rang on Tuesday. He took a deep breath. The caller was a White House operator and said she would connect the call to Air Force One.
There was a long pause, then a familiar voice called: “Joe Biden,” the president began. “I’m so sorry. You must be in a lot of pain.”
Ms. Millman was seated with Mikhail Gershkovich. They are the parents of Wall Street Journal reporter Ivan Gershkovich, who was arrested last month by Russian security services while on a reporting trip and accused of espionage. The Journal and the US government vehemently deny this allegation.
Ivan’s parents, Soviet Jewish immigrants who raised two children steeped in Russian culture and American values, spoke this week about the son they named Vanya and their passionate connection to the land they fled . The days since his arrest have left him jittery, thrust into a geopolitical chess match.
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The pair huddled on the phone as Mr Biden told them the State Department had designated their son as “wrongfully detained”, launching a sweeping US effort exert pressure on Russia. He called the charges against Ivan “completely absurd”, but warned him that the process of negotiating his release would be difficult and lengthy.
Evan’s case is personal for Mr. Biden, the president said, because he knows firsthand the fear of losing a son.
“God loves you,” Mr Biden said. “You both gave up…” his voice trailed off. “It’s not the Soviet Union anymore, but you understand that mentality,” he said. “And now you’re back at it.”
After the call, the two sat in silence for several minutes, fighting back tears. “The most important person in the country called us,” Ms. Millman said at the end. “This will never happen anywhere else.”
Ivan Gershkovich’s association with Russia dates back to long before he moved there as a reporter.
Ms. Millman and Mr. Gershkovich left the Soviet Union separately in 1979, seeking a life of freedom and the opportunities that came with it. They also wanted to avoid the anti-Semitism that Soviet Jews faced.
now they find themselves at the center of a landscape that embodies everything they hope to escape: a son locked up in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, a pre-eminent symbol of the Russian state’s crushing control of its people.
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Evan’s mother said, “When I heard the name, it was complete horror.”
Ms. Millman, 66, who grew up in St. Petersburg, and Mr. Gershkovich, 59, who is from Odessa, do not use the word “survivor” to refer to themselves. Yet it’s hard to miss the tragic expanse of events woven throughout their family history: the Holocaust, the brutal repression of Joseph Stalin, the persecution of communism in the Soviet Union.
They consider themselves thoroughly American and culturally Russian, and raise their children, Evan and Danielle, with one foot in each tradition. After working as a computer programmer at the same company in New York, they settled in a three-bedroom ranch house in Princeton, NJ.
The children grew up immersed in Russian culture, with borscht, dried fish and sour-cherry dumplings on the table, and their parents’ beloved childhood books—Russian fairy tales and poetry by Korney Chukovsky—on the shelves.
The family made regular trips to New York’s Russian enclave in Brighton Beach, bought videotapes of Russian cartoons and films, and in 1999 traveled to Russia itself. Parents encouraged their children to use the language at home.
Danielle Gershkovich, who is two years older than Evan, recalls a game she and her brother often played in their shared childhood bedroom, placing their little Polly Pocket dolls inside their matchbox cars and placing them on their beds. But used to run up and down the high blankets. As they laughed and talked, their mother would shout down the hall: “Speak in Russian!”
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Ms. Millman sometimes lulls her children to bed at night with an invented fairy tale about Mitka, a little boy who gets lost in the woods, and his older sister, Fitka, who he must find.
In the story, Fitka helps all the animals he meets in the forest, as well as the Sun and the Moon. The story always had a happy ending: Fitka found his brother and brought him home safely.
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot since Evan was caught,” said Ms. Gershkovich, who is 33 and lives in Philadelphia.
from books to borden
Ivan’s family describes him as an adventurous, curious child, with his mother’s empathy and his father’s ability to talk to anyone. He has always been passionate about books and football, and has a knack for making friends with everyone. His sister described him as the emotional anchor of the family.
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His father said that the notion of a career in journalism slowly grew on him. He often recommended books to his parents, such as Lee Yip’s “Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History.” And increasingly, Ivan liked to write. “He said he wanted clear thinking and a way to express it,” Mr. Gershkovich said.
He drew inspiration from an unlikely source, Anthony Bourdain, whose television shows he watched for years with his parents and sister. Daniels said, “He loved that Anthony Bourdain would show himself to be something new and talk to anyone from any culture with respect and curiosity.”
Evan joined The New York Times in 2016 as a news assistant. He was excited but longed to write more, his mother said. A colleague suggested he use his Russian skills to write about one of the most complex places in the world.
When Ivan was hired at the Moscow Times in 2017, his parents didn’t try to dissuade him from moving to the country they once fled. They were worried, he said, but Russia seemed different then, not as dangerous as it is now. And he realized long ago that his independent-minded son could not easily refuse.
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His father said, “Ivan told me when he was a young man that it is not healthy to lead his life trying to avoid every possible risk.”
Soon after arriving in Moscow, Ms Millman said Ivan thanked her for raising her with Russian culture and making sure she spoke the language. He told her that he was surprised by how much he loved the country and its people.
Ivan tells his sister that in Russia, he better understands the meaning of the stories his parents told about their homeland. And in the people he met, he saw a resemblance to the faces of family members. “When you’re first generation, you always feel a little out of place,” Ms. Gershkovich said. “He was identifying himself and his family in Russia.”
Ivan joined the Journal in January 2022 and was in London waiting for his Russian press accreditation when the war broke out. His family said he was disappointed not to be in Moscow, and speculated that he would be sent to Berlin or Poland. Months later, he was sent to Russia, where he began reporting on daily life and the country’s economy.
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‘Delay in Russia’
He said the attack made his family more anxious. Whenever he told this to Ivan, he reassured him that he was safe as an accredited Western journalist. (He occasionally teased his mother on Twitter for worrying about him.)
Still, Mr. Gershkovich describes waking up in the middle of the night to find out when Evan last logged on. “A father wants to know that his children are safe,” he said.
On 27 March, Ivan was supposed to be in London on a break from reporting, but Ms Millman said her intuition told her he was still in Russia. She sent him a message in Russian: “My dear, how are you? How are you feeling? I love you and kiss you.”
Ivan texted back: “I’m fine. I’m delayed in Russia this week and this week. I’m going to try and call you soon.” He called later that day and told her he was working on an article he wanted to complete.
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Two days later, an editor at the Journal called to say that the news organization had lost contact with his son. Ms. Millman then tried to call Evan. No answer.
The next day, the Journal confirmed that Evan had been taken into custody. during a reporting trip in Yekaterinburg and was being held In Lefortovo prison.
Since then, Ms. Millman and Mr. Gershkovich have been trying to keep busy, talking to Evan’s friends and keeping abreast of the Journal’s efforts to hush up his case and keep him in the news, as well as the government’s actions.
And they try hard to stay cool. Ms Millman said she has started praying, something she hasn’t done a lot before as a secular Jew. She notes that Mr. Gershkovich doesn’t talk openly about his fears.
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But he still regularly checks his phone to see when his son last logged on.
On Friday morning, Ms Millman received a letter to the family that Ivan had written in Russian from prison a few days earlier. He joked about his childhood breakfast preparing him for prison food. He signed it “Vanya”.
“I have a Soviet upbringing, and we always expect the worst,” Ms Millman said, adding that she completely understands what her son is going through. “But I believe in the American dream, and I hope for a positive ending.”
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