Evan Gershkovich Is the Product of Human Rights Activism. Why Have We Given Up on It Today?

Kennedy Lee Headshot
Kennedy Lee Headshot
Former Research Associate and Program Manager, Keystone Defense Initiative and Center on Europe and Eurasia
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich appears at the Moscow court on June 22, 2023. (Sefa Karacan via Getty Images)

On March 29, Evan Gershkovich, a prominent reporter for the Wall Street Journal, became the first US journalist arrested in Russia since the Cold War. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), which Gershkovich believed had been following him on a previous assignment, erroneously claims he was involved in “espionage in the interests of the American government.” On May 23, his pre-trial detention was extended for 3 months. He could face up to twenty years in a Russian prison on these trumped-up charges.

Gershkovich’s arrest is the latest in a steady devolution of human rights in Russia—a trend that accelerated following Russia’s February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Russian authorities recently sentenced opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza to 25 years in prison, where fellow dissident Alexei Navalny also continues to waste away. 

A top adversary arresting a US journalist in such a brazen show of contempt should jolt the free world into action. But aside from Gershkovich’s employer, the Wall Street Journal, and a few motivated civil society groups, primarily Jewish organizations, the rest of the West has remained conspicuously silent throughout his ordeal. Whether this stems from a lack of interest or the belief that activism will not yield results is unclear. What is certain, however, is that there is a better way, informed by historical precedent directly connected to Gershkovich’s own life story—that of the movement in defense of Soviet Jewry.  

Though the Russian regime is different than its Soviet predecessor, the ideology of the two look largely the same. Moscow’s horrific treatment of its citizens, dissenters, and the free press surely evokes dark memories for many who are old enough to remember the Cold War. Among those persecuted in the Soviet Union, Soviet Jewry was forbidden from practicing its faith and refused emigration by Moscow. These Jews became known to the world in the 1960s-80s as Refuseniks. 

Drawing inspiration from the Torah, the movement to liberate these Jews took up the motto “Let My People Go” after Moses’ recurring plea to Pharoah. Today, the movement to free Soviet Jewry is remembered the world over as one of the most successful campaigns for human rights in history. 

In fact, Gershkovich’s own parents, Ella Milman and Mikhail Gershkovich, were two of the beneficiaries of the movement for Soviet Jewry, and moved to the United States when Soviet authorities finally relented and allowed Jews to emigrate en masse. 

The movement for Soviet Jewry not only provided Jews and its allies in the cause of human dignity with a sense of common purpose, it also became the first mass, sustained campaign to expose the moral hollowness of Soviet ideology. The movement unmasked human rights abuses and the disregard for the dignity of the individual that was so prevalent under Communist totalitarianism. In particular, the leadership and moral clarity of Natan Sharansky, a political prisoner of conscience and crucial figure within the movement, inspired freedom-seeking people of his generation and those for decades to come.

One of those inspired was the future United States president Ronald Reagan. While his predecessors pursued détente and parity with the Soviet empire, Reagan firmly believed that the totalizing system of Soviet communism was no match for the West’s openness of free markets and respect for human freedom. In fact, Reagan’s distaste for détente played a central role in his decision to primary then-incumbent US President Gerald Ford, a fellow Republican, in the 1976 election. He argued that Ford’s policies had caused the US to fall behind the Soviet Union militarily and diplomatically and that new leadership and vision were necessary to prevail over the USSR.

Reagan was not an idealist. He firmly believed in the necessity of military power to defend American security but rejected the belief that realism must be devoid of morality. He frequently pressed the Soviet Union on human rights concerns publicly, bluntly declaring it an Evil Empire. Without grappling with and exposing the ideology that motivated the Soviets’ behavior, the United States could not effectively galvanize support domestically and abroad to pressure the Soviet regime. Under his presidency, after nine years in the Soviet prison system, Sharansky was freed and allowed to emigrate to Israel. Sharansky is believed to be one of around one million Jews who fled the Soviet Union and made aliyah to Israel. About 500,000 more moved to the United States. 

Lessons from the movement for Soviet Jewry are applicable today. The images of Evan Gershkovich standing prisoner in the Russian defendant’s cage should unite and inspire world Jewry and human rights advocates once again. It is time for a new movement to form that is no less coordinated and no less unrelenting in its pursuit of justice. In that effort, we should welcome any and all allies who view Moscow’s crimes in Ukraine and at home as an affront to human dignity, as the United States Congress and President Reagan did in the 1980s.  

Raised in New Jersey, Gershkovich moved to the capital Moscow in 2017 to take a job with the English-language news publication Moscow Times. After a stint at the Agence France-Presse, he joined the Wall Street Journal in January 2022. A month later, Russia’s attack on Ukraine became the center of world affairs.

Gershkovich’s reporting on the Russian military, civil society, and economy shed light on Moscow just as the government moved into overdrive to distort the true state of affairs at home. When detained in Yekaterinburg, Gershkovich was reportedly working on a story about the Wagner Group, a US-designated transnational criminal organization whose mercenaries terrorize civilians in Ukraine as well as Syria, Libya, and elsewhere in Africa.

The movement for Soviet Jewry was more than just an example of successful political organization. Above all, it shed light on the Torah’s value of every individual’s innate dignity. It was a unifying cause not only for Jews around the world, and particularly in the United States, but also for members of Congress and human rights advocates across the political spectrum. Its message can carry weight again today.  

Gershkovich’s life story embodies the success of the movement for Soviet Jewry and the value of the individual that it conveyed. The West should not become desensitized to Moscow’s abuses or give up on these beliefs now. Drawing on inspiration from its Soviet predecessor, we should once again encourage a movement to rise up that works to ensure that Gershkovich’s arrest is not ignored. Putin should be put on notice for his human rights record, much as his predecessors were decades ago. 

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