Ella Milman jumped when her cellphone rang Tuesday. She took a deep breath. The caller was the White House operator and said she would be connecting the call to Air Force One.
There was a long pause, then a familiar voice: "Joe Biden," the president started. "I’m so sorry. You must be in so much pain."
Ms. Milman was sitting with Mikhail Gershkovich. They are the parents of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested by Russian security services last month while on a reporting trip and is accused of espionage. The Journal and the U.S. government vehemently deny this allegation.
Evan’s parents, Soviet Jewish émigrés who raised two children steeped in Russian culture and American values, spoke this week about the son they nicknamed Vanya and his passionate connection to the land they fled. The days since his arrest have left them shaken, thrust into a geopolitical chess match.
The pair leaned over the phone as Mr. Biden told them that the State Department had designated their son as "wrongfully detained," which launches a broad U.S. effort to exert pressure on Russia. He called the charges against Evan "completely absurd" but warned them that the process of negotiating his release will be difficult and long.
Evan’s case is personal to Mr. Biden, the president said, as he knows firsthand the fear of losing a son.
"God love you," Mr. Biden said. "You guys both left that…" His voice trailed off. "It’s not the Soviet Union anymore, but you understand that mentality," he said. "And now you’re right back in it."
After the call, the two sat silent for several minutes, fighting back tears. "The most important person in the country called us," Ms. Milman finally said. "That would never happen anywhere else."
Evan Gershkovich’s bond with Russia was forged long before he moved there as a reporter.
Ms. Milman and Mr. Gershkovich emigrated from the Soviet Union, separately, in 1979, seeking a life of freedom and the opportunities that come with it. They also wanted to escape the antisemitism that Soviet Jews faced.
Now they find themselves at the center of a scenario that embodies everything they hoped to avoid: A son locked up in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, the pre-eminent symbol of the Russian state’s crushing control of its people.
"When I heard the name, it was complete horror," Evan’s mother said.
Ms. Milman, 66, who grew up in St. Petersburg, and Mr. Gershkovich, 59, who is from Odessa, don’t use the term "survivor" to refer to themselves. Yet it is hard to miss the tragic sweep of events woven throughout their family histories: the Holocaust, Joseph Stalin’s brutal repression, the oppression of communism in the Soviet Union.
They consider themselves wholly American and culturally Russian, and raised their children, Evan and Danielle, with a foot in each tradition. After meeting in New York working as computer programmers at the same company, they settled in a three-bedroom ranch house in Princeton, N.J.
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 took regular trips to New York’s Russian enclave in Brighton Beach, buying videotapes of Russian cartoons and movies, and traveled to Russia itself in 1999. The 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 her tiny Polly Pocket dolls inside his Matchbox cars and racing them up and down blankets piled high on their beds. As they laughed and talked, their mother would yell from down the hall: "Speak in Russian!"
Ms. Milman sometimes tucked her children into bed at night with an invented fairy tale about Mitka, a little boy who gets lost in the forest, and his older sister Fitka, who must find him.
In the story, Fitka enlists the help of all the animals she comes across in the woods, as well as the sun and the moon. The story always had a happy ending: Fitka found her brother and brought him home safely.
"I’ve been thinking a lot about this since Evan’s been captured," said Ms. Gershkovich, who is 33 and lives in Philadelphia.
From Books to Bourdain
Evan’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 soccer, and possesses a knack for making everyone into a friend. His sister described him as the family’s emotional anchor.
The notion of a career in journalism gradually grew on him, his father said. He often recommended books to his parents, such as Lea Ypi’s "Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History." And increasingly, Evan loved to write. "He said he wanted to pursue 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. "He loved that Anthony Bourdain would expose himself to something new and talk to anyone of any culture with respect and curiosity," said Danielle.
Evan joined the New York Times in 2016 as a news assistant. He was excited, but yearned to write more, his mother said. A colleague suggested he use his Russian skills to write about one of the world’s most complicated places.
When Evan got hired at the Moscow Times in 2017, his parents didn’t try to talk him out of going to the country they’d once fled. They worried, they said, but Russia seemed different then, not as dangerous as it is now. And they’d long since realized that their independent-minded son wasn’t easily dissuaded.
"Evan told me when he was a young man that it’s not healthy to lead your life trying to avoid every possible risk," his father said.
Soon after arriving in Moscow, Ms. Milman said Evan called to thank her for raising him with Russian culture and ensuring that he spoke the language. He told her he was surprised by how much he loved the country and its people.
Evan told his sister that in Russia, he better understood the meaning of the stories his parents told about their homeland. And he saw a resemblance to family members’ faces in the people he met. "When you are first generation, you always feel a little out of place," Ms. Gershkovich said. "He was recognizing himself and his family in Russia."
Evan joined the Journal in January 2022 and was awaiting his Russian press accreditation in London when the war started. He was disappointed not to be in Moscow, his family said, 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.
‘Delayed in Russia’
His family grew more worried with the invasion, they said. Whenever they told Evan this, he reassured them that he was safe as an accredited Western journalist. (He also sometimes teased his mother on Twitter for worrying about him.)
Still, Mr. Gershkovich describes waking up in the middle of the night to check WhatsApp to see when Evan had last logged on. "A father wants to know that his children are safe," he said.
On March 27, Evan was supposed to be in London on a break from reporting, but Ms. Milman said her intuition told her that he was still in Russia. She texted him, in Russian: "My dear, how are you doing? How are you feeling? I love you and kiss you."
Evan texted back: "I am OK. I am delayed in Russia this week and this week only. I am going to try and call you soon." He called later that day and told her he was working on an article he wanted to finish.
Two days later, a Journal editor called to say that the news organization had lost touch with her son. Ms. Milman then tried calling Evan. No answer.
The next day, the Journal confirmed that Evan had been detained while on a reporting trip in Yekaterinburg and was being held in Lefortovo prison.
Since then, Ms. Milman and Mr. Gershkovich have tried to stay busy, talking to Evan’s friends and staying apprised of the Journal’s efforts to press his case and keep him in the news, as well as the government’s actions.
And they work hard to remain composed. Ms. Milman said that she’s begun praying, something she hasn’t done much before, as a secular Jew. She notes that Mr. Gershkovich doesn’t speak openly of his fears.
But he still regularly checks his phone to see when his son last logged on.
On Friday morning, Ms. Milman received a letter to the family that Evan handwrote in Russian from prison a few days earlier. He joked about his childhood breakfasts preparing him for prison food. He signed it "Vanya."
"I have a Soviet upbringing, and we always expect the worst," Ms. Milman said, adding that she fully understands what her son is facing. "But I believe in the American dream, and I hope for a positive ending."