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“It is impossible not to hate the country that is in prison and holding my best friend hostage on false charges”

Journalist Evan Gershkovich was in a Russian cell for four months on trumped-up charges. Pjotr ​​​​​​Sauer keeps his fate in the spotlight. “My life is all about Evan.”

Jarron Kamphorst

The day his best friend was arrested in Russia is etched in Pjotr ​​Sauer’s memory. Radio silence. The panic called the hotel where he was staying. The contact with his parents, the phone was offline for hours on end. The sleepless night. And finally released to the press of the Russian security service FSB that Evan Gershkovich, Russia’s correspondent The Wall Street JournalThey were arrested on March 30 on suspicion of espionage.

Since then, the 31-year-old American has been held in a Russian cell. This makes him the first foreigner since the end of the Cold War to be imprisoned on these charges. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison.

“The realization that he is in an eight square meter cell day in and day out remains real,” said Sauer (30) on a terrace in the Georgian capital Tbilisi. Since March last year, he has been working in Amsterdam as a Russian editor for the British newspaper The Guardian Shortly after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he and his family fled Moscow, the city where he grew up.

“Right now, my whole life revolves around Evan. He must be released as soon as possible.” To make this happen, Sauer and several friends do their best to keep Evans’ fate in the spotlight. With appearances in the media, a special website, an Instagram page and an email address where friends and strangers can send letters to Evan, they try to keep the pressure on the politicians.

With the #IStandWithEvan campaign, the editors of ‘The Moscow Times’, ‘Het Parool’, ‘Trouw’ and ‘de Volkskrant’ demonstrated against the imprisonment of Evan Gershkovich.Sculpture by Marco Okhuizen

You write with Evan twice a week. How is it according to you?

“It’s different from day to day. He has a very structured routine. On a positive day he has a lot of energy and writes as many letters as possible. He also does push-ups, three hundred per hour. I sometimes have to smile at that , because he was never really known as a sporty boy. He was more a beer here, a cigarette there.”

“On other days he has a more difficult time. Then he is angry and sad. But he realizes in these moments that better days are coming. He also never loses his sense of humor in his letters. He continued joking. That says a lot about his resilience and resilience.”

What does contact with you personally do?

“I think about him every hour of the day and it makes me very emotional. I simply cannot be completely delighted while he is here. Until he is free, I am not myself.”

Can you change your mind every now and then?

“Difficulty. Sometimes I try to push it away and not think about it, but then I feel guilty because I don’t think about it and I start wondering how I can help him again. It goes back and forth like that all the time. In the end it’s a very powerless feeling. At the same time, I know it’s not my fault. All I can do is make his life as easy as possible in prison.”

Pjotr ​​​​​​Sauer: ‘Ironically, Evan says he feels better in prison than before.’Statue of Egor Slizyak

How do you do that?

“In addition to letters, our team also sent the food he requested and many books. He is now devouring all Russian classics. We often joke that he will come out ten years older and wiser. Ironically, he himself says that he feels better in prison than before. He reads and meditates a lot and suddenly he loves the little things.”

Like what?

“He obviously hardly sees nature in his cell, but he recently wrote that when a bird flies past his window or when he hears the summer wind whistling, he feels very connected to nature. As a result, he feels strangely closer to nature in prison than ever before.

Does it actually have any sense of time?

“Time is of course a difficult concept in a cell with no clock and hardly any daylight. But he gets a shower once a week, so he knows another week has passed. The moment of the shower is his clock. It’s a dissonance strange, but he always writes that the days go slow and the weeks go fast.”

What did he find in the news?

“More than I expected in advance. The Russian security service FSB, of course, read all the letters before they got to him, so I can’t say everything. But so far I can lose a lot. For example, we talked about riots Prigozhin and his Wagner army, in June. Besides, he can watch TV, although of course it’s Russian state TV. So when he sees the news, every time he has to decipher what really happened. He said that it was fascinating to find this uprising on state television. Especially because the propagandists did not know how to bring the news in the first place.”

Is it not risky to communicate about these political matters?

“It’s difficult to find a balance. I don’t want to put him in trouble with what I write and at the same time I want to give him the information he asks for. So it still has to be a bit cryptic, because I can’t give names all the facts. But in hidden terms it works out nicely. That’s a daily dilemma that I have: what can I say and what can’t I say?”

You also write about your own free life. Isn’t that uncomfortable?

“In this respect too, the balance is difficult. On the one hand, he wants me to tell about my own life, in which everything is going relatively well. On the other hand, I try to make it clear that I have a difficult time because it stuck. But I don’t want to play the victim. That difference between ‘I miss you and life is not the same without you’ and ‘Look this is my life and I do all this’ is difficult. ”

Because it clearly requires details about your daily life?

“Yes absolutely. When he hears about our daily concerns, he also has the idea that he is still part of this life. For example, recently I was in Berlin with our friends and he clearly wrote that he wanted to hear the details and gossip. What we did, how we did it, who kissed who, things like that.”

Does he actually receive a lot of letters from strangers?

“A lot. In all, he received more than a thousand letters. He recently received a moving letter from a Dutch man who is 100 years old. This man was in the resistance during World War II and passed two years in a German prison camp. He wrote in beautiful old Dutch that he not only sympathizes with him, but also really knows how Evan feels. He said: Now I am a hundred, have children, grandchild and I’m delighted. Hang in there, keep fighting. My prison doesn’t define me. It makes you delighted to read.”

You and a team translate letters sent to him by others. Isn’t that weird?

“I see a lot, because all the letters must be translated into Russian, otherwise they will not go to prison. It sometimes feels like an invasion of privacy, or voyeurism, because these letters are not addressed to me and are often about personal matters. ”

American journalist Evan Gershkovich (right), arrested on espionage charges, watches a hearing in Moscow.AFP image

What do you estimate the chances of being released?

“Putin’s spokesman recently announced that behind-the-scenes talks are taking place with the United States.” That’s positive. Everyone knows by now that it will end in a prisoner exchange. At first we were concerned that the Russians might think he was really a spy, but now it is clear that it is pure hostage diplomacy. The Wall Street Journal also recently published a piece about how Putin personally ordered Evans’ arrest. This is shocking, but also shows how the Kremlin orchestrated this itself. Anyway, the latest signals are positive.”

How would you describe your own relationship with Russia, the country where you grew up?

“As particularly difficult. Of course I looked at Russia with different eyes because of the war in Ukraine. At the same time, I have thousands of beautiful memories and I cherish nostalgic feelings for the country. Although my view of Russia has really changed since the arrest of Evans. It is impossible not to hate the country that imprisoned and held my best friend hostage on false charges.”

You still have many friends in Russia. How do you see them?

“It’s hard for me to see or talk to friends who are still there, know Evan well and just go on living their lives. Some of them bury themselves in the sand and just party like nothing happened, while a few kilometers away a boy they know is in prison.”

Do you blame them?

“Somewhere. Although I also know that it is the typical Russian mentality that you as a person cannot change anything. It is the apathetic attitude that many Russians have towards politics. They no longer feel any responsibility after 23 years of Putin. This applies not only to the way they see Evan’s fate, but also to the war in Ukraine. But this does not make it easy to see.”

Do you want to go back to Russia yourself?

“Cynically enough, the day Evan was detained for 100 days, I received a message that a new visa was waiting for me. I waited over a year for this. But if I came back now and sat in court at the Evans trial, I’m sure he wouldn’t thank me for it. Mostly he would think this is not worth it because of my safety. As a journalist, you cannot tell your story if you are dead or in prison. You can play the hero, but the stakes are simply too great now.”

Do you think it is justified that Western journalists are still in Russia at all?

“Suppose: it is the choice of each journalist himself. It is their own responsibility. But the next journalist arrested, I have no sympathy for that. Because you know what risks they have.”

Will more foreign journalists follow the fate of Evans?

“Yes, I think so. Maybe not in the short term, but maybe in two years. The Kremlin just doesn’t do many things at once. But when Putin sees that something is working, he is delighted and easy to fall for it. In the Kremlin they poison a person not once, but several times. That’s why I think a foreign journalist should be arrested only once.”

Would you like to write a letter to Evan Gershkovich? You can: post your letter [email protected]The team will translate your message into Russian and send it to the Moscow prison.

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