Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich has been arrested in Russia on espionage charges, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) said Thursday.
Gershkovich, who graduated from Bowdoin College in 2014, is said to have been detained in Yekaterinburg. He previously worked as a reporter for the Moscow Times.
The FSB said Gershkovich was trying to obtain classified information, but the agency — a thinly disguised descendent of the KGB — has been known to make false claims about political prisoners in order to later leverage their potential release. According to the Associated Press, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Wednesday: “It is not about a suspicion, is it about the fact that he was caught red-handed.”
The Wall Street Journal has denied the FSB’s allegations.
“The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich,” the Wall Street Journal said in a story about the arrest. “We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family.”
Russia’s Kommersant news outlet has reported Gershkovich has been moved to the notorious Lefortovo Prison, a prison used extensively by Joseph Stalin’s secret police from 1936-38.
Following the arrest, the U.S. State Department issued an urgent warning advising all U.S. citizens residing or traveling in Russia to depart immediately.
Gershkovich has been featured in the Bowdoin alumni magazine several times.
In a 2020 interview — “The Challenges of Being a Journalist in Russia” — Gershkovich said he got his start in journalism as a night clerk on The New York Times’ foreign desk. When an opportunity came up to work for The Moscow Times, an English-language news website, Gershkovich jumped on the opportunity because both his parents are Soviet émigrés.
More so than your average Russian political prisoner, Gershkovich will know what to expect while he is detained in Russia. He’s reported extensively on Russia’s secretive prisons where those who are detained are deprived of communication with the outside world. Prisoners often aren’t even allowed contact with their attorneys.
In that 2020 interview, he was asked, “How difficult is it working in Russia as a journalist?”
He said, “When you start reporting in Russia, you often hear that it will be very hard to get people to talk. And while that may be true of Russian officialdom — though not all of it —I have found that if you go looking for the right people, many of them want to tell their stories. Of course, some will want their comments to be from an unnamed source, which means, as a reporter, you have to make sure you speak to them over encrypted channels and protect their identities. But they’re out there. You just have to go looking for them.”
The search for Russians who want to tell their stories appears to have landed Gershkovich in the middle of a world-straddling proxy war in which he now becomes a bargaining chip.
Last year, Russia’s Federal Customs Service arrested WNBA star Brittney Griner when she was found to be carrying a marijuana vaporizer. Although cannabis is illegal in Russia, U.S. officials said at the time that Russia was using Griner leverage in response to U.S. opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Three months after her arrest, Griner was released into the U.S. in a prisoner swap that saw Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, a.k.a. The Merchant of Death, returned to Russian custody.
Having a graduate detained in an authoritarian foreign country isn’t new territory for the Bowdoin College community.
In 2010, Aijalon Mahli Gomes was detained in North Korea on January 25, 2010 after entering the country from China. He was released on August 27 of that year. Seven years later he was found burned to death in California in what police said was a case of self-immolation.
Bowdoin College President Clayton Rose released a statement Thursday morning regarding Gershkovich’s arrest.
“A free press is essential to a free society and is embedded in the core values of our college. Evan, along with so many other Bowdoin graduates, has dedicated himself to advancing this principle and making it real,” said Rose.
“We are deeply concerned about Evan’s safety, and our thoughts are with him and his family. We very much hope for a speedy resolution to this situation and that he and his family are reunited soon,” he said.