Working as a journalist in Moscow seemed a natural fit for Evan Gershkovich, the son of immigrants from the Soviet Union who grew up speaking Russian at home in Princeton, N.J.
After he graduated in 2014 from Bowdoin College, one of the country’s most selective schools, however, “it took me awhile to figure out that journalism was the career for me,” he said in a 2020 interview on the school’s website.
Now Russia’s Federal Security Service says the 31-year-old American reporter for The Wall Street Journal has been arrested on charges of espionage. The FSB, the country’s top security agency and successor to the KGB, said Gershkovich was collecting information on an enterprise of the military-industrial complex.
The Journal denied the allegations and demanded his release.
Sarah Conly, a retired philosophy professor at Bowdoin, recalled that Gershkovich was unafraid to speak up while other students hung back.
“He was lively and outspoken and not afraid to express his views,” she said in an email. “I have followed his career with admiration and am horrified at this outcome.”
After college, Gershkovich worked for an environmental organization in Southeast Asia, then moved to New York and worked as a cook until joining The New York Times as a clerk on the foreign desk.
Two years later, excited by what he’d learned at the Times, he wanted to get reporting experience and found a slot in 2017 at the Moscow Times, an English-language news site in the Russian capital.
“When you start reporting in Russia, you often hear that it will be very hard to get people to talk,” he said in the Bowdoin interview. “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,” he said.
Gershkovich later moved to the French news agency Agence France-Presse and then to the Journal.
Friends and colleagues were shocked by the news and took to social media to describe him as a committed journalist, dismissing the allegations as bogus and ridiculous.
“Journalism is not a crime,” they posted.
Henry Foy, the Financial Times’ European diplomatic correspondent based in Brussels, tweeted: “Evan is an exemplary foreign correspondent, a brilliant reporter and a wonderful, kind-hearted friend.”
Joshua Yaffa, a Russia-Ukraine reporter for The New Yorker, posted: “Evan was not unaware or naïve about the risks. It’s not like he was in Russia because no one bothered to tell him it was dangerous. He is a brave, committed, professional journalist who traveled to Russia to report on stories of import and interest.”
Oliver Carrol, a foreign correspondent for The Economist, tweeted that he hopes Gershkovich’s bravery “carries through in these very dark hours. It’s something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Let alone Evan, who is one of the nicest guys in journalism.”
Many foreign journalists pulled out of Russia after the country enacted laws to punish anyone who discredits Russian forces in Ukraine, and the U.S. State Department has repeatedly advised all Americans to leave the country.
The new law has left many of the remaining journalists uncertain about what would be considered crossing the line. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “those carrying out normal journalistic activity will obviously keep working, if they have proper accreditation. There will be no problems with that.”
Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya tweeted that ”the problem is that the recently updated legislation and the FSB’s interpretation of espionage today allow for the imprisonment of anyone who is simply interested in military affairs.”
Gershkovich is the first American reporter to be arrested on espionage charges in Russia since 1986, when Nicholas Daniloff of U.S. News and World Report was arrested by the KGB. Daniloff was released without charge 20 days later in a swap for an employee of the Soviet Union’s U.N. mission who was arrested by the FBI, also on spying charges.
One other American is in prison on a spying conviction: former Marine and corporate security executive Paul Whelan, arrested in 2018 on charges the United States and his family say were trumped-up.
For Whelan’s brother David, Gershkovich’s arrest is painful.
“Our family is sorry to hear that another American family will have to experience the same trauma that we have had to endure for the past 1,553 days,” he said in a statement.