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US journalist Evan Gershkovich faces Russian spy charges

Thomas Latschan
June 25, 2024

Evan Gershkovich, a US reporter, is accused of being a CIA spy and has been detained in a Moscow jail for over a year. He could face up to 20 years in prison — unless he's saved by a last-minute prisoner swap.

Evan Gershkovich stands in a glass enclosure as journalists take photos of him in October 2023
American journalist Evan Gershkovich has been held in a Russian prison for more than a year Image: Evgenia Novozhenina/REUTERS

Russia's war in Ukraine had been going on for about a year when Evan Gershkovich arrived in Yekaterinburg, in the foothills of the Ural Mountains, on March 29, 2023. He was there to research a story about the infamous Wagner Group and their recruitment methods — and potentially to find out what Russians think about the mercenary fighting unit. 

Yekaterinburg is also the headquarters of Uralvagonzavod, a large Russian defense company that, among other things, makes tanks for use in Ukraine. Could this have been the reason for Gershkovich being there, of all places, some 1,800 kilometers (1,120 miles) east of Moscow? The answer is unclear. What is clear, however, is that visiting the city will seal his fate.

A worker stands next to a tank that is being contructed in a factory on a large platform
The Uralvagonzavod plant near Yekaterinburg builds tanks for use in Ukraine, among other defense equipmentImage: Donat Sorokin/Tass/dpa/picture alliance

Russian security forces detained Gershkovich and accused him of spying for the US. More specifically, they alleged he had been sent by the CIA to gather confidential information about the manufacturing and repair of military equipment. The arrest marks the first time since the end of the Cold War that Russia has detained a US journalist.

Gershkovich was transferred to the infamous Lefortovo prison in Moscow. Formerly a torture facility for the Soviet security agency KGB, today it serves as a pretrial detention center. He has been held there ever since his arrest. Only now, nearly 15 months after he was first detained, is his closed-door trial slated to begin on Wednesday.

Gershkovich grew up in two worlds

Gershkovich, 32, had been living and working in Russia since 2017, first as a reporter for The Moscow Times, then for the AFP news agency. In 2022 he began reporting for The Wall Street Journal from the post-Soviet successor states.

A portrait photo of Evan Gershkovich wearing a baseball cap on the coast
Gershkovich was born in the US to Soviet-era emigrants, who raised him in a bilingual environmentImage: DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP

Gershkovich was born in New York to Jewish immigrant parents, but his family roots lie in Ukraine. Many of his relatives were murdered during the Holocaust, and his family also experienced antisemitic discrimination during the Soviet era, which prompted his parents to emigrate to the US in 1979. 

Gershkovich grew up bilingually, speaking both English and Russian. In his mid-20s, he decided to move to Russia. He quickly made a name for himself as a reporter of stories that provided deep insight into Russian culture and society.

After Russian troops marched into Ukraine in February 2022, the work environment for foreign journalists became increasingly difficult. The tightening of press laws also forced DW to close its Moscow bureau.

Despite all this, Gershkovich decided to stay in the country and continue to report for The Wall Street Journal. He was well aware of the danger he faced.

In July 2022, eight months before his arrest, he tweeted: "Reporting on Russia is now also a regular practice of watching people you know get locked away for years."

Several US citizens detained in Russia

It's a fate he himself now faces. Gershkovich has denied all the charges brought against him, but a worst-case outcome could see the US journalist spend 20 years behind bars.

Gershkovich isn't the only American currently detained in Russia; roughly a dozen US citizens are being held in Russian prisons. Washington has accused Moscow of using them as bargaining chips to push for the release of Russians imprisoned in the US. The US has repeatedly warned its citizens to leave Russia since 2022.

A New York City vendor at Grand Central Station poses with a March 29, 2024, copy of The Wall Street Journal showing a mostly blank front page to mark the one year anniversary of the imprisonment in Russia
The Wall Street Journal marked the one-year anniversary of Gershkovich's imprisonment with a blank front pageImage: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

The most well-known US citizen in Russian custody is Paul Whelan. The 54-year-old former marine was working for a US automotive supplier when he was arrested. He is currently serving a 16-year prison sentence.

The trial of Ksenia Karelina, a dual Russian-American citizen, began on June 20 in Yekaterinburg. In 2022, the 32-year-old donated $50 (€47) to a Ukrainian organization that supported Ukraine's army. She faces up to 20 years in prison.

Just days ago, another US soldier was sentenced to three years and nine months in prison. He allegedly visited a Russian woman in Vladivostok whom he had met while serving in South Korea. The soldier is accused of having physically attacked the woman and stolen 10,000 rubles (€105/$112).

Could a last-minute Russia-US prisoner exchange save Gershkovich?

The case of US basketball player Brittney Griner garnered particular attention. She was arrested shortly before the invasion of Ukraine on alleged drug-related violations and sentenced to nine years in prison. She had been carrying 0.7 grams (0.02 ounces) of cannabis oil in her luggage that had been prescribed to her by a US doctor for pain management. Griner was freed in December 2022 in exchange for the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who had been imprisoned in the US.

Such an exchange may also be the last hope for Gershkovich. Following his arrest in March 2023, US media began to speculate that it was a retaliatory move by the Russians; just five days earlier, the US had indicted Russian Sergey Cherkasov on charges of espionage.

Fighting to free journalist Evan Gershkovich from Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed in early June that Moscow and Washington have been holding intense, behind-the-scenes discussions about a possible prisoner exchange.

"The ball is in the United States' court," Putin's deputy foreign minister, Sergey Ryabkov, told the Russian state news agency Tass. "We are waiting for them to respond to the ideas that have been presented to them."

In an interview with US broadcaster ABC News in March, Gershkovich's parents said they were happy to hear that both governments have declared their willingness to negotiate.

"I think if you let the pessimism in... the game is over," said Gershkovich's mother, Ella Milman.

This article was originally written in German.