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Wall Street Journal reporter detained in Russia is Bowdoin College graduate

A picture taken on July 24, 2021 shows journalist Evan Gershkovich.DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images

Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, Evan Gershkovich said working as a reporter in the former Soviet Union required a special set of skills when interviewing Russians.

“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,” he said in a 2020 interview with his alma mater, Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. “But they’re out there. You just have to go looking for them.”

On Wednesday, Gershkovich was detained by Russian security forces in the city of Yekaterinburg, 800 miles east of Moscow, where he was researching a story for his employer, The Wall Street Journal. Gershkovich, 31, was charged with espionage and ordered detained at least until May 29, according to the Journal and Tass, the Russian state news agency.


Gershkovich graduated in 2014 from Bowdoin, where he majored in philosophy and played on the soccer team. He maintained ties after graduating and often mentored recent graduates in Russian studies, the college said in a statement.

“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,” Bowdoin President Clayton Rose said.

In the 2020 interview, Gershkovich said he had no fixed career path after graduation and spent his first year working for a non-governmental organization in Southeast Asia that focused on environmental issues. He started freelance writing and journalism became his chosen profession.

It was not a direct path to Russia, however, he worked as a bartender and waiter until being hired on a temporary basis by the New York Times’ foreign desk. He worked his way to a full-time job at the Times. He began his career as a Russia-based journalist in 2017 when the Moscow Times, an independent English language news outlet, posted an opening for a Russian-speaking reporter.


“Because my parents are Soviet émigrés, I grew up speaking Russian at home, so I applied for the position,” he said in the 2020 interview. “I got the job and moved to Moscow that fall.”

Gershkovich later worked for Agence France-Presse before joining the Journal’s staff in 2022. He was headquartered in Moscow and had been accredited by the Russian government to work as a journalist in that country. According to the Journal, he is the first Western journalist arrested by Russian authorities since President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, which was followed by a censorship law that made it a crime to criticize the invasion.

Reporters Without Borders, an international nonprofit, expressed concern that Gershkovich’s arrest may signal that the Putin administration will target journalists as part of its war with Ukraine. The organization said Gershkovich was researching a story on the Wagner Group, the mercenary army deployed in Ukraine, whose leadership has close ties to Putin.

David Filipov worked at the Moscow Times in the early 1990s, was the Moscow Bureau Chief for the Globe from 1996 to 2004, and later held the same position at the Washington Post. He covered the Russian invasion of Crimea and the Donbas region for the Globe in 2014.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Filipov said the arrest of Gershkovich is a political tactic Putin has long used — turning people into bargaining chips either for internal political reasons or as part of his foreign policy, especially with Western countries like the United States.


“As long as Putin is in power, he doesn’t need to trade, he just needs to have the leverage,” Filipov said. “They can play the long game … It’s a waiting game. It’s not complicated. It’s actually kind of ham-fisted.”

Filipov said he does not know Gershkovich and emphasized he does not know what Gershkovich was reporting on when he was taken into custody.

But if Gershkovich was researching a story on the Wagner mercenary army, for example, a reporter could only get to the truth by interviewing relatives, friends, and neighbors of the men who are in Ukraine or lost their lives in the conflict, he said.

“You can’t find things out about Russia unless you go to the place where people are affected by it,” he said. “Who’s fighting for Wagner? That’s one thing you can find out by going to the places where the person’s loved ones live.”

By being in Yekaterinburg, Gershkovich was following a fundamental practice for Western journalists in Russia — the further away from Moscow, the more likely that average Russians will speak with an American reporter.

“One thing people don’t realize about Russia is the further you get away from Moscow, the further anyone really thinks about what happens in Moscow,” he said. “They’ve got their own problems, they get their own local leadership … They may not be as cautious or wary or frightened of talking to a foreign reporter.”


Rose, Bowdoin’s president, said Gershkovich’s work as a journalist in Russia reflected the values of his alma mater.

“A free press is essential to a free society and is embedded in the core values of our college,” he said. “Evan, along with so many other Bowdoin graduates, has dedicated himself to advancing this principle and making it real.”

Also concerned about the meaning of Gershkovich’s arrest was the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, created in memory of the freelance journalist who was kidnapped and murdered by the Islamic State in 2014.

“Evan’s arrest and unjust detention on false charges of espionage is a direct threat to media freedom in Russia and beyond,” said Diane Foley, the group’s founder and president. “Actions like these are de facto criminalization of the very practice of journalism in Russia. Evan should be immediately released and permitted to return home to his family.”

According to the foundation, there are at least four US nationals held in Russia, including Paul Whelan, “who has been wrongfully detained in Russia for 1553 days, or over four years.”

John R. Ellement can be reached at john.ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.