MOSCOW, Russia — A Wall Street Journal reporter arrested by Russia's top security agency on espionage charges Thursday is a graduate of Bowdoin College.
The Federal Security Service said Thursday that Evan Gershkovich was detained in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg while allegedly trying to obtain classified information. It's the first time a U.S. correspondent has been put behind bars on spying accusations since the Cold War.
The Wall Street Journal said it “vehemently denies the allegations” and seeks Gershkovich's immediate release.
"We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family,” the publication said.
The arrest comes amid bitter tensions between the West and Moscow over its war in Ukraine.
Gershkovich, 31, speaks Russian. His parents live in the United States but are originally from the former Soviet Union, NBC News reported.
Gershkovich is featured in multiple alumni-related stories on Bowdoin's website, including one that focuses on the challenges of being a journalist in Russia. He graduated from Bowdoin in 2014.
In a letter addressed to the Bowdoin community Thursday, college president Clayton Rose said Gershkovich was a philosophy major who also wrote for The Bowdoin Orient and helped edit The Bowdoin Globalist, which became The Bowdoin Review. He was also a member of Bowdoin's men's soccer team.
"A free press is essential to a free society and is embedded in the core values of our college," Rose said. "Evan, along with so many other Bowdoin graduates, has dedicated himself to advancing this principle and making it real."
"We are deeply concerned about Evan's safety, and our thought are with him and his family," he continued. "We very much hope for a speedy resolution to this situation and that he and his family are reunited soon."
Gershkovich is the first American reporter to be arrested on espionage charges in Russia since September 1986, when Nicholas Daniloff, a Moscow correspondent for U.S. News and World Report, was arrested by the KGB. He was released without charges 20 days later in a swap for an employee of the Soviet Union's United Nations mission who was arrested by the FBI.
The FSB, which is the top successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB, alleged that Gershkovich “was acting on the U.S. orders to collect information about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military industrial complex that constitutes a state secret.”
The agency didn’t say when the arrest took place. Gershkovich could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of espionage.
Gershkovich covers Russia, Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations as a correspondent in the Wall Street Journal's Moscow bureau. According to his Wall Street Journal bio, he was previously a reporter for Agence France-Presse and the Moscow Times and a news assistant at the New York Times.
The FSB noted that he had accreditation from the Russian Foreign Ministry to work as a journalist, but Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Gershkovich was using his journalistic credentials as a cover for "activities that have nothing to do with journalism.”
His last report from Moscow, published earlier this week, focused on the Russian economy's slowdown amid Western sanctions imposed when Russian troops invaded Ukraine last year.
In an internal note to staff shared with NEWS CENTER Maine on Friday, Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief Emma Tucker said the "actions of the Russian government are completely unjustified."
"It has been a very challenging week as we continue to navigate the detainment of our colleague and friend, Evan Gershkovich. The actions of the Russian government are completely unjustified. Evan is a member of the free press who right up until he was arrested was engaged in newsgathering," Tucker said. "Any suggestions otherwise are false. His sole purpose in his work is to capture issues occurring around the world and to shed light on them so that the public can make informed decisions about how to navigate the future. We continue to call for his immediate release. The unjust arrest of one of our own sits heavy with all of us, and I know for many there are lingering questions about what the Russian government’s actions mean for freedom of the press in the region."
Tucker also noted they are "working closely with the State Department and relevant U.S. government officials, as well as legal teams here and in Russia" to ensure Gershkovich's safety.
Gershkovich's arrest follows a swap in December, in which WNBA star Brittney Griner was freed after 10 months behind bars in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Another American, Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive, has been imprisoned in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government have said are baseless.
In a statement Thursday, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree called on Russia to release both Gershkovich and Whelan. She said she fears Putin will "use Evan as another pawn to extort the United States for ransom."
"Evan Gershkovich is a journalist reporting truthfully and his arrest by the Russian government is an outrage. Under Vladimir Putin's cruel rule, no vestige of freedom is safe from violence and persecution," Pingree said. "Russian society's continued descent into complete totalitarianism is a tragedy for the world. I fear Putin will use Evan as another pawn to extort the United States for ransom. I call on the Putin government to release Evan immediately, and also to release Paul Whelan who has now been unjustly held for over four years."
Sen. Angus King also released a statement Thursday, saying Gershkovich's arrest "is a deeply concerning attack on international free speech norms."
“Russia’s arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich is deeply concerning and underlines the repressive, authoritarian nature of Putin’s regime. Since graduating from Bowdoin, Mr. Gershkovich’s track record of professional, responsible reporting has been relied upon by news outlets around the globe," King said. "Arresting a respected journalist for simply doing their job is a deeply concerning attack on international free speech norms. I urge Russia’s Federal Security Service to come forward with supporting information or materials for any of their far-fetched claims, or immediately release Evan.”
Like King, Sen. Susan Collins called for Gershkovich's immediate release.
"Russia's detainment of Wall Street Journal reporter and Bowdoin College alumnus Evan Gershkovich is outrageous," Collins said in a statement Thursday. "Vladimir Putin has long used these repressive tactics in an attempt to silence the independent press and cover up his own wrongdoing. Evan should be released immediately."