Evan Gershkovich, a U.S. citizen, was detained in the west-central city of Yekaterinburg, the Federal Security Service confirmed to state media. The FSB says that Gershkovich was “suspected of spying in the interests of the U.S. government” and that his allegedly “illegal activities… have been stopped.”
Local reports claim he was reporting on the Wagner paramilitary force before he was detained.
When contacted for comment by The Daily Beast, Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said he was not aware of Gershkovich’s arrest. “If you want, I can check the torture cellar in my house to see if he’s there,” he said. “At first glance, I didn’t see him among the American journalists I keep there by the dozens. I can, if you want, also look at the fresh graves of foreign journalists on my house plot. But if I’m not mistaken, we didn’t bury him there either.”
President Biden was briefed this morning on Evan Gershkovich and his detention in Russia, White House National Security Council John Kirby said on a Thursday call. Senior White House officials spoke with the Wall Street Journal, and the State Department has been in touch with the outlet and with Evan’s family, according to Kirby, who called the detention “completely unacceptable.”
The State Department is seeking consular access to Evan in Russia, and it remains unclear if his detention is in retaliation for the U.S. indicting Sergey Cherkasov for being a Russian spy recently, Kirby added.
Gershkovich was brought to a court in Moscow on Thursday afternoon, where the building was evacuated before he was escorted in with his hands cuffed behind his back and a hood over his head, according to the independent outlet MediaZona. Daniil Berman, a lawyer who arrived to represent Gershkovich, said he was blocked from entering and told another lawyer had already been appointed.
The FSB further said that Gershkovich was arrested “while trying to obtain secret information,” and that he was acting “on the instructions of the United States” while collecting materials “on the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex.” Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti said the materials constituted a “state secret.”
The FSB’s Investigation Department opened a criminal case of espionage against Gershkovich under Article 276 of Russia’s Criminal Code. If convicted, according to Meduza, he could face a sentence of up to 20 years.
Reports of a man being detained in Yekaterinburg emerged in local media on Wednesday. The Telegram channel of one outlet in the city reported that one of its readers had witnessed someone being abducted at the Bukowski Grill restaurant in the center of Yekaterinburg. The witness said the person was being led away by what the presumed were “security forces in civilian clothes” into a minibus. “A sweater was pulled over [the detainee’s] head so that passers-by could not see his face,” the report added.
Writing on his own Telegram account, public relations specialist Yaroslav Shirshikov commented on the report to suggest Gershkovich was the man being detained. Shirshikov said he’d spoken with Gershkovich “a couple of weeks ago” and had taken him around Yekaterinburg and introduced him to other people. Shirshikov claimed Gershkovich had been interested in public attitudes towards the Wagner PMC mercenary group, and that he’d worked safely in the city for several days before departing to Moscow.
A source among Western journalists in the Russian capital told Meduza that as well as the visit to Yekaterinburg, Gershkovich also traveled to Nizhny Tagil in Sverdlovsk Oblast. Nizhny Tagil is home to the headquarters of Uralvagonzavod—a defense company which is the largest manufacturer of tanks in Russia.
Sverdlovsk lawmaker Vyacheslav Vegner told Russian media he’d met with Gershkovich during the course of his reporting. Vegner said Gershkovich had visited to do interviews with “various people” about their attitudes toward the Wagner Group, as well as the work of “industrial enterprises.”
“We drank a bottle of cognac together. So you can write that Wagner drinks cognac with an American spy,” he said.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson wrote on Telegram: “What the employee of the American publication The Wall Street Journal was doing in Yekaterinburg has nothing to do with journalism. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that the ‘foreign correspondent’ status, journalistic visa, and accreditation are used by foreigners in our country to cover up activities that are not journalism.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters the arrest was “not about suspicion, he was caught red-handed,” even while admitting that he “doesn’t know the details.”
Ivan Pavlov, one of Russia’s most experienced espionage lawyers, told The Daily Beast that no international journalist was safe in Russia now that the Kremlin has crossed this line.
“This is the first time when an accredited correspondent was arrested, there was a rule to never touch MID [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] accredited journalists that was broken yesterday which means that the war in Ukraine has passed to a new level and foreigners living in Russia are going to be taken hostages.”
In a statement provided to the Daily Beast, the Wall Street Journal said it “vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich.” “We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family,” the Journal added.
In a statement on its own site, the Journal said it is “deeply concerned for the safety of Mr. Gershkovich.” The newspaper says Gershkovich covers Russia, Ukraine, and the former Soviet Union as part of the paper’s Moscow bureau. He previously worked for Agence France-Presse, the Moscow Times, and the New York Times.
The Daily Beast has contacted the State Department for comment.
Lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov, who has been handling efforts to free U.S. prisoner Paul Whelan, told The Daily Beast that the Kremlin had wanted more Americans to be able to swap for Russian prisoners.
“I saw the list of 300 Russian names on the list for swapping. The exchange fund has just been increased by one but it will take minimum six months before Gershkovich’s case reaches that point,” he said. “We have very few Americans to exchange with hundreds of Russians in American jails.”