Reporter detained in Russia on spying allegations known as dedicated journalist who 'cares a lot ... about the Russian people'
American journalist Evan Gershkovich is being hailed as a "highly respected" and "dedicated" reporter after he was detained in Russia over spying allegations while working for The Wall Street Journal.
Gershkovich, 31, was based in the U.K. and would travel to Russia for two- to three-week assignments before returning to London. He was arrested in Yekaterinburg by the Federal Security Service, or FSB.
The FSB noted that Gershkovich had accreditation from the Russian Foreign Ministry to work as a journalist, but ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claimed he was using his credentials as a cover for "activities that have nothing to do with journalism."
He will be held in pre-trial detention until at least May 29.
The Journal said Gershkovich is a "trusted and dedicated reporter" and "vehemently" denied the allegations against him. It said in a statement that it seeks his immediate release.
"We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family," the newspaper said.
'Journalism is not a crime'
Many journalists who said they knew Gershkovich expressed their shock over his arrest, writing on Twitter that he is well-respected in the field.
"Our best friend and completely professional journalist Evan Gershkovich has been detained in Russia for doing his job and must be released immediately," wrote Polina Ivanova, a correspondent with the Financial Times. "Journalism is not a crime. The allegations are ridiculous."
Joshua Yaffa, a reporter for The New Yorker, praised Gershkovich for continuing to report on Russia during its invasion of Ukraine and said the allegations against him are "obviously false."
"News that my friend, colleague, and thoroughly professional reporter @evangershkovich has been detained while doing his job in Russia. Hope and trust he’ll be released imminently. Goes w/out saying, journalism is not a crime," Yaffa wrote.
Washington Post reporter Robyn Dixon said she knows and "admires" Gershkovich and called him a "highly respected, excellent journalist."
Journalist and author Leonid Ragozin said in a tweet, "I know @evangershkovich personally and he is very obviously not a spy, but a very good journalist. The Kremlin has taken him hostage."
Gershkovich was born in the U.S. to Russian-speaking parents. His mother and father are from the former Soviet Union and fled in the 1980s.
His family could not be immediately reached at phone numbers listed for them.
Early life in New Jersey
Gershkovich grew up in Princeton in central New Jersey and went to Princeton High School, where he dominated in soccer, earning four varsity letters, according to his bio on Bowdoin College's athletic page.
In 2007, he helped lead his club soccer team to the Region I Semifinals and the New Jersey State Championship.
Wayne Sutcliffe, a physical education teacher at Princeton High School and head soccer coach, recalled how Gershkovich was a leader on the team.
"I knew Evan Gershkovich well. He was captain of the Princeton High School 2009 soccer team, which won the New Jersey State Championship," he said in a statement. "I have been fielding text messages all morning from our Princeton High School soccer alumni, all of whom are trying to find a way we can help to support Evan’s family."
Princeton Public Schools said Gershkovich was an "outstanding student and an exceptional athlete." It said it shares in the concerns over his detainment.
"It has been a difficult morning for Princeton High School alumni, particularly the many PHS soccer players who were close to Mr. Gershkovich," the district said.
Gershkovich also played soccer at Bowdoin, a private liberal arts college in Brunswick, Maine, where he was a philosophy major. The school said in a statement that he has been an active alumnus and would mentor Russian majors.
'He cares a lot ... about the Russian people'
Jeremy Berke, a close personal friend who has known Gershkovich since their freshman year of college, describes him as perhaps the “most outgoing, extroverted human” he’s ever met.
“I don’t want this to be some opaque international incident, this is my friend,” Berke said. “The world should know that everyone who is friends with him, everyone in his orbit, he’s the center of their world.”
His gregarious and personable nature is part of what makes him such a good journalist, drawing people in and making them feel as if they were the most important person in the room, Berke said.
“It’s hard to describe without knowing him, but whatever you’re saying: he’s fully engaged, he’s with it, he’s encouraging you to keep talking,” Berke said.
Gershkovich worked on their college paper, The Bowdoin Orient, and was always a great writer, Berke said. But it wasn’t until Gershkovich freelanced for English-language publications during his time abroad in Thailand in college that Berke thinks his friend got the journalism “bug.”
That inevitably led to what Gershkovich felt was his calling: reporting on Russia.
“He cares a lot about Russia and the Russian people,” Berke said.
Career in journalism, risks in Russia
After graduating from college in 2014, Gershkovich began his journalism career as a news assistant at The New York Times before being hired as a reporter by The Moscow Times in 2017, his LinkedIn profile says. He worked there for three years before moving on to the Agence France-Presse and then to The Wall Street Journal.
He was hired by the Journal in January 2022 and covers Russia, Ukraine and the former Soviet Union. In a 2020 interview posted on Bowdoin's website, he briefly discussed the difficulties of being a journalist in Russia.
"When you start reporting in Russia, you often hear that it will be very hard to get people to talk. 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," he said.
Gershkovich is the first journalist with an American outlet to be arrested on espionage charges in Russia since the Cold War.
In recent years, Americans have been directly targeted by the Russian government for what the U.S. says are politically motivated arrests. One of the most high-profile espionage cases is Paul Whelan, a U.S. corporate security executive who has been imprisoned in Russia since 2018.
In December, the U.S. negotiated the release of Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Griner, who played basketball in Russia during the WNBA’s offseason, was arrested for having vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty but said she had no criminal intent.
Matthew Bodner has known Evan Gershkovich since 2017 and considers him a friend.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com