Journalism in Russia just got more dangerous: WSJ reporter Gershkovich arrested on spy charges

Journalism in Russia just got more dangerous: WSJ reporter Gershkovich arrested on spy charges
Foreign correspondents working in Russia are usually left alone, but the Kremlin has been ramping up the pressure slowly over the last years and is now targeting them directly by arresting a WSJ reporter. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin March 31, 2023

The Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested on espionage charges by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) on March 30, the first US journalist to be arrested in Russia since the Soviet-era in 1986.

Gershkovich was detained in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg where he was involved in collecting secret information about a Russian defence company, according to the FSB.

Gershkovich, aged 31, was taken to and from the court with a hood over his head and his hands handcuffed behind his back, according to independent media outlet Mediazona.

The Wall Street Journal said in a statement that “We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family. The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich.”

Under Russian law, espionage convictions can result in a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. Following the invasion of Ukraine a year ago Russia’s media laws were significantly tightened and using the word “war” in reports was made illegal, punishable by long prison sentences. Many foreign news outlets immediately took their staff out of the country.

The Wall Street Journal has denied the allegations and called for Gershkovich's immediate release. Gershkovich is a US citizen but born in Russia to Russian parents who emigrated to the US where he was born. Gershkovich pleaded innocent of the charges during a court hearing in Yekaterinburg and is now being held on remand in Moscow.

Gershkovich was reportedly in Yekaterinburg to investigate local reactions to the war in Ukraine and Russia's Wagner mercenary group, and specifically intended to interview workers leaving the UralVagonZavod plant in Nizhny Tagil or the NPO Novator missile factory in Yekaterinburg,  military production factories, on their view on the war.

Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed that Gershkovich was caught "red-handed" with incriminating secret materials and that his arrest had nothing to do with journalism. Gershkovich previously worked at French news agency Agence France-Presse, The Moscow Times and The New York Times. His colleagues from the Moscow press corps have universally rubbished the spying accusation, saying Gershkovich was a smart and hard-working journalist cut from the classic correspondent’s cloth, who followed an extremely well-worn path into the profession.

Many commentators have opined that Gershkovich’s arrest is designed by the Kremlin both as a warning to other foreign media with reporters in Russia, as well as gaining an asset the Kremlin can use in swaps for Russians arrested in the West, such as the exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for the release of US athlete Brittney Griner in May. According to the latest reports, The New York Times pulled its remaining staff in Russia out within 24 hours, following Gershkovich's arrest. 


The story of the arrest of Gershkovich is very similar to that of the last US journalist to be arrested in Soviet Russia on spy charges 37 years ago.

Nicholas Daniloff, the Moscow correspondent for a US News & World Report, was arrested in Moscow by the KGB and accused of espionage on September 7, 1986. The Soviets initially contended that Daniloff had confidential government documents on him when he was arrested, which Daniloff denied.

Daniloff (also of Russian descent and a fluent Russian speaker) was picked off the street by a Black Mariah and taken to the Lefortovo Prison in central Moscow, where Gershkovich is currently being held, setting off a major diplomatic scandal.

The Reagan administration said the Soviets had arrested Daniloff without cause, in retaliation for the arrest three days earlier of Gennady Zakharov, an employee of the Soviet UN Mission, who was also accused of spying.

After some very intense negotiations between the two governments, an informal swap was agreed: Daniloff was released 13 days later on September 23 and allowed to leave the Soviet Union without charges; Zakharov was allowed to leave the US after pleading nolo contendere, accepting the conviction for the spying charges, but not admitting guilt.

However, the diplomatic crisis did not end there. Expulsions of more than 100 Soviet diplomats and suspected spies followed, with the Soviets expelling ten US diplomats in a tit-for-tat exchange that went on for months. The US also withdrew all 260 of the Russian support staff working for the US embassy in Moscow.

Foreign journalists under pressure

Gershkovich’s arrest is by far the most serious attack on Western correspondents working in Russia for over three decades, but the pressure has been mounting slowly.

Russian journalists are regularly beaten up or even murdered for liberal reporting. Celebrity RFE/RL Russian correspondent Andrei Babitsky, who rose to prominence during the Chechen wars in the 1990s for his objective and behind the scenes reporting, was knocked out by security forces which slipped him a Mickey Finn on one occasion to impede his reporting and he was constantly hassled by the FSB to prevent him carrying out his work.

He was later sacked by RFE/RL after the fighting in Donbas broke out for bringing the same impartiality to that conflict. He reported on an incident of summary executions by the pro-Ukraine Azov battalion militia of some captured separatist fighters that was considered by editor’s in Kyiv to be “off message”, according to Babitsky. The RFE/RL editorial refused to answer bne IntelliNews questions about the incident at the time.

The most famous murder of a Russian journalist was of Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead outside her apartment on October 7, 2006 by an unknown assassins. A journalist and human rights activist for Novaya Gazeta, Politkovskaya was also famous for her in-depth reporting on the Chechen wars and widespread human rights violations by the administration in the region. Indeed, the murder of journalist covering Chechnya is a recurring theme. Over the years several correspondents from Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s most liberal paper, have been gunned down in the course of their duties.

However, violence and pressure against Western journalists is extremely rare. Very few Western journalists have been killed in the line of duty in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. The most high-profile death was of Rory Peck, a cameraman for the German broadcaster ZDF, at the gunfight for control of the Ostankino in October 1993 when then-president Boris Yeltsin put tanks on the street as part of his constitutional clash with the communist-controlled Duma, a gunbattle witnessed by this correspondent.

The only assassination of a Western journalist since the fall of the Soviet Union was that of US Forbes writer Paul Klebnikov, who was gunned down in Moscow in July 2004. Three Chechens were arrested for the murder, but later acquitted due to the lack of evidence. 

Klebnikov (yet another Russian-speaking Western correspondent born to Russian emigres to New York) was an investigative reporter, who had penned the highly successful book Godfather of the Kremlin that accused now deceased oligarch Boris Berezovsky of making a fortune from capturing control of the car production of the Lada-maker AvtoVaz and control their sale and distribution using the Chechen mafia, after which he received death threats. bne IntelliNews independently confirmed those ties between Berezovsky and the Chechens, who also acted as a go-between for president Yeltsin and the Chechen separatists during the civil war in the southern republic. It is widely believed that Berezovsky ordered the killing, as the oligarch is also linked to several other violent deaths of business rivals, but no evidence has surfaced and Berezovsky was found hanged in his bathroom in a luxury London home in 2013 after he had fled into exile for opposing Russian President Vladimir Putin after he came to power.

But apart from Klebnikov, Western reporters have largely been able to operate with a great deal of freedom in Russia for most of the last three decades. The worst that would happen is a tax inspection. The US broadcaster ABC once took its staff out of Russia after a tax inspection raid in the noughties, but as this correspondent can corroborate as a member of the press corps then, cheating on your Russian tax return was common practice amongst international correspondents in those days.

Harding deported

That changed in 2011 when The Guardian’s Moscow bureau chief Luke Harding was refused entry to Russia after returning from a trip to London that February.

His paper splashed the story as the first Western correspondent to be deported from Russia since Soviet times, but actually Harding was simply refused entry, which is not quite the same. Moreover, according to the Harding family, the foreign ministry later called and offered to re-admit Harding and extend their visas until the end of the academic year as they had two small children still in school. The family elected to quit Russia voluntarily.

Harding had continued a long tradition of stringent opposition to the Kremlin and of being highly critical of Putin that started with former The Guardian correspondent Amelia Gentleman together with celebrity correspondent for The Economist Edward Lucas at the time of the arrest and jailing of oligarch, now opposition figure, Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003.

But Harding was already in trouble with the Kremlin prior to his ejection from Russia. While the Kremlin has won a reputation for repression, it had been reactively tolerant of The Guardian’s critical reporting, which the Kremlin accepted as normal by the Western press. The Guardian has always gone out of its way to also carry stories that show the other side of the argument and criticise Western policy.

That all changed when The Guardian ran a letter penned by Berezovsky, who was now living in London in exile, that called for Putin’s overthrow and said that he would personally fund an insurrection. The Kremlin objected loudly and said sedition is illegal. Moreover, the opinion page editors had failed to make it clear that Berezovsky was an oligarch who had made his billions in dubious circumstances or that he was linked to several killings. Worse, Harding told this correspondent, was the editors for some reason put Harding’s name on the piece, despite the fact he had nothing to do with it.

From that point on Harding began to be hassled by the FSB in a way this correspondent has never seen another foreign correspondent intimidated in three decades of covering Russia. The family’s apartment was broken into and cigarettes stubbed out on the kitchen table, excrement left in the toilet but not flushed, taped conversations the family had had were played back when the phone rang and Harding himself was followed with FSB agents blatantly coming to sit at his table whenever he met someone in a public place, Harding related.

Sarah Rainsford expelled

Harding’s problems were largely related to a specific problem – the war of words between Berezovsky and the Kremlin – but for the rest of the Moscow press corps life went on as normal and Russia continued to make economic progress even if the political atmosphere had darkened somewhat. This was a period of “repression-lite”, as political analyst Mark Galeotti has dubbed it.

That ended on January 17, 2021 when opposition blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny was arrested at the airport after he chose to return home from medical treatment in Germany, bringing down universal condemnation of the Kremlin by the international community.

The golden rule of Russia watching is that if the Kremlin is forced to choose between doing something that will be criticised internationally but it wants to do for its domestic agenda, it will always choose the domestic agenda and damn the criticism. 

Aware that its image was indelibly damaged the gloves came off and Putin went repression-full. In a series of laws and decrees Navalny’s organisation was banned and closed. Opposition media was shuttered or driven out of business. New defamation laws were introduced as well as the stigma of "foreign agent" applied to any media the Kremlin didn't like, and Russian citizens started to be arrested for critical tweets. And it hasn’t stopped, leading up to the new media laws that make using the word “war” in an article about the conflict in Ukraine punishable by 15 years in prison.

The Kremlin’s attitude to the Western press also hardened during the escalation of repression. The most serious attack on the Western press before Gershkovich's arrest this week was the Kremlin’s decision to pull the visa of veteran BBC Russian correspondent Sarah Rainsford in August 2021.

Having reported on Russia for a large part of her professional career and being one of the best informed and most astute observers of the country, her visa was cancelled and she was ordered out of the country at short notice.

“I'm writing this in the middle of the night at my kitchen table in Moscow, looking over towards the dim red stars and golden domes of the Kremlin. But by the time you read it I'll be on my way back to England, expelled from Russia as a national security threat,” she wrote in her swansong before her departure.

The writing was now on the wall. The difference between Harding’s expulsion and that of Rainsford is that her ban on “ever entering Russia again” was overtly political and clearly designed as a warning to the international press, whereas you could argue that Harding’s treatment was an act of pique by the Kremlin, reacting to a particularly offensive article.

The Calvey scenario

What will happen to Gershkovich now? Comparing his case to celebrity fund manager Michael Calvey, who was arrested on trumped-up embezzlement charges on St Valentine’s Day in 2019 as part of a corporate dispute, it looks like Gershkovich is in serious trouble and may stay in jail for at least a year and probably much longer.

Calvey is a co-founder of Barings Vostok Capital Management, an extraordinarily successful private equity fund that brought in billions of dollars of investment to Russia over almost three decades. Moreover, he was extremely well connected and universally respected by both the Kremlin elite and the oligarchs as someone who was clearly “good for Russia.” After his arrest, extremely unusually, several very senior Kremlin officials broke ranks and publicly called for his release. Top Kremlin officials never comment on political cases.

Nothing helped. Calvey had been formerly charged by the Prosecutor General’s office and he told bne IntelliNews, “once the legal wheels are turning, there is no way of stopping them.”

Calvey’s case was carefully played. The root of the problem was he got into a dispute with a Russian partner over who was going to pay for re-capitalising a bank they jointly owned. When Barings Vostok refused to cover the co-investor’s share, the Russian side pulled its security services strings and Calvey ended up in jail.

The corporate nature of the case was stressed and with Calvey being a US citizen, the ambassador was asked to back off and not comment or try to help. If the case became political it was clear to everyone that the Kremlin would never compromise.

That still meant Calvey had to spend months in a prison, but he was fairly quickly released to house arrest. Barings Vostok settled the dispute with its Russian partners by paying the capital contribution and called off its lawsuits against the Russian, which gutted the embezzlement case.

Nevertheless, the case dragged on for more than two years and Calvey was eventually convicted but given a 5.5-year suspended sentence in August 2021 – the best possible outcome given the circumstances, say bne IntelliNews sources close to the case. The last of the restrictions on Calvey expired last week and he immediately flew out of Russia to join his family more than two years later.

The allegations of spying against Gershkovich, the first against a foreign journalist since the end of the Cold War, are far more serious, as they are political. Moreover, the White House has immediately become involved, which will only make the case even more fraught. The White House said that Gershkovich was not targeted for his work, but for his passport.

“The targeting of American citizens by the Russian government is unacceptable. We condemn the detention of Mr. Gershkovich in the strongest terms,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement the same day as Gershkovich’s arrest. “We also condemn the Russian government’s continued targeting and repression of journalists and freedom of the press.”

Gershkovich has already been formally charged with espionage. The legal wheels are now turning. And once they start they can’t be stopped. Putin has been adamant that he never interferes in the judicial system, as he maintains the sham that the system operates independently from the Kremlin as a point of principle.

In Calvey’s case everyone wanted to get him out of jail as soon as possible, even the Kremlin. He was arrested “by mistake”, according bne IntelliNews sources close to the case. “If the arresting officers had known who he was then the arrest would not have happened,” says one bne IntelliNews source. “But the problem is, why would an FSB officer know a famous US fund manager? He’s famous to us but has no profile with the Russian general public.”

Calvey’s case almost certainly started without the Kremlin’s knowledge, as it really was a corporate dispute where the Russian side used its connections with the FSB to get Calvey arrested. The problem for the Kremlin was, once it was made aware of what had happened,  how to let Calvey out without losing face of humiliating the FSB. 

Gershkovich's arrest has clearly been ordered by the Kremlin and it is fully aware of the storm the arrest will cause. That makes the prospects bleak for ending the case or releasing Gershkovich any time soon. Espionage carries a sentence of up to 20 years and just the investigation and trial will take at least one or two years to complete. As Russian courts convict over 98% of the cases they hear, a conviction in Gershkovich’s case is almost certain.

A Russian court convicted the American corporate security executive Paul Whelan on June 15, 2020 of espionage and sentenced him to 16 years in prison after a closed trial that the US denounced as a “mockery of justice.”

Celebrity Russian journalist Ivan Safronov, a former famous defence reporter, was given a 22-year sentence in September last year on treason charges, who was also accused of passing state secrets to foreign powers.

Now formal charges have been brought against him, Gershkovich's best chance of liberty is a swap deal similar to Bout for Griner, but that could also take years to come about. In the meantime, Gershkovich will have to sit in prison and faces the prospect of years in jail.