Evan Gershkovich is the first foreign journalist arrested in Russia on spy charges since the Soviet era
Evan Gershkovich is the first foreign journalist arrested in Russia on spy charges since the Soviet era AFP

Evan Gershkovich was determined to keep reporting from Moscow since the Kremlin's seismic Ukraine offensive, seeing it as his duty to keep telling Russia's stories, despite the risks, in a country he loved.

The US-born son of Soviet Jewish emigres had covered Russia as it grew increasingly repressive for six years, earning a reputation of a talented on-the-ground reporter.

Weeks before the Ukraine campaign, he got his dream job: Russia correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. As many US journalists left Russia, he made a choice to keep reporting from the country.

Now, the 31-year-old is held in Moscow's notorious Lefortovo Prison -- the first foreign journalist arrested on spy charges since the Soviet era.

He risks 20 years, with Moscow accusing him of trying to obtain classified defence information for the US government.

Since his shock arrest on March 29, few details have been made public -- Russia has kept the case top secret.

In his first contact with the outside world, Gershkovich wrote a handwritten letter to his parents in Russian. "I am not losing hope," it read.

His mother Ella Milman said he "felt it was his duty to report" from Russia.

"He loves Russian people," she said in a video interview with the Wall Street Journal.

Gershkovich was arrested during a reporting trip in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg. He was believed to be working on a story about the powerful private company Wagner.

He has reported extensively on how Russians have experienced the Ukraine conflict, speaking to families of dead soldiers and critics of President Vladimir Putin.

For friends and colleagues, he was just doing his job and had known he was under the watchful eye of security services, but believed his accreditation with the foreign ministry would protect him.

"He knew for some stories he was followed around and people he talked to would be pressured not to talk to him," Guardian correspondent Pjotr Sauer, a close friend, told AFP.

"But he was accredited by the foreign ministry. I don't think any of us could see the Russians going as far as charging him with this fake espionage."

The son of Jewish parents who emigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, Gershkovich grew up in the US state of New Jersey.

His parents had fled Soviet repressions and anti-Semitism.

"I said to him this is the country that I left and this is the country that you love," his mother said in the video interview.

The family had still embraced his job and life in Moscow.

"We saw Russia through his eyes," his mother said.

His sister, Danielle, said in the video interview that Gershkovich was "really passionate about showing other sides of Russia, the nuance and the beauty of it."

A fluent Russian speaker, he had left a job as an editorial assistant at The New York Times and decided to return to his parent's homeland.

When he arrived in Russia as a fresh-faced journalist to work for an English-language newspaper -- The Moscow Times -- in 2017, he immediately fell in love with the place and the job.

Gershkovich was quick to make a name for himself there, breaking stories on the newspaper's shoestring budget.

Friends say his character -- open, gregarious, and extremely sociable -- made Gershkovich's reporting even better.

Sauer said he "could make any source comfortable, because they always felt he deeply cared about the story."

Even now, from prison, Gershkovich seems not to have lost his sense of humour.

"Mom, you unfortunately, for better or worse, prepared me well for jail food," he wrote in his handwritten note.

"And I am trying to write. Maybe, finally, I am going to write something good."

Danielle Gershkovich also praised her brother's open character: "I know that's probably a silly thing to say but I can see him making friends in there."

Before joining the Wall Street Journal, Gershkovich had worked for AFP's Moscow bureau for a year.

He wrote about a Russian opposition politician running for elections from prison, unprecedented wildfires in Siberia and extensively covered how Moscow downplayed the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

A football fan, he also immersed himself in the incredible and murky story of Sheriff Tiraspol, a football club in Transnistria -- the separatist pro-Russian region of Moldova -- when it qualified for the Champions League in 2021.

Even as the stories got darker, Gershkovich's wry sense of humour shone through.

"There are two kinds of news stories in Russia these days: someone's been arrested, something's been shut down," he wrote on Twitter in June 2022.

He added: "I've been kindly reminded that there is a third kind of news story, too: something's been banned".