Detained Bowdoin College graduate and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich likely faces a years-long struggle for freedom, according to two Maine professors and experts on Russia.

Wall Street Journal reporter and Bowdoin College graduate Evan Gershkovich was detained by Russian authorities. Wall Street Journal

Gershkovich, 31, who graduated from Bowdoin in 2014, was arrested last week in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg and accused of spying. He faces up to 20 years in prison. The Wall Street Journal denied Russia’s claims and demanded his release. President Joe Biden said Russia should “let him go.”

That likely won’t happen anytime soon, according to David Cluchey, a University of Maine School of Law professor emeritus who has taught extensively in Russia.

“We’re probably talking about a couple years before they get to the trial,” said Cluchey, noting Russia’s criminal justice system has a 99% conviction rate. “If he’s convicted of espionage, he will get a substantial sentence.”

Yekaterinburg, where Gershkovich was arrested while on a reporting trip, is about 1,000 miles east of Moscow and home to Russian defense manufacturers. Russia’s Federal Security Bureau said Gershkovich, “acting on the instructions of the American side, collected information constituting a state secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex,” according to The Associated Press. The Wall Street Journal denies Russia’s claim.

Cluchey said Gershkovich’s case closely mirrors that of Paul Whelan, the former U.S. Marine who was arrested in Russia in 2018 on espionage charges and sentenced to 16 years in prison.


Whelan was mentioned as a potential bargaining chip when Russia and the United States agreed to a prisoner exchange between Brittney Griner, a WNBA star who was released from Russian custody after 10 months, and Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in December. Gershkovich’s salvation may lie in a similar prisoner swap, according to Cluchey.

“A significant (prison) sentence may serve a purpose as to heightening the concern for his well-being and advancing the cause of exchanging him for someone else,” Cluchey said.

The Wall Street Journal said Gershkovich was initially denied access to a lawyer, which didn’t surprise Cluchey.

“All of these folks, when they’ve been arrested, they’ve experienced delays in getting counsel,” he said.

On Monday, Gershkovich’s lawyers appealed his arrest during a court hearing in Moscow, according to The Associated Press. The court ordered Gershkovich to be held at Moscow’s Lefortovo prison for two months while authorities investigate the case.

Cluchey noted Gershkovich was arrested just six days after the U.S. Department of Justice accused 37-year-old Russian national Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov of spying for his home country. Cherkasov, using the Brazilian alias Victor Muller, was admitted to the Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies and earned an internship at the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands, where he purportedly planned to spy on Russian war crimes investigations involving Ukraine, officials told CNN. Cherkasov is currently in custody in Brazil on fraud charges.


“The timing is awful coincidental,” Cluchey said.

James Warhola, a University of Maine professor emeritus who taught political science with an emphasis on Russia, agreed.

Evan Gershkovich (left) being interviewed at a Moscow radio station. Courtesy of Bowdoin College

“I had my strong suspicion … that it was a tit-for-tat thing,” Warhola said. “I don’t think it was an accident.”

Warhola also agreed a prisoner swap is Gershkovich’s best chance at freedom.

“The idea he could get a fair trial in Russia is extremely remote,” he said.

Warhola, who was a research professor at Moscow State University and has often visited Russia, said what the country considers a state secret is “far broader” than what the U.S. considers a state secret and was likely the impetus for Gershkovich’s arrest.


He said he remembers being on a bus in Russia when the driver had a hard time making it up a hill. He said he asked the driver what kind of engine the bus had.

“He said, ‘Well, I can’t tell you that — it’s a state secret,'” Warhola said. “It’s emblematic of the disposition of the Russian regime.

“The longer Putin is in power, the more he’s resorting to Stalinist means of controlling society … (Gershkovich’s arrest) is symptomatic of that.”

Cluchey taught trade law in Russia for years. In 1994, he spent three months in Moscow as a Fulbright lecturer at the Finance Academy of the Government of the Russian Federation. The last time he was in the country was in 2011, and he said things have changed.

“It’s increasingly repressive and anti-Western,” he said.

Warhola last visited Russia in 2014.

“The country has become even more authoritarian, more repressive,” he said.

Comments are not available on this story.