Men walk in front of the headquarters of Russia's Federal Security Services in central Moscow on Aug. 28, 2023.

Men walk in front of the headquarters of Russia's Federal Security Services in central Moscow on Aug. 28, 2023. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

LOS ANGELES (Tribune News Service) — Chris Van Heerden was nervous about his girlfriend traveling back to Russia to see the family she missed so much.

“I thought it might be dangerous for her to go, with everything going on with the war in Ukraine, but she reassured me that she was Russian and that everything would be fine,” said Van Heerden, who lived with his girlfriend in West L.A. “So for her birthday in December, I bought her a ticket. She was so excited. Now, I am hitting myself over the head about it.”

He’s waiting for news about Ksenia Karelina, who is being detained in Russia on treason charges, apparently over a donation to a New York-based charity for Ukraine, which is struggling to fight off a Russian invasion.

The dual U.S.-Russian citizen, who worked for years as an aesthetician at a Beverly Hills spa, has a hearing Thursday, according to Russian state media, but is expected to be in custody for months.

Van Heerden, a professional boxer who is also known as “The Heat,” said he was “struggling to understand how Ksenia was gone and worried about when she would get back.”

“I have spoken to the State Department. I have spoken to anybody I can,” Van Heerden, 36, said. “We are trying everything.”

Upon her arrival in Russia on Jan. 2, Van Heerden said, Karelina faced hours of questioning by Russian authorities who confiscated her phone. He said he kept in touch by messaging Karelina on her mother’s phone. Authorities required Karelina to stay in Yekaterinburg, where her family lived, and told her check in weekly with Russia’s security agency, the Federal Security Service, Van Heerden said.

“But she felt it was going somewhere positive and that they would release her phone soon,” he said.

The two kept in regular touch until the evening of Jan. 26 — Jan. 27 in Russia — when Karelina said she was about to leave her family’s home to meet government officials in order to retrieve her phone. Instead, he said, he learned that she never returned.

Russia state media reported Karelina’s arrest Feb. 20, when a statement from the Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, said a Los Angeles woman was “proactively collecting funds in the interests of one of the Ukrainian organizations, which were subsequently used to purchase tactical medicine items, equipment, weapons and ammunition by the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”

Independent media and the woman’s associates in the U.S. identified her as Karelina, who also goes by the name Ksenia Khavana — her married name before a divorce.

Karelina, 32, was arrested in Yekaterinburg, a city of 1.5 million east of the Ural Mountains where she grew up before immigrating to Maryland more than a decade ago. In 2015, the amateur ballerina moved to Los Angeles. She became a U.S. citizen in 2021 and posted photos on the Russian social media platform VK of herself smiling in celebration as she stood next to American flags. Her profile on the platform says she graduated from Ural Federal University in Yekaterinburg and studied at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Eleonora Srebroski, a Russian American who lives in the Baltimore area, said she hoped for a swift release of Karelina, her former daughter-in-law, but the odds were not in her favor.

“In Russia, there is little chance that she will be treated fairly, especially when it comes to this matter of Ukraine they are accusing her of,” said Srebroski, who stayed close with Karelina after the latter’s marriage ended in 2015. “She is a hard person not to love. She has so many friends of every kind.”

A Russian lawyers group that tracks detentions, Perviy Otdel, or First Department, said Russia accused Karelina of donating $51.80 to Razom for Ukraine. The New York-based organization, which translates to Together for Ukraine, works on a variety of issues, including humanitarian aid and disaster relief. Razom said in a statement that it was “appalled” at the arrest.

According to Russian media, Karelina was originally scheduled for a hearing last week but it was delayed because she did not have a lawyer; the hearing is now set for Thursday. Russian media said she is expected to be held in pretrial detention through until at least April.

Experts believe her detention will last much longer.

“It is highly unlikely that there is even any discussion of her release right now. The Americans won’t propose it yet and the Russians likely won’t entertain discussing it until there is a trial,” said Brian D. Taylor, a political science professor at Syracuse University who studies Russian politics and U.S.-Russia relations. “But we should dispense with any idea of rule of law in Russia, especially in a case like this.”

In addition to providing financial support to Ukraine, the FSB alleges that Karelina had been part of “public actions in support of the Kyiv regime” while in the U.S.

After it invaded Ukraine in 2022, Russia significantly clamped down on dissent. Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree making the maximum punishment for treason life in prison. On Tuesday, the co-chair of a Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights group was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for criticizing Russia’s war.

For Putin, Taylor said, “Americans are chips to be bargained with to achieve his goals, one of which is to bring home Russians arrested abroad.”

Such has been the case with other high-profile Americans detained in Russia. In 2022, professional basketball player Brittney Griner was detained for 10 months, then traded for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer imprisoned in the U.S. Griner was in Russia for a tournament when authorities arrested her on charges of being in possession of vape cartridges with cannabis.

Another American, Paul Whelan, has been in Russian prison for five years. The U.S. denied Russian charges that the former U.S. Marine and corporate security director was a spy. In March, Russia also arrested Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich on espionage charges that the U.S. said are false.

Unlike Griner, Whelan and Gershkovich, who did not hold Russian citizenship, Karelina’s legal status as a dual citizen complicates her case.

“They can treat her solely as a Russian, which it appears they have so far,” Taylor said.

The State Department has requested consular access to Karelina because of her U.S. citizenship but has been denied.

According to Van Heerden, Karelina flew to Russia using her Russian passport after a stop in Istanbul, where the couple celebrated New Year’s together. Van Heerden returned to the U.S. while Karelina continued her journey.

“She had been talking about how much she missed her family and wanted to visit,” he said.

Van Heerden said that Karelina was not political and avoided talking about the war in Ukraine because it was a “sensitive topic” and she was “so proud to be Russian.”

“She had love and friends from everywhere and respect for everyone,” he said. “I believe she made a donation. That is true. But she is not an activist.”

Van Heerden said he received a letter from his girlfriend last week. Written in Russian, it was sent to one of her friends in Yekaterinburg, who scanned an image to text to Van Heerden.

“I had to use a translator to read it,” said Van Heerden, who is South African. “In it, she keeps on saying, ‘I’m sorry for putting you in this position. I’m sorry for the pain.’ She has hope one day. Then (the next day) she has no hope.”

©2024 Los Angeles Times.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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