Amateur Ballerina Held By Russia After $50 Donation To Ukraine Charity


It could be the making of a fairytale – a love story about a ballerina and a boxer. Instead, it turned into a nightmare. The amateur ballerina Ksenia Karelina, an American and Russian dual citizen who celebrated the new year with a trip to Istanbul with her partner Chris van Heerden, a South African professional boxer, before heading to Russia to visit family, was arrested and detained by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) on 28 January in her hometown of Yekaterinburg, about 1,100 miles east of Moscow.

Karelina may be the latest victim in a chess match over detainees between the US and Russia, which dates back more than 15 years when, in 2008, the US Drug Enforcement Administration arrested Viktor Bout, a former Soviet military officer and translator, on conspiracy charges. Bout was eventually traded in 2022 for the WNBA champion Brittney Griner, who Russian officials had arrested for possessing vaporizer cartridges containing less than a gram of hash oil.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in which Russia is believed to have sustained nearly 500,000 casualties so far, experts fear the dangerous game with detainees will grow increasingly ominous. In March last year, Russian officials arrested the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in the same place as Karelina, Yekaterinburg. Gershkovich and the ex-US marine Paul Whelan, arrested in 2018, are being held on bogus espionage charges, according to the US government.

In January, Moscow also arrested the English teacher Robert Woodland Romanov, a dual US-Russian citizen, on drug charges. And now Karelina. Van Heerden is desperate to raise awareness and money for his partner’s legal defense and return.

Karelina, 32, became a US citizen in 2021. She and Van Heerden met four years ago in Los Angeles, where they both live. At the time of her arrest, the couple had been romantically involved for only six months. They were a serious couple, though she had also become homesick for her family – especially her grandparents and eight-year-old sister.

“The plan was for her to go to Russia, come back and then I would propose,” said Van Heerden, 36.

After the trip to Turkey, Van Heerden returned to LA and, despite a US state department travel advisory warning against travel to Russia, Karelina went to visit her family. Van Heerden said she decided to enter the country on her Russian passport, betting she would attract less scrutiny.

When Karelina touched down on 2 January at Koltsovo airport, Russian authorities confiscated her iPhone. Van Heerden said at this point Karelina became afraid, but that over the next few weeks the FSB lulled her into complacency.

“She ended up not being worried at all because they assured her that everything was OK,” he explains. As her departure date neared, FSB scheduled a meeting with Karelina. She believed it was to pick up her phone. Instead, they arrested her.

Robert Woodland Romanov, who is also being held in Russia. Photograph: Anastasia Vardanyan/AP

“I now understand why [the FSB] kept in contact with her … they wanted to make sure she was still in town and not running,” said Van Heerden. Karelina was initially arrested for “hooliganism” – unruly conduct. Van Heerden said the charge was bogus. “Ksenia is the kindest, sweetest girl you could meet. She doesn’t know anything about hooliganism.”

Russian authorities later upped the ante, charging Karelina, a licensed esthetician employed by Ciel spa in Beverly Hills, with more serious offenses. An account of her arrest on FSB’s website, posted 20 February, says a woman by her description was charged with violating Russian criminal code 275, high treason committed by a citizen of the Russian Federation.

Van Heerden said Russian authorities apparently accessed Karelina’s phone and discovered she had donated approximately $50 to Razom, a pro-Ukrainian charity, in 2022. “Ksenia cares nothing for politics,” he said. “A friend likely asked her to donate.” Last year Russia increased penalties for treason.

The charge could now mean life in prison. According to Van Heerden, Karelina’s family in Russia has granted him permission to speak to the media, but they do not wish to. “I get it. They are afraid,” he said.

Van Heerden also said representatives from the state department are in touch regularly with him.

Asked for comment, a state department spokesperson acknowledged reports of a US citizen being detained in Russia, but did not provide additional information.

Van Heerden said officials have told him the first step is negotiating a welfare check on Karelina. Van Heerden has been able to send a letter and receive a hand-written reply from his partner via Zonatelecom, a communication method controlled by prison officials. The letter, he said, betrays a woman struggling to stay positive.

Van Heerden said he wants the US government to officially determine that Karelina is a wrongfully detained US citizen.

“Once she’s on the list [of wrongfully detained Americans], the goal would be for the US government to engage in discussions or negotiations to get her released,” he said.

Unless her fate changes, Karelina will stand trial in Russian court on April 6. The GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $15,000 toward her legal defense, including donations from Van Heerden, Karelina’s former husband Evgeny Khavana, a Baltimore-area project engineer, and Khavana’s mother Eleonora Srebroski.

Van Heerden said he initially hired an attorney to represent Karelina at her first court appearance in February. Right before the court date, Russian state media released a video of a woman who appears to be Karelina wearing a white puffer coat and a knit cap pulled over her eyes being handcuffed and led around a detention center. Apparently spooked, the attorney was a no-show. Van Heerden is now trying to raise at least $40,000 for the replacement counsel recently hired.

“I don’t really know what I’m doing. I feel lost,” he said. “I’m a fighter. I’m an athlete. But this is a different type of fight.”



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