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Boyfriend of L.A. ballerina detained in Russia was 'thinking of proposing'

Chris Van Heerden told NBC News it was “painful” that a Russian court had decided to keep her imprisoned.
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Ballerina Ksenia Karelina.Nick Starichenko / Shutterstock

The boyfriend of a Los Angeles woman detained in Russia was thinking of proposing to her before she was imprisoned on treason charges, he told NBC News on Thursday.

Chris Van Heerden, 33, said it was “painful” that the Sverdlovsk Regional Court in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg had denied a request from Ksenia Karelinas lawyers to lift her detention and replace it with house arrest.

“I didn’t get my hopes up,” said Van Heerden, a South African boxer known as “The Heat,” adding that he knew Karelina, a 33-year-old dual U.S.-Russian citizen, was “going to need a miracle” for a judge to order her release from prison, and he was “so sad” that Karelina had to go back to jail.

After she was detained last month, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) alleged that since February 2022, Karelina had “proactively collected funds in the interests of one of the Ukrainian organizations, which were subsequently used to purchase tactical medicine, equipment, weapons and ammunition by the Ukrainian Armed Forces.”

It did not provide further details or evidence of her alleged crime. A criminal case has been launched against her, the FSB said, and she is facing charges of treason, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.  

Pervy Otdel, a Russian lawyers group, said it had information that Karelina had donated just over $51.80 from her U.S. bank account on Feb. 24, 2022 — the day that Russia launched what it calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine — to a charity that sends aid to Ukraine. Authorities have not confirmed that, and NBC News was not able to independently verify the sum or the nature of the alleged donation.

Van Heerden, who said he has known Karelina for four years, said he couldn’t “wrap my head around” the idea that she had been arrested for donating such a small amount. He added that he had made plenty of donations to various causes “without even thinking what I’m doing.”

“Fifty-one dollars, come on,” he said, adding that Karelina had made “a simple donation because she’s kind.”

Van Heerden said he had received a “love letter” from her after she was detained.

He said the former ballerina-turned-aesthetician had described her new life behind bars, including 6 a.m. wake-up calls for someone who is “not a morning person.”

“They got to go to bed at 10 and they get to shower once a week, which is painful,” he said. “They get a book once a week to read.” While prisoners were allowed out once a day for a bit of fresh air, he said it was snowing and “cold out there.” He added that sometimes the guards left them outside for hours.

She also wrote something “beautiful,” he said. “She said, ‘I’ve got a little window in my cell and I can see the sun and I know that I look at the same sun as you look at when the sun goes down,’” Van Heerden added.

He also spoke of his guilt because he had paid for her plane ticket to Russia. Visiting had not been an option since before the Covid-19 pandemic, and she wanted to see her 90-year-old grandparents, he said. “She’s afraid that she won’t see them,” he added.

Although she had encouraged him to join her, he said he would meet her in the middle and they would spend New Year’s together in Istanbul. “We had a magical time,” he said, adding that she was “excited to go home.”

If he hadn’t bought the ticket, he reasoned, she would have found another way to go.

“I was actually thinking of proposing to this woman, so every day is tough,” he said, adding: “She’s got an affectionate smile. Always happy, so, so, so giving. She lives a full life.”

In an earlier interview with NBC Los Angeles, Van Heerden said Karelina faced problems from the moment she arrived, and was detained at the airport. She was eventually released, although authorities kept her mobile phone, Van Heerden said. They used her mother’s phone to communicate in the meantime, he said, but on Jan. 27 she said she was going to pick up her phone, and it was the last time they spoke.

Karelina’s detention is part of a long-standing trend of Russian authorities detaining foreign citizens and Russian citizens who have citizenship in another country. Two journalists with American citizenship are currently in Russian custody. In the most recent case, in January, U.S. national Robert Romanov Woodland was arrested and detained in Russia on drug trafficking charges.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said last week that diplomats in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow were working to learn more and gain access to Karelina. But he made clear that Russia does not officially recognize any dual U.S.-Russian national’s American citizenship.

In the meantime, Van Heerden said he was doing everything in his power to secure her release and had petitioned the White House and lawmakers about her case.

While he said he was trying to live his own life as best as possible, he was trying to remain positive that Karelina would be released.

“I am now more hopeful than ever,” he said.