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LA ballerina detained in Russia for treason was visiting her aging grandmother, boyfriend says

Chris Van Heerden told NBC Los Angeles that dual national Ksenia Karelina did not appear to have any reservations about returning to Russia when they parted early this year. 
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The boyfriend of a Los Angeles woman detained in Russia says she was in the country to visit her aging grandmother when she was arrested on suspicion of treason for raising funds to support Ukraine

Russia’s Federal Security Service said Tuesday that a 33-year-old dual U.S.-Russian citizen was detained in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg for allegedly financially supporting Ukraine’s army. 

The FSB did not name her, but a senior U.S. official confirmed to NBC News that the detained American is Ksenia Karelina, a former ballerina turned esthetician in Beverly Hills. Karelina became a U.S. citizen in 2021, the U.S. official said.

Speaking with NBC Los Angeles, Karelina’s boyfriend Chris Van Heerden said she traveled to Russia to see her family, including her 90-year-old grandmother, on Jan. 2 after the couple spent New Year’s together in Turkey. 

Van Heerden, who said he has been dating Karelina for six months, said she did not appear to have any reservations about returning to Russia when they parted. 

“She was like, ‘I’m going to be fine, it’s good. I’m Russian, I’m good,’” Van Heerden said. 

But he 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 meanwhile, he said, but on Jan. 27 she said she was going to pick up her phone, and it was the last time they spoke. 

“Bring her back, she’s just a normal person,” he added. 

US Ballerina Detained In Russia
Chris Van Heerden said he has been dating 33-year-old Ksenia Karelina for about six months.via KTLA

The FSB alleged that since Feb. 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.  

A video released by the FSB on Tuesday alleges to show Karelina’s detention. A woman, blindfolded by a white hat on her head, can be seen being handcuffed and led through hallways and a staircase by a man wearing a camouflage uniform and balaclava. In another shot, she can be seen behind bars and then being led into a room, with her face blurred. NBC News could not verify if the video shows Karelina. 

The State Department said Tuesday that it was seeking consular assistance in Karelina’s case, but spokesman Matthew Miller warned that when it comes to dual citizens, Moscow considers them to be Russian citizens “first and foremost,” which can complicate gaining access to them. 

The website of the Sverdlovsk Region Court in the area where she was detained said that a Feb. 20 hearing for Karelina was postponed. She is scheduled to have another hearing on Feb. 29, according to the site.

Isabella Koretz, the owner of Ciel Spa at the SLS Beverly Hills where Karelina has worked for eight years, told The Associated Press that Karelina came to the U.S. to study at the University of Maryland in Baltimore before relocating to Los Angeles. She said Karelina is divorced and does not have any relatives in the U.S. Koretz said she grew concerned when Karelina stopped returning her messages and phone calls after entering Russia, and when she ultimately did not return from her trip as planned. 

The spa said in a statement posted on Facebook that Karelina’s alleged crime was donating $51.80 to a Ukrainian charity in the U.S. Authorities have not confirmed that, and NBC News was not able to independently verify the sum or the nature of the alleged donation. 

The 33-year-old with dual U.S.-Russian citizenship has been arrested in Russia on suspicion of raising funds for the Ukrainian military. Her manager and longtime friend disputes the allegations, saying Khavana had been collecting money for a charity providing disaster relief in Ukraine amid the war. (Ksenia Leonteva via AP)
Karelina had been working as an esthetician in Los Angeles.Ksenia Leonteva via AP

Karelina’s detention is part of a long-standing trend of Russian authorities detaining foreign citizens and Russian citizens who have citizenship of 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.

“You can’t say it’s a novelty,” Dmitry Zair-Bek, head of the rights group First Department, which has commented on the case, told NBC News. “But yes, Russian authorities regularly detain American citizens, German citizens and citizens of other countries in order to replenish the so-called informal exchange fund.”

In Dec. 2022, U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner, who was detained and sentenced in Russia on drug charges earlier that year, was released from custody in a high-profile swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. 

“These are still isolated cases, but it’s a Russian roulette,” Dmitry Zair-Bek said of the growing number of cases of people with foreign citizenship being detained in Russia. “You never know what will happen. So if there is an opportunity not to go, it’s best to be cautious.”