Family of American woman charged with treason in Russia after donating to Ukraine war charity begs for help

Ksenia Karelina, also known as Ksenia Khavana, has been a US citizen since 2021 but was detained in Yekaterinburg while visiting her family. Io Dodds speaks to her former mother-in-law

Thursday 22 February 2024 17:19 GMT
Ksenia Karelina, in a photo from her Facebook page
Ksenia Karelina, in a photo from her Facebook page (Ksenia Karelina via Facebook)

Ksenia Karelina had been looking forward to spending New Year's Eve with her family. Though she'd long ago chosen to settle in the USA, she'd kept in touch with her relatives back in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

Instead, it appears that the 32-year-old dual citizen is confined in a Russian jail cell on charges of high treason – all for allegedly sending $51.80 to a Ukrainian charity.

"She's just that kind of person," Karelina's former mother-in-law Eleonara Srebroski, 56, tells The Independent. "If somebody needs help, she will be helping. Whether it's an animal, or a child, or a grown-up, she's the one who is always opening her heart and her wallet."

According to Russian human rights activists, Karelina – also known as Ksenia Khavana, after her first husband – was arrested on public order charges in late January outside a cinema in Yekaterinburg, before being charged with treason this month.

The country's notorious Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed in a statement this week that an unnamed woman, later identified by Russian media as Karelina, had been "proactively collecting funds" for the Ukrainian war effort.

Now Srebroski has a stark message for the government and people of her former daughter-in-law's adopted nation.

"If we do not do anything, she is going to die in jail," she says. "She does not have any hope to get out, because they do not have any justice [in Russia].

"And if we as a country do not help her to come back here, to where she is... we're going to lose a beautiful person."

(Ksenia Karelina via Facebook)

‘She is just sunshine’

Ksenia Karelina appeared in Srebroski's life back in 2012, when she visited the older woman's Baltimore home hand in hand with Srebroski's son Evgeny Khavana.

The young woman had come to the USA from Russia on a work and travel programme, where she met Evgeny. As it happened, she and Srebroski originally came from the same region: the Ural mountains, of which Yekaterinburg is the district capital.

Though Karelina and Evgeny married in 2013, the relationship didn't last, and she eventually moved to California. Still, they remained friends, and Karelina made an effort to keep in touch with Srebroski, reaching out for birthdays and other holidays.

"She is the one who will never be rude to anyone. She is just sunshine; full of love, positivity, smiles, care," says Srebroski, who has lived in the US for 24 years. She refers to Karelina as "Ksyusha", the diminutive form of Ksenia.

"I don't know anybody who would not like her. I'm actually the one who is supposed to dislike her, because she is my ex daughter-in-law. And I still adore her, because of her personality."

Over the years, Karelina built a new life for herself out in Los Angeles. She worked at a luxury hotel spa in Beverly Hills, often posting joyful photos in Facebook.

Having attended dance school as a child, she passionately pursued her hobby of ballet, and travelled keenly across the US and beyond. In 2021, she became a US citizen.

"She's a very good friend," says Srebroski. "Funny, outgoing, sincere, kind. Smiling all the time, finding good in anything.

"She was happy when she was selling fruit and vegetables off of a food stand here [in Baltimore] as a student... she will always be happy in any circumstances."

Accused of ‘petty hooliganism’, then treason

Karelina was meant to return from Russia by the beginning of February, having spent the new year with her parents, grandparents, and youngest sister.

That is according to Srebroski, who has not spoken personally to Karelina in more than a year but says her son was in the loop about her travel plans.

When he didn't hear from her, he was confused – until the news broke about her arrest.

Isabella Koretz, Karelina's boss at the Ciel Spa in Beverly Hills, gave a slightly different account of her travel plans, telling local broadcaster KTLA that her company became concerned when Karelina did not show up for work as planned in mid-January.

Karalina celebrates her US citizenship in 2021
Karalina celebrates her US citizenship in 2021 (Ksenia Karelina via Facebook/First Department)

According to Russian media, Karelina was originally accused of "petty hooliganism". Court officials said she had used "coarse, obscene language in front of other citizens, and was behaving rudely and defiantly."

The officials further claimed that she violently resisted arrest. On 29 January she was reportedly found guilty and sentenced to 14 days in jail.

Things appeared to change after she filed a complaint about her arrest with the court. The FSB now claims that she donated money to Razom, a Ukrainian aid charity based in New York City, on the day of Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The charity raises money for humanitarian aid and medical equipment, and its website says that it sometimes provides the latter to Ukrainian military units as well as civilian emergency services.

Razom's chief executive Dora Chomiak told the New York Post that she was "appalled" by Karelina's arrest, and called on the US government to "do everything in its power" to secure her release, along with others who have been "unjustly detained".

"Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly shown that he holds no sovereign border, foreign nationality, or international treaty above his own narrow interest. His regime attacks civil society activists who stand up for freedom and democracy," she said.

‘If we don’t help her, nobody else will’

Speaking to The Independent, Srebroski declines to discuss the details of Karelina's alleged donation, because she did not want to put her in danger.

But she says Karelina had regularly donated to a wide range of GoFundMe pages and other charitable causes, including helping Srebroski herself when she was diagnosed with cancer 12 years ago.

"She was keeping in touch with me to check how I'm doing, medically and physically, all the time, because she's just a very compassionate person. Very sincere, sympathetic," Srebroski said.

Indeed, Karelina's Facebook page showed several posts linking to fundraising pages before it became inaccessible on Tuesday evening.

Asked what message she would give to Karelina's captors, Srebroski says she has nothing – because there is "no point".

"I cannot talk to my family who are in Russia. They're brainwashed, they think we are enemies," she says. "I have a very hard time communicating with my sister and my childhood friends, because they think I'm a traitor since I myself support Ukraine.

"So if I have to talk to the officials, what can I tell them that they don't already know? The whole country is covered with lies. They trust what they've been told on TV... they believe everything, even things that do not make any sense."

She is scornful about American TV host Tucker Carlson's recent interview with Vladimir Putin, which even the Russian dictator criticised as too soft – and whose release coincided, deliberately or otherwise, with Karelina's treason charges.

The unexplained death in prison of famed opposition leader Alexei Navalny last week – which supporters have blamed squarely on Putin – underscores the potential consequences for those who defy the Russian government.

For now, Srebroski says she wants to make as much noise as possible to bring attention to Karelina's plight.

"Things are getting cruel there," she says. "I mean, it's been tough all the time, but now it's even more devastating and drastic. So I'm very concerned that she will go through a lot of physical abuse there...

"If we do not help her as a country, because she's an American citizen, nobody else will."

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