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NY Post
New York Post
24 Feb 2024

NextImg:Russians in America reveal how they fear Putin after ballerina’s arrest: ‘My family will be a target even here.’

Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s tentacles of terror are stretching into homes across the US as his war in Ukraine marks its two year anniversary Saturday.

Russian-born Americans who oppose the war in Ukraine say that they are too afraid to make their opinions known publicly — or even in confidence to family members back home.

“I live in fear of putting my family in danger in Russia,” said a Russian emigré engineer, who does not support Putin’s bloody invasion of Ukraine.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin is sowing fear outside Russia’s borders by targeting dissidents abroad. Getty Images

“I don’t post anything on social media. I keep quiet about my views not to harm them. When we talk, it’s ‘hi, how are you?’ and that’s it. You never know who is listening in.”

This week Russian Americans were given new reason to fear Putin’s brutality: the revelation that ballerina Ksenia Karelina, was being held for “treason” and facing life in a gulag.

The 32-year-old was arrested when she flew from her home in Los Angeles to her native Yekaterinburg to see her elderly grandmother and newly-divorced parents for Russian New Year.

Putin’s Federal Security Service (FSB) agents — successors to the Soviet KGB — alleged that her “treason” was making a $51.80 donation to Razom for Ukraine, a New York-based charity that helps Ukraine. How it found “evidence” of the donation remains unknown.

Russia’s FSB security forces cuffed Ksenia Karelina as they charged her with treason. If convicted, the dual US/Russia citizen faces 20 years in prison. Ria Novosti/e2w
Karelina, an amateur ballerina, was charged with treason for donating $51.80 to a Ukrainian charity. The Beverly Hills spa manager now faces life in Putin’s gulags. Ksenia Karelina / Facebook

The Post has learned that Karelina decided to go public with her anti-war message while in Yekaterinburg, her hometown.

Her detention, which the State Department acknowledged it was effectively powerless to do anything about — Russia does not recognize Karelina and other dual citizens’ status as Americans — sent a new chill through the emigré community.

“We are mortified, horrified and appalled,” said Lydia Kokolskyj, vice president of development for Razom for Ukraine. “Putin has instilled a mindset of terror in Russians inside and outside Russia.”

Kokolskyj said the non-profit does not disclose its donors and its information on donations is protected by strict “security protocols and many firewalls.”

Ksenia Karelina, a Los Angeles-based spa manager, went to spend New Year’s with her family in Yekaterinburg where she was arrested last month for “hooliganism.” Earlier this week, authorities charged her with treason citing a $51.80 donation she made to a New York-based non-profit that provides humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Ksenia Karelina / Facebook
Karelina faces being sent to a prison like this, codenamed Polar Wolf, in the Arctic town of Kharp. It is where opposition leader Alexei Navalny died on February 16. Putin uses his prison network to silence opponents — even abroad. AP

Many Russian Americans were simply too scared to speak to The Post, even under conditions of anonymity, citing fears of backlash from the Putin regime for their family members in Russia. Just generating a phone record would have been a risk.

“It’s very difficult,” said a Russian-born financial analyst who has lived in the US for more than 20 years and did not want to be identified.

“The majority of us, we don’t support Putin’s response.”

The analyst has posted anti-war messages on social media in the past, but said, “I am afraid my family will also be a target. Even here in America.”

When the analyst tries to speak to a sister in Russia about the war, “she just goes ballistic on me,” said the analyst. “They are brainwashed into thinking that Ukraine is a country full of Nazis and that Putin is liberating Ukraine from fascism.”

A day after the death Navalny’s death, a Putin supporter at the edge of Red Square was handing out propaganda in favor of the Kremlin leader, who is running for re-election with no effective opposition. Getty Images
The scenes of devastation in Ukraine — such as the aftermath of Russian shelling in the front-line city of Kherson this week — are not topics Russian Americans can discuss with their families in their native country, they told The Post. Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

Putin’s brutal tactics against his own people have escalated dramatically since his botched invasion of Ukraine in 2022, with his security forces now known to have detained 19,850 anti-war activists, often using the Kremlin’s 51 new repressive laws in, according to OVD-Info, a Russia-based human rights group.

That was before the sudden death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny on February 16 at the hellhole Arctic Circle prison camp where he was held — a death President Biden and other world leaders said was Putin’s doing.

In the course of the last few days, security forces detained more than 400 mourners who held vigils for the lawyer and Putin critic in 39 cities across the country. Navalny’s brother Oleg has also been on a wanted list for unspecified charges since 2022.

One of Navalny’s associates, Anatoly Berezikov, a 40-year-old DJ and anti-war activist, died in detention at a prison in Rostov-on-Don after he was arrested for disobeying police last year.

Russian lawyer and anti-Putin activist Alexei Navalny died Feb. 16 at a prison in the Arctic Circle. World leaders blamed Putin for his death. He seemed healthy in his last court appearance and joked with the judge. The next day he was dead. AP
Police drag a protestor away during a vigil for Navalny last week, held at a monument in Moscow to the victims of political repression. More than 400 mourners were detained by Russian security forces in 39 cities across the country. REUTERS

Authorities said he committed suicide, but when his attorney and a human rights worker said he had likely been tortured to death by prison guards, they were forced to flee the country after authorities searched the attorney’s home, according to reports.

The fear of persecution is felt doubly in America by Russians: there is both concern for their relatives and personal fear at Putin’s agents’ reach far beyond their borders.

“Anyone protesting the war anywhere in the world should also be worried about the long arm of Vladimir Putin. They just killed a guy in Spain,” said Inna de Silva, a Ukrainian-born public relations professional who lives in New Jersey.

That victim was Maksim Kuzminov, a Russian pilot who defected to Ukraine last year with his military helicopter but whose body was found in a parking garage in Villajoyosa near Alicante, in southern Spain; he had been shot six times and run over.

Members of the Spanish Civil Guard investigate the garage in southern Spain where the body of Russian pilot Maxim Kuzminov was found. He was shot six times and run over by a vehicle in Villajoyosa on Feb. 13 via REUTERS
Maksim Kuzminov, a Russian pilot who defected to Ukraine with his helicopter, was gunned down in a parking garage in southern Spain. UKRAINE'S GUR MILITARY INTELLIGENCE AGENCY/AFP via Getty Images

The head of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, Sergei Naryshkin, openly gloated to state media TASS, “This traitor and criminal became a moral corpse at the very moment he planned his dirty and terrible crime.”

In Miami, Russian security forces tried to assassinate a double agent in 2020.

Kremlin officials pressured a Mexican scientist to track down and kill former Russian spy Aleksandr Poteyev, who worked for the CIA and betrayed a ring of 10 fellow operatives, including the notorious Anna Chapman, when he defected to the US.

Two years ago, the Kremlin added Moscow-born writer and Putin critic Masha Gessen, who lives in New York City, onto a wanted list of the country’s interior ministry for spreading “false information” about human rights abuses committed by Russian soldiers in the Ukrainian city of Bucha at the beginning of the war in 2022.

The Russian ministry of the interior placed New York-based writer Masha Gessen on a wanted poster for “spreading false information” about the war in Ukraine after they wrote about Russian human rights abuses in Bucha.

And there have been suspicious deaths in the US: a Putin critic, businessman Dan Rapoport, fell to his death from the window of his Washington, DC, apartment in 2022, with thousands of dollars of cash in his pocket; and Mikhail Lesin, who set up Putin’s RT propaganda channel died from blunt force trauma to the head in a D.C. hotel room a day before he was due to speak to Department of Justice investigators.

“Everyone who opposes the Kremlin risks ending up in this inhumane system,” wrote Dan Storyev, who works with OVD-Info, in the Moscow Times this week, an independent newspaper now published from outside Russia.

“Even those outside of Russia aren’t safe now that the Kremlin is ramping up transnational repression.”

The most high-profile move against an American in Russia was the arrest last March, also in Yekaterinburg, of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich on trumped-up charges of spying.

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich has been detained in Russia for nearly a year on espionage charges. His Russia-born father told the newspaper he was “apprehensive” when his son moved to Moscow in 2017. AFP via Getty Images

A court last week ruled that he will stay behind bars until at least March 30, a move slammed by the US ambassador to Moscow as the latest in a “baseless” case designed to trample on journalism.

Putin has insisted Gershkovich was “caught red-handed when he was secretly getting classified information” and hinted that Moscow would trade him for the release of Vadim Krasikov, a Russian serving a life sentence in Germany for murder ordered by the Kremlin.

Rebekah Koffler, a strategic military intelligence expert and author of “Putin’s Playbook: Russia’s Secret Plan to Defeat America,” said fear of the Kremlin has long been ingrained in Russians abroad.

Now, she said, no one should return to Russia, telling The Post, “That’s like really asking for it.

“They [the Putin regime] will find any kind of excuse to arrest you. They are collecting US citizens to eventually exchange for what they want.”

A lawyer and human rights worker said anti-war activist Anatoly Berezikov was tortured in a Russian prison. They were forced to flee the country a day after he died in June, 2023.

Despite the danger, native born Russians are still looking for ways to get into the country through countries such as Turkey — ballerina Karelina’s route — and Serbia that continue to have diplomatic relations with Russia, said the analyst. They post about it on social media.

“There is no logic or common sense, and people here just keep quiet not to bring attention to their relatives in Russia,” the analyst said.

“A friend of mine who just returned from Russia after a two month visit with her elderly mother, said the last time she spoke to her mother, she told her: ‘If I die, do not show up here for the funeral.'”