Ksenia Karelina charged with treason in Russia for donating to Ukrainian charity

Ksenia Karelina, 33. A dual national, holding US and Russian citizenship, she lives in Los Angeles, though remains in touch with her family back in Yekaterinburg.

Today she sits in a Russian cell, accused of treason, with the threat of a decades-long jail sentence looming over her and no access to consular assistance.

Her “crime”: giving $US51 ($77) to a New York-based Ukrainian charity. Russia accuses her of “proactively collecting funds” to help Ukraine resist its invasion.

(Ms Karelina’s boyfriend says she is “proud to be Russian”, “doesn’t watch the news” and has never spoken about the war.)

Her loved ones fear she will never be free again.

“I don’t have hope for Russian justice. It does not exist,” her former mother-in-law, Eleonora Srebroski, told The Los Angeles Times this week.

“I just hope she does not spend the rest of her life in jail. I know in Russia she will be physically abused, mentally abused, and I’m very concerned.”

This week Ms Karelina’s detention, and the oh-so-convenient death of Vladimir Putin’s chief political opponent, Alexei Navalny, at a remote prison colony, presented a chance for people who bleat about oppression in the West to stumble upon some perspective – and for those who have fetishised Putin’s murderous regime to wake the hell up.

The two victims are polar opposites, but their fates are rooted in the same thing: the paranoid, pathetic frailty of authoritarianism.

Mr Navalny spoke out relentlessly against Russia’s corruption, even after being poisoned, always aware of the threat to his safety. Ms Karelina just wanted to visit her relatives. Both were targeted by a state which allows no dissent, and the brittle dictator who runs it.

How often, in the juvenile outrage that passes for so much of today’s political debate, do we hear wealthy westerners with comfortable lives and massive media platforms spew out words like “censorship” and “tyranny”? How many times has someone with millions of followers complained about being “silenced” – usually on a national TV program?

If you say something critical of Anthony Albanese in Australia, or Joe Biden in the US, or Rishi Sunak in the UK, you might cop a battering on Twitter. Say something critical of Putin in Russia – heck, donate to the wrong charity – and you may just disappear.

Yet the free speech warriors have been strangely quiet this week.

At the time of writing, Twitter’s always outspoken boss Elon Musk has said nothing at all about Mr Navalny’s death. Not a word. Anti-censorship crusader Tucker Carlson just returned home from a much-hyped trip to Russia, during which he failed to press Putin on any of his crimes, but found time to marvel with childlike wonder at the country’s subway stations and the price of its groceries – comparing it favourably to the United States, where prices are higher but by almost every standard that matters, including salary, people are far better off.

That is to say nothing of the even more extreme, fringe voices who have spent years fellating Putin and elevating him as an example of strong leadership.

“At least Putin is standing up for traditional institutions,” the alt-right political strategist Steve Bannon once said, neatly summing up their admiration.

Translated: Putin is anti-woke. He’s anti-gay. He’s pro-religion. He opposes all the things the Bannons of the world are so fixated on.

So what if Putin has eroded the core institutions that actually matter to society – the justice system, the political system, law enforcement. So what if his foreign policy has been a little, ahem, muscular?

It’s truly remarkable how much malfeasance and malice can be forgiven or ignored when you’re seen to be on the right side of the culture wars.

And when you’re seen to be strong.

Stress, there, on seen to be. Because that’s the chief myth of Vladimir Putin, isn’t it? And of most so-called strongmen. For some reason, as authoritarian leaders grow more insulated and suspicious and intolerant of any dissent, the myth of their strength only balloons further.

There is nothing remotely strong about a leader who cannot handle criticism. Who feels so insecure in his position, so perpetually threatened by any challenge, that people are carted away to prison camps for speaking their minds. And arrested for mourning in public. And charged with treason for donating to a charity.

It reeks of weakness, of a man who fears his own people. Calling Putin strong requires you to ignore the facts in front of your face; it’s like insisting that Biden is in fact a youthful, spritely pup with his best years ahead of him.

But that’s politics in 2024. Up is down. Liberal democracies are oppressive, invaders are victims, and some domestic politician who disagrees with you on say, immigration policy, is supposedly a greater threat to the West than the man whose stated aim is to tear it down.

Twitter: @SamClench

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