'Forgotten' American Woman Jailed in Russia with Brittney Griner Tried to Flee with U.S. Help Before Arrest

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Sarah Krivanek
Sarah Krivanek

Sarah Krivanek Facebook

When Russian human rights activist Yekaterina Kalugina arrived at a Moscow-area detention center on April 4 to speak with imprisoned WNBA star Brittney Griner, she wasn't expecting to cross paths with the only other American woman currently incarcerated in Russia.

Unlike Griner, who was calm during her visit with Kalugina, American schoolteacher Sarah Krivanek, 46, was incredibly distraught, the activist tells PEOPLE.

During their impromptu meeting at Correctional Colony No. 1 outside Moscow, where Krivanek was living in a pink-painted cell with six other women, Kalugina learned she had been arrested Nov. 11, 2021, after a domestic dispute involving her Russian romantic partner, Mikhail Karavaev.

RELATED: Biden Administration Offers 'Substantial' Deal to Russia in Exchange for Brittney Griner

"She hugged me and burst into tears," Kalugina says of her encounter at the jail with Krivanek. "She said, 'How have I ended up in here? It's all untrue. I'm a good person.'"

Legal Trouble

Krivanek told Kalugina that her boyfriend had been drunk when he hit her in the face on Nov. 11. "She defended herself by grabbing a kitchen knife and lashing out at him, catching him on the nose," Kalugina says, adding that Karavaev called the police, who then arrested Krivanek for giving him "little more than a scratch."

Krivanek was charged with "intention to inflict slight bodily harm" and "threatening to kill or do grievous bodily harm," according to Russian media reports, which note that she expressed regret and told authorities that she did not intend to kill Karavaev.

In court the next day, Krivanek indicated that she was defending herself in the fight with Karavaev. A day before the altercation, she alleged in court, he had kicked and punched her, leaving her arms and legs covered in bruises and three fingers broken.

Krivanek's injuries were confirmed by medical experts on the day of her arrest, according to Kalugina.

Sarah Krivanek
Sarah Krivanek

Sarah Krivanek Facebook

Karavaev withdrew his complaint and gave evidence in court that he hadn't meant to attack her and was sorry that he had. "I never felt that my life was in danger. She was just angry that I was drinking vodka. I was the one at fault," Karavaev said in court and in a written statement included in Krivanek's appeal. "I was still angry and drunk when the police interviewed me at the station and besides, they told me she wouldn't be charged."

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Krivanek was released on bail after agreeing in writing that she would not leave Moscow and would demonstrate good behavior until her trial.

According to Russian media reports, authorities there informed the U.S. Embassy about Krivanek's arrest as well as the conditions of release while she awaited trial.

Fearing imprisonment, Krivanek sought advice at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and was told she should leave Russia as soon as possible, according to statements Karavaev made to Kalugina.

A U.S. State Department official tells PEOPLE they are aware of Russian media reports that claimed the embassy was informed of the order for Krivanek to stay in Moscow. But the official disputed those claims.

"At the time of the U.S. citizen's attempted departure, the embassy had not received notification of any order for the citizen not to leave the country, nor notification of the citizen's arrest, from Russian authorities," the official said.

A friend, Anita Martinez, tells PEOPLE Krivanek made multiple trips to the embassy to begin arranging her departure from Russia. "She was sneaking back and forth to the embassy trying to get the funds and the tickets and everything sorted. She was trying to do everything without him finding out," Martinez said.

The Embassy of the United States of America and The US citizen center at Novinskiy Bulvar in Moscow, Russia
The Embassy of the United States of America and The US citizen center at Novinskiy Bulvar in Moscow, Russia

Getty Images

Although her Russian visa had expired, Krivanek believed she could leave Russia because she was told expired visas would be automatically extended due to the pandemic, Kalugina said.

On Dec. 15, Krivanek was escorted to Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport by an American diplomat identified in Russian media as Luke Davis, the second secretary in the embassy's consular department, who'd also reportedly sent an email to her with electronic tickets and details of the trip attached.

The State Department official who provided statements to PEOPLE about Krivanek did not confirm the identity of the diplomat who reportedly accompanied her to the airport on the day of her arrest, but did say it wasn't unusual for an American embassy to help citizens travel home to the U.S. or to provide a loan for travel expenses.

"U.S. citizens abroad may find themselves in need of a range of consular assistance, including assistance with travel issues, repatriation loans to the United States, lost or stolen passports, etc.," the State Department official tells PEOPLE. "U.S. citizens who find themselves destitute abroad may request assistance from the nearest embassy or consulate to return to the United States. The Department of State issues loans to destitute American citizens solely for the purpose of returning to the United States."

Krivanek carried with her at the airport a letter that showed she received a $200 repatriation loan from the U.S. government to cover expenses on her journey to the U.S. and that her destination was a small town in Kansas called Medicine Lodge, according to Russian media reports that have shown the letter and footage of her carrying it.

But Krivanek's U.S.-bound plane took off without her. At customs, Russian authorities confiscated her passport, and she was later arrested before she was able to board, charged with violating the terms of her bail.

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Airport security cameras captured footage of Krivanek getting into a police vehicle outside the airport after the arrest.

The State Department official confirmed the arrest of a U.S. citizen in Moscow in December 2021.

"We take our role in assisting U.S. citizens abroad seriously and are monitoring the situation," the official says.

Sarah Krivanek
Sarah Krivanek

Sarah Krivanek Facebook

Additional footage of Krivanek that has aired on Russian TV shows her bags being put into a diplomatic car, getting dropped off at the airport, kissing and hugging Karavaev goodbye and being accompanied by the man identified in the reports as Davis, who helped her with her luggage. At the airport, Krivanek can also be seen browsing a duty-free shop.

Martinez, Krivanek's friend who lives in California, was on a video call with Krivanek when she was arrested at Sheremetyevo Airport.

"I saw them take her," Martinez tells PEOPLE. "We were talking because she was getting ready to leave. She was excited but she said: 'I don't know, I'm worried,' and I said, 'Why?' And she said, 'Because they took my passport, and they haven't given it back to me. I'm worried they're not going to let me out.' And shortly thereafter they came and took her away."

"I haven't heard anything from that day onwards," Martinez adds. "I saw a scuffle and I hear her saying 'No! No!' and then next thing I know there's some man looking into her phone and then it went dead. My heart just dropped."

Letter from Jail

In a letter dated Feb. 7, just weeks before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Krivanek wrote from a Moscow detention center to an unnamed contact, pleading for help.

"Call the Embassy in Washington, D.C., and let them know that an American Citizen is in Russian jail and to this date no one has come to see me," Krivanek says in the letter reviewed by PEOPLE.

She also requested the recipient contact a priest in Colorado Springs — where she once lived, according to her Facebook page — so that he could "make prayers for me," and asked for help procuring "shampoo, toilet paper, toothpaste, laundry soap, sugar, coffee, fruits, veggies" from an online store that provides products to prisoners.

She asked in the letter for a relative to download WhatsApp so she could communicate on another prisoner's phone, and suggested making a Facebook post "telling everyone I've been detained in a Russian jail" until July 11 and "how people can help me with the online store."

Sarah Krivanek
Sarah Krivanek

Sarah Krivanek Facebook

That relative, who declined to be named, tells PEOPLE that Krivanek didn't provide a phone number, so her family couldn't shop the online store as requested.

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Krivanek indicated in the letter that she believed by the time it would be received that she would be in a prison in Skopin, a Central Russian city in the Ryazanskaya region.

Krivanek's friends and family contacted by PEOPLE haven't heard from her since and say they don't know who the letter was sent to, but that it was received in July and then images of it were passed around through social media apps.

Martinez tells PEOPLE that she emailed U.S. President Joe Biden through the White House website on June 29. On Monday, shortly after PEOPLE inquired about Krivanek's case with the State Department, Martinez heard back in an email that said White House staff had reviewed her correspondence and forwarded it to the "appropriate Federal agency for further action."

The White House did not immediately provide answers to questions about efforts to help Krivanek and whether Biden administration officials were aware of the circumstances of her imprisonment and referred PEOPLE to the Department of State.

Martinez also contacted the U.S. State Department on Krivanek's behalf on June 29. "Your query would be best answered by the Bureau of Consular Affairs," reads an email response, which is dated July 8 and provides a link to the bureau's contact information. "Thank you for contacting the U.S. Department of State."

The link provided led to a page for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow that Martinez says she had already used to seek help. She had not received a response from them, so she didn't bother with it again.

"We continue to urge that Russian authorities allow consistent, timely consular access to all U.S. citizen detainees in Russia in line with its legal obligations and allow us to provide consular services for U.S. citizens detained in Russia. Our requests for access are consistently delayed or denied," the State Department official said when asked by PEOPLE about current efforts to help Krivanek. "We also continue to press for fair and transparent treatment for all U.S. citizen detainees in Russia."

"Through our website, the Department informs U.S. citizens that they are subject to local laws and regulations while visiting or living in a foreign country, and we assist U.S. citizens within the limits of our authority in accordance with international, domestic, and foreign law," the official added.

Who's Helping Sarah?

"I feel so sorry for this kind, Christian woman who loved Russian culture and Russian children. The woman who had forgiven her partner and been forgiven by him. She has been imprisoned for six months now and has been forgotten," Kalugina tells PEOPLE, noting that Krivanek's appeal failed and that she's been shipped off to a penal colony.

"The court didn't take into account that the so-called 'crime' was an act of self-defense while being attacked by an abusive man much bigger than her," Kalugina continues. "Nor that he was only slightly hurt. It was just a scratch. Nor that he withdrew his accusation. Nor that this gentle woman who taught children was no threat to society."

Krivanek, who was born in California, told Kalugina that she arrived in Moscow in 2017 after divorcing her American military husband. "She told me she had Russian forebears and her uncle had persuaded her to visit Russia to practice the language," Kalugina tells PEOPLE of why Krivanek settled in Moscow. "She fell in love with the city and so she extended her short-term tourist visa. She rented an apartment and started teaching English to Russian children."

Krivanek has two adult sons and a daughter, who live in the U.S. and declined to speak to PEOPLE about their mother. Another son is deceased, Kalugina said.

Martinez, who's kept in touch with Krivanek since they became close while working together in Fresno, California, about 10 years ago, says her friend has a history of troubled relationships.

"Sarah is a rare bird. She's extremely smart and I think because of that she can come off as odd," her friend said. "I feel for her because she just wants to be loved so bad and puts herself in situations which are not beneficial for her."

Sarah Krivanek
Sarah Krivanek

Sarah Krivanek Facebook

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Another friend, Art Song, tells PEOPLE he and Krivanek met online through the site of a preacher and that he lent her money and offered her a place to stay at his father's home in Medicine Lodge, Kansas.

"She was in Moscow at that time. I helped her a little bit and then after a while she didn't need money, so we talked back and forth talking about God for several hours. Some people around here said she just needed money. But I'm a spiritual man, I went to Bible college, she needed support," Song says.

"The embassy was going to help her out and they said they have to know that she's going to a particular address or they're not going to help her," Song continues. "So, she and I talked, and my dad had an extra bedroom in his house, and we agreed on that and we were texting back and forth in the few weeks before she was due to leave."

Song says he spoke to Krivanek before she was arrested at the airport on Dec. 15 but didn't know what happened to her after their phone conversation.

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"She'd gone through passport control. She was happy. She told me what she'd had for breakfast because she had money. She said, 'I have my phone charged up and I have your phone number on a piece of paper in case something happens to my phone,' so I was talking to her and she says, 'I'm afraid they're going to arrest me.' Anyway, she hung up to talk to another friend."

Ivan Melnikov, the vice president of the Russian Department of the International Human Rights Defense Committee who has insight into U.S. negotiations with the Kremlin on prisoner swaps like the one proposed to get Griner home, tells PEOPLE he will be writing to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Krivanek's behalf.

"I believe American citizen Sarah Krivanek was wrongly convicted as it seems she herself was the victim of domestic violence and was defending herself from attack. Her so-called victim withdrew the charges," Melnikov tells PEOPLE. "I therefore ask that she should also be included in any exchange negotiations with Russian prisoners in the U.S. along with Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan."

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On Tuesday, Melnikov confirmed with colleagues at the Public Monitoring Commission — whose mission is to "strengthen the public oversight of places of detention throughout the Russian Federation," according to a description on the Council of Europe site — that Krivanek is now being held in Ryazan, a city about 120 miles southwest of Moscow.

PMC officials will travel there to see Krivanek on Thursday to confirm that her human rights are being observed, Melnikov tells PEOPLE.