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Alsu Kurmasheva and Pavel Butorin in Cesky Krumlov, a city in the South Bohemian region of the Czech Republic, 2020

Alum’s wife detained in Russian prison

For Alsu Kurmasheva, Saturday marked one month in a cramped, cold Russian prison. The beloved mother, wife, daughter and accomplished journalist is far from Prague, where her husband, Ohio University alum Pavel Butorin, and their two daughters sit, hoping for her return.

While Kurmasheva has U.S. and Russian citizenship and is registered to vote in Washington D.C., Butorin thinks her American citizenship and her career as a journalist working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, or RFE/RL, likely contributed to her arrest.

However, her trip to Russia was unrelated to these identities. She was on a private visit as a concerned daughter to visit her mother.

Kurmasheva was temporarily detained on June 2 after a two-week visit to Russia for a family emergency. Before her flight home, she was escorted away by Russian officials. At that time, she was charged with failing to declare her American passport, and Butorin said she was interrogated for several hours while both her passports and her cell phone were confiscated.

She was eventually fined 10,000 rubles, or $103 U.S. dollars, for the alleged offense.

Alsu Kurmasheva and her husband, Pavel Butorin pose together

On Wednesday, Oct. 18, while awaiting the return of her travel documents, she was arrested for the more serious charge of alleged failure to self-register as a foreign agent.

Russia’s foreign agent law has been used since 2012 to punish perceived government critics who receive funding from abroad and engage in exposing corruption, monitoring elections, advocating for the environment and other forms of "political activity." This law was expanded to cover the media in 2017, according to RFE/RL.

Last year, Russia expanded its definition of foreign agents to include anyone deemed "under foreign influence."

The vague wording accompanying this law allows the Russian government to punish foreign and domestic individuals who collect any information, even publicly available knowledge, and who do not self-register with the government.

Russia has yet to officially notify the U.S. of Alsu's detainment, according to a U.S. State Department spokesperson. A State Department spokesperson said they were "closely following" her case and that their requests for consular access – the right for U.S. government officials to communicate with Americans detained abroad – have not received a response.

However, the U.S. has yet to designate Kurmasheva as "wrongfully detained," an official designation that could increase the force of the U.S. government's response in working to free Kurmasheva.

Kurmasheva has yet to be convicted and is being held in pre-trial detention. If she's found guilty, she could be sentenced to up to five years imprisonment.

Butorin said he has little information about his wife's current conditions, as any letters they can receive from her are heavily censored.

However, he does know it is cold in her cell and there is very little natural light. In a recent letter, she shared that she spends her morning deep cleaning her cell, which is meant for four prisoners, and is only allowed outdoors for an hour a day. She also said she was prohibited from showering for her first 10 days of detention.

"We miss her very much, and we want her back home," he said. "She's not a criminal … not even under Russian law.”

The pair recently marked 21 years together as a couple with Kurmasheva behind bars.

Before meeting Kurmasheva, Butorin graduated from OU in 1998 with a master's in mass communication. Although he has lived in Prague for more than 25 years, he still has an OU T-shirt from the College Book Store proudly displayed behind his desk. He even recently mailed his ballot across the Atlantic to the Athens Board of Elections for the Nov. 7 election.

Those ties helped encourage him to reach out to OU about his wife's detainment, and he was put in contact with Scott Titsworth, dean of Scripps College of Communication.

Butorin has turned to the world for support for his wife and has enlisted the help of the Scripps College of Communication. Titsworth is working on a campaign to raise awareness and encourage further action from the U.S. State Department.

"There's so many times that we reach out to our alums and say, 'Can you help us?' 'Can you come speak to a class?'… and they're always so willing to do that," Titsworth said. "You just feel like when you see something like this happen: what can we do to help them?"

Titsworth and other representatives of Scripps College have begun an awareness campaign in partnership with RFE/RL and Butorin. Titsworth sent letters to the State Department and Ohio legislators in Congress requesting for Kurmasheva to receive the "wrongfully detained" designation.

Scripps College has also posted on social media to spread awareness through the hashtag #FreeAlsu. Titsworth urged attendees at the Scripps International Legacy Reception Nov. 16 to spread awareness to the public about Kurmasheva's situation.

"Amplification to the State Department is the best strategy we have right now," Titsworth said.

Pavel Butorin – or Paul, as he went by at the time – at Ohio University in the 1990s.

Butorin said he appreciates OU's support, not just now but throughout his life. He said he owes much of his career to the university, specifically his former professor and advisor, Don Flournoy.

Like his wife, Butorin works for RFE/RL, which is funded by the U.S. government and provides uncensored news to countries where free press is threatened. He currently serves as the director of Current Time TV, a 24/7 Russian language digital and TV network led by RFE/RL.

However, Kurmasheva works for RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service and has reported extensively on the preservation of Tatar culture, language and human rights, especially as Russian authorities have increased pressure on Tatar communities in recent years.

"Alsu has dedicated her entire career to promoting Tatar culture (and) language through her journalism," Butorin said. "She is a member of a global Tatar women's organization. It's especially disheartening for me to see her imprisoned in her native Tatarstan. It just really breaks my heart."

She is the second American journalist detained by Russia this year after Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was detained March 29. The Committee to Protect Journalists called her arrest the "most egregious" abuse of the foreign agent legislation against foreign journalists to date.

While her work as a journalist is relevant, Butorin reminded the public she was there on a private visit.

"She was aware of the risks associated with any such trip," Butorin said. "Not only is she a loving mother, but she's also a devoted daughter, and she had to attend to a family emergency."

He said many people have asked him why she would travel given the risks, which is neither helpful nor well-timed. He said they could not have anticipated the result, and Kurmasheva prioritized being an attentive daughter. 

Alsu Kurmasheva !
Alsu Kurmasheva smiling while participating in a game

Outside of her dedication to her family and craft, Butorin said Kurmasheva is a talented musician and cello player.

"(We are) a very musical family," Butorin said. "We want her back in our band."

The family also adores Taylor Swift, and Butorin said they have four tickets for an Eras Tour concert next summer.

"We want to go to that concert together as a family, and we will be doing that," he said firmly. "We miss her very much, and we hope that she's released so that she can get back home to me and the kids."

It is the musical, loving wife Butorin hopes people consider first when they think of the woman in the cold cell who is only allowed to see daylight for an hour a day.

Butorin is grateful for the outpour of support she has received so far and encourages people to continue to advocate and get the attention of national and international groups who may be able to help with a speedy release.

"I want people to think of her as a mother of two teenage daughters who miss her very much," Butorin said.


Katie Millard


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