She went home to care for her mother and ended up in a Russian prison cell

Russian-American journalist Alsu Kurmasheva is one of five US victims of Putin’s use of hostage diplomacy since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine

Pavel Butorin and his daughters Miriam and Bibi, aged 12 and 15, were shaken to see the video of their wife and mother, the Russian-American journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, in court in Kazan last Monday, April 1st.

It was the first time they had heard Kurmasheva’s voice since October 18th, when she was arrested by masked men at her mother’s home in Russian Tatarstan. That morning, she left an audio message in a troubled voice on Butorin’s phone: “They are taking me away.”

“We get these rare glimpses of Alsu in those glass cages”, Butorin says, referring to the enclosures where prisoners are held in Russian courtrooms. “It is just so painful for us to watch that. She is confident of her innocence, but you can definitely tell the emotional and physical toll this unjust detention has taken on her.”

In the video, which Butorin posted on X, Kurmasheva describes a cell so small that she cannot even take two steps. The toilet is a hole in the floor. There is no hot water. She looks gaunt and thin.


Kurmasheva’s ordeal started with the seizure of her US and Russian passports at Kazan airport last June 2nd, when she was about to board a flight home to Prague after visiting her ailing mother. She was charged with failing to register her US citizenship, which she promptly did. “We were very hopeful at first,” Butorin says. “We thought it was a minor incident. We were literally counting the days for her to leave Russia.”

Instead, Kurmasheva, age 47, endured a Kafkaesque series of setbacks. Officials delayed returning her travel documents and on October 18th, Russia accused her of failing to register as a “foreign agent”, an offence that can carry a five-year prison sentence. On December 11th, they charged her with spreading false information about the Russian military, which could mean a further ten years in prison. Her pretrial detention has been extended until June 5th.

Kurmasheva began working for Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty, which is funded by the US government but is editorially independent, in 1998. RFE/RL has been declared an “undesirable organisation” by the Russian government. Its website warns Russian listeners that they “could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us”.

Stephen Capus, the president of RFE/RL, says Kurmasheva “is being used as some sort of political pawn ... I think they are doing this because she is a US citizen, and perhaps because she works for this organisation. It is unjust, cruel punishment of a woman who went home to care for her mom. Back here, a husband and two wonderful children wait for her. What they are doing to her is ludicrous, wrongful and hateful.”

Kurmasheva co-edited a book entitled Saying No to War, in which 40 Russians explain their opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She is a member of the mainly Muslim Tatar minority, which has long been persecuted by Russia. “She has dedicated her entire career to advancing the Tatar culture, to reporting on Tatarstan and for people in Tatarstan,” says Butorin.

Twenty-three countries, including Ireland, have jointly nominated Kurmasheva for Unesco’s Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, which will be conferred on May 3rd, World Press Freedom Day. Her work is said to exemplify a phrase from Unesco’s constitution: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”

Kurmasheva is one of five US citizens imprisoned in Russia on dubious charges. Paul Whelan, a former US marine, is serving a 16-year sentence for espionage. Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested in March 2023 and has also been charged with espionage. Two Russian-American dual nationals were arrested in January 2024: Ksenia Karelina, an amateur ballerina from Los Angeles, and Robert Woodland Romanov, an English teacher.

Russia has charged Karelina with high treason, which could mean a life sentence, for having donated $50 to a pro-Ukrainian charity.

The five are victims of Russia’s increasing use of hostage diplomacy – a term more frequently used to describe Iran’s imprisonment of westerners for political or financial gain – since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s regime is cynically collecting human bargaining chips on the assumption they will be useful. All appear to have been detained in what Capus calls “an opportunist grab”.

Washington faces the moral dilemma of creating a precedent and driving up the price of freedom by negotiating for the release of US citizens, or leaving them to rot in prison. Until 2022, negotiations were almost always kept secret. That changed when Washington announced that it had traded the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for basketball player Brittney Griner.

I want my wife back. I think the US, the West, really, should have the moral fortitude to do that, because we value human life

—  Pavel Butorin

Associates of Alexei Navalny, the Russian dissident who died in prison in February, said he, Gershkovich and Whelan were about to be swapped for Vadim Krasikov, a Russian agent who is serving a life sentence in Germany for the murder of a Chechen dissident on a playground in Berlin. Putin allegedly foiled the exchange because he could not bear the thought of Navalny being alive, even outside Russia. Gershkovich and Whelan may yet be exchanged for Krasikov.

Kurmasheva’s family and employers are campaigning for the US government to designate her as “wrongfully detained” so that consular officers can visit her, and the US can negotiate on her behalf.

Butorin knows of no prospective exchange for Kurmasheva, but he would have no qualms about her being traded for a Russian criminal. “I want my wife back. I think the US, the West, really, should have the moral fortitude to do that, because we value human life.”

“Clearly hostage-taking has become a tactic (of Russia’s government),” Capus says. “I would like to say, ‘Don’t ever reward bad behaviour’. But the reality is that sometimes people find themselves in a terrible situation through the actions of a terrible regime, and this is one of those times. We need to do whatever we can to get our people out.”