Phoenix Mercury's Brittney Griner (42) elbows Chicago Sky's Stevanie Dolson (31) during the second half in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, in Chicago, Illinois, USA. 

Race, sexual orientation play a big role in WNBA star Brittney Griner's arrest in Russia, scholar says

Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a historian and a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, has been following Griner's case closely. She joined The World's Marco Werman to discuss the risks that Griner now faces in Russian detention.

Phoenix Mercury's Brittney Griner (42) elbows Chicago Sky's Stevanie Dolson (31) during the second half in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, in Chicago, Illinois, USA. 

Paul Beaty/AP

For WNBA fans, the name Brittney Griner is a household name. Griner is a perennial All Star with the Phoenix Mercury, a WNBA champion, and a two-time Olympic champion.

Now she's in Russian custody.

Griner was arrested last month at the Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow, after Russian authorities said a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges.

Related: ‘It was like a nightmare’: Russians react to news of Putin bombing Ukraine

Since then, the US State Department has told US citizens in Russia to leave the country "immediately," citing factors including “the potential for harassment against US citizens by Russian government security officials." 

Related: 'The risk of escalation is too great' for a no-fly zone in Ukraine, analyst explains

Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a historian and a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, focuses specifically on race and Blackness in the former USSR and GDR.

She's been following Griner's case closely and joined The World's host Marco Werman to discuss Griner's situation.

She says that Russia has a long history of making "examples" of Americans like Griner who get detained in the country, often on "incredible, trumped-up charges." 

Marco Werman: Kimberly, what do we know further about this case? Why was Griner detained, at least according to Russian authorities? 
Kimberly St. Julian Varnon: So in this case, we don't actually know that much. All we know is what the Russian Federal Customs Service has released. We know that Russia put out a video showing a person who looks like Brittney Griner going through the airport and they're going through her bag, and it appears that they opened a package and they're opening everything in her bag. And we also see her signing documents. We aren't sure what the documents say. We have no idea what language they're in. So that's kind of the gist of the video. We get most information from what the Russian Federal Customs Service actually put with the video. They said that she had vape cartridges with what they are categorizing as hashish oil. But in Russia, CBD, THC, all of these are kind of lumped together. But also, this is a very serious charge. And so she's facing a charge of large-scale transportation of drugs, and this carries a sentence of from five to 10 years. It's a very heavy charge. And, you know, they said drug trafficking. But I mean, these are vape cartridges with substances that are legal in the United States. But because of Russian law, the flux of Russian law dealing with this, they're lumping it all together under this charge.
Right, products that are legally set in the United States. Do we know Griner's whereabouts today or whether she was able to be in touch with a lawyer?
All we know is that she's still being held in Russian custody, and that's all the Russian state has said. And I think her camp is being very quiet about the situation. But I think it's understandable considering she's already a high-profile name. But even more so with this very tense diplomatic situation between the United States and Russia.
Brittney Griner, WNBA star, Olympic Gold Medal winner. Remind us, Kimberly, why she was traveling to Russia in the first place. 
Brittney Griner, among many WNBA stars, they play basketball in the offseason in Russia, Italy, France, Ukraine, Australia. For many of them, how they supplement their income because they're underpaid in the United States. But it's also kind of how they serve as ambassadors for the sport across the world. So she's been playing basketball in Russia since 2015. And so this isn't anything new for her. She has been in Russia, she's traveled in Russia, she played in Russia for eight years. So I think that's something important to remember. This wasn't some random trip. This is something she's done consistently as a professional basketball player.
Some people have a hard time believing ... someone with this much experience working in Russia would have known not to be carrying cannabis vape cartridges, if in fact, that's what happened. Do you believe the charges against her were concocted by Russian officials? 
I honestly can't put it past them. I mean, the precedent for this has already been set. We've seen very incredible trumped up charges against Americans. Paul Wieland, who's currently serving 16 years of prison in Russia, he was accused of espionage. Trevor Reed is alleged to have hit a police officer while he was intoxicated. He's facing nine years. He's serving a nine-year prison sentence. So Americans are often made examples of in Russia, but I really wouldn't put it past the Russian government to take advantage of this situation and say that she had something she didn't have.

Related: International law says Putin’s war against Ukraine is illegal. Does that matter? 

The State Department is telling Americans to leave Russia. It's also telling Americans not to travel there, and the advisory points to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow's limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia right now. How significant is that advisory? 
It is significant. And if you are an American who is in Russia, you need to leave, and it's because we barely have any diplomatic presence in Russia. And, as we've seen with the exodus of foreign students in Ukraine, if we don't have diplomatic or embassy representation in-country, it is incredibly difficult to get out of the country, but also to get help in case you have an emergency situation like Brittney Griner is experiencing right now. 
Finally, Kimberly, you've devoted yourself to studying Russia, Ukraine, the former Soviet Union and highlighting the stories of people of color specifically in those countries. Can you help us understand what role race might have played in Brittney Griner's troubles?
I think it could have played a very significant role because she's a visible minority, and never mind the fact I think she's 6'8, but she's also a visible minority. And I mean, throughout the past 20 years in Russia, in particular, there have been really horrifying stories of police brutality against people of African descent, against Afro Russians. Just a couple of summers ago, an Afro Russian woman who was talking about her experiences of racism in Russia, she was put under investigation. They opened a criminal case against her. So race is definitely influencing her treatment, but also it makes me more concerned about how she's faring because she is a visible minority in the Russian prison system when visible minorities have not been treated well and not just African Americans or Afro Russian, Central Asians, people from the Caucasus. This is a very big problem in Russia right now.
And a woman who is visibly in a same-sex relationship? I mean, how does Russia see that part of the story?
Absolutely. Russia has been infamous for its anti-LGBTQ laws. Just a couple of days ago, one of the Patriarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church essentially said the war in Ukraine was happening because of Ukraine's welcoming of gay people. So this is not, in any way, shape, or form, good for her, because she is openly gay, though the language that Russia uses about LGBTQ individuals, I mean — it's very dehumanizing. So, this definitely also kind of exacerbates an already bad situation.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report. 

Will you help our nonprofit newsroom today?

Every week, more than 2 million listeners tune into our broadcast and follow our digital coverage like this story, which is available to read for free thanks to charitable contributions from listeners like you. But less than 1% of our audience supports our program directly. From now through the end of the year, every gift will be matched dollar for dollar by a generous donor, which means your gift will help us unlock a $67,000 challenge match.

Will you join our growing list of loyal supporters and double your impact today?