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Opinion | Brittney Griner: The day I landed in Russia and wound up in prison

Opinion | Brittney Griner: The day I landed in Russia and wound up in prison

On Feb. 17, 2022, just days before Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, WNBA star Brittney Griner arrived in Moscow to join the Russian team she’d been playing for during U.S. offseasons. Instead of joining her team, though, Griner was caught with small amounts of cannabis oil and imprisoned for more than nine months. This article — adapted from her memoir, “Coming Home” — is the story of how her ordeal began.

The Moscow air felt different. I’d traveled to Russia dozens of times in eight years to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg and never had this eerie feeling. I went through passport control, got my stamp and took an escalator down to security for my transfer to the domestic terminal. Two large glass doors slid open. The scene on the other side proved something was off.

The place was crawling with workers. It was usually empty, maybe a couple of screeners, and then you’d sail through to your connecting flight. This checkpoint was fully staffed: five, six workers near the metal detectors, another bunch huddled by the trays, a screener guy seated behind the X-ray machine. Everyone was in uniform, and a few had on blue-camo fatigues.

What the hell is going on? A blond, skinny police lady walked alongside the passengers, her dog sniffing every bag. The canine smelled the luggage of the person in front of me. All clear. Same thing when the dog sniffed my bags. No reaction. They immediately moved on to the next passenger, but the police woman tapped me on the shoulder. She said something in Russian, God knows what, and motioned for me to step aside.

I wasn’t the only one pulled from the line. Most of the Russians flew through the metal detectors, but us foreigners were being flagged for additional search. I glanced around at the passports. There was a guy from Pakistan, several from Ukraine, a few from Uzbekistan. I don’t know what that dog did when he sniffed their bags, but I was 100 percent sure how it reacted to mine: totally chill, a day at the beach. My father was a cop, a Vietnam vet, and I grew up with police-­trained Rottweilers, Malinois, all of them. I know what dog signals look like. When they sniff something suspicious, they normally sit, bark, make weird movements. This dog didn’t even whimper. I wasn’t nervous when I got yanked, just annoyed at the hassle. I had no reason to be scared. My carry-ons were clean.

I placed my bags on the conveyor and watched them roll away. Before they were even inside the scanner, the screener got up and leaned all the way into the machine. Strange. I stepped through the metal detectors, no alarm, then came around to my bags. There stood the screener’s teammate, a customs agent. Bald, early 40s, hard-nosed, in a tightknit sweater and chinos. If you’re standing in a customer service line, he’s the guy you don’t want to go to. No smile, no emotion, no nothing.

He gestured for me to unzip my bags. I studied his face to be sure I understood, since in America you don’t touch your bags. You stand back while the agent rummages through them. That clearly wasn’t the case in Russia because he signaled again for me to open them. I started pulling stuff out left and right, showing him every item, unzipping small compartments he didn’t even know existed. I wanted to get this search over with and move on to my next flight, the one that would take me to Ekaterinburg, the city where my team — last season’s champions — was based.

I’d worked my way through the backpack when I opened one last zip. I slid in my hand and felt something inside. The agent stared as I slowly lifted out a cartridge with cannabis oil. My stomach sank. I’m a licensed cannabis user in the United States, with a medical marijuana card issued by my doctor. He prescribed cannabis years ago, to help me cope with my sports injuries. In Arizona, cannabis is legal. In Russia it’s forbidden. I knew that. Honest to God, I just totally forgot the pen was in my bag.

The agent took the cartridge and held it up. “What this substance?” he said in broken English. My tongue was frozen, but my brain was scrambling, trying to find a way out of this. “Um, it’s CBD,” I finally said. Although cannabis was prohibited, I’d heard CBD was a lesser offense. Not true, I already knew in that moment, but I tried. “What this?” the agent asked again in even choppier English. This dude doesn’t know what I’m saying. I pulled out my phone, typed “CBD” into Google Translate, and showed him my screen. He looked at the phone and then back at me. Silence. A moment later he reopened my roller as I stood by, stone-faced. First, he pulled out my Nintendo Switch. Next he pulled out the heap of charger cords, as tangled as my insides. And last he lifted a pair of sweats. A cartridge fell from the pocket and tumbled onto the tabletop.

Fear takes many forms. There’s the kind you feel when life sneaks up from behind and frightens you half to death. Some people freeze. Others run. I’m usually the one who fights like hell. When I saw those cartridges, a different type of fear shuddered through me. There was no instinct to fight, flee or freeze. Instead, my body went into a major free fall, as if I’d stumbled off a cliff and plunged into the ocean.

The agent picked up the cartridge and glared at me. I was still falling, still flailing, desperate to slow the spiral. Even after the second cartridge was discovered, I was hoping he’d let it slide, give me a warning, allow me to throw that stuff away. Both vape pens were practically empty, with not even enough cannabis oil to get you high. Obviously, I wasn’t Pablo Escobar. I just forgot the cartridges were in my bag, end of story.

The agent pointed at a nearby row of chairs. “You wait,” he said, or I think that’s what I heard. I collapsed into the seat. When he walked off with the cartridges, I started blowing up my wife’s phone. It was just after 2 a.m. in Phoenix, and Relle was dead asleep, with the ringer off. “Hey, 911, wake up, wake up, wake up!” I said on her voice mail. “Yo, babe, I need you to answer.” I left her a dozen messages before getting super real on the last one. “Babe, I think I’m about to get locked up,” I said with a crack in my voice. “I really need you to call me. Please.” Click.

The screener returned. With him was a young guy, hair slicked back, who introduced himself as Anton. I understood this only because he spoke English. Sort of. At least a bit better than anyone else there. He held up the cartridges. “We take this to forensics,” he said in a thick accent. “Forensics?” I asked. I’d heard him. But I repeated the word because I couldn’t believe this was happening. “You wait,” said the screener. Anton explained they were sending the pens for testing. “How long is it going to be?” I asked. He stared at me blankly. So much for his knowing English. I typed my question into Google and held up the translation. Neither of them even looked at the screen. “Wait” is all they would say. I waved the screen in front of Anton again. Same thing. No acknowledgment. They pointed at my passport, grabbed it from my hand, along with the boarding pass to my connecting flight, and walked away.

Adapted from “Coming Home” by Brittney Griner with Michelle Burford, published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2024 by Brittney Griner.

I waited. I was too shaken up to weep. Noon turned into 2 p.m. As I sat there, these two customs guys darted all over that security checkpoint, shouting in Russian and holding up the cartridges, leaving and returning with the pens. I thought they were taking them to forensics? I had no idea what was happening. The words I’d texted Relle looped through my head. I’d watched enough documentaries on Russian prisons to know how inmates were treated. As I slid down in my chair, my heart pounded. Fear is one thing. But uncertainty, a free fall into mystery — that’s much stronger than fear; it’s terror.

My phone lit up at 2:30 p.m. Relle. Thank God. “Who are these people, why do they have you, and what exactly are they saying?” I gave her the full picture in my shaky voice, and she was firm from the beginning: I had nothing to hide. “Babe, you aren’t some drug smuggler,” she said. “You had two pens in your bag, both of them medically licensed with cannabis legally purchased. Don’t freak out. You’ve done nothing wrong.”

That relaxed me a little. Relle, who was finishing up law school, worked at a firm specializing in criminal defense. She and her colleagues handled drug and homicide cases all the time. That was why she thought we should shut our mouths and let the truth do the talking. She promised to call my agent: “Don’t you say a word to anyone, don’t you write anything down,” Relle warned.

The customs agents returned with both cartridges around 4 p.m. Guess they never took them to forensics. Guess I’m still screwed. Anton was holding what looked like an evidence bag, as well as some kind of document in Russian. “You sign here,” he said, pointing at a line near the bottom.

I studied the paper. “What is this?” I asked. “Sign,” he repeated, shoving the paper toward me. I pushed it away. “I’m not signing anything,” I said. “Nyet, nyet, nyet.” I hadn’t learned much Russian in my time there, but I knew how to say no. Neither of them responded. They stood there gazing at me, as though they had no idea what I was saying. I looked up “lawyer” on Google Translate. “Advocat,” I said. Anton pushed the document toward me again and repeated, “Sign here!” I said “I don’t know” in every way I could think of, in Russian, with gestures, with a hunch of my shoulders. They had to know what the hell I meant because a shrug is universal.

This back and forth continued until they brought over a lady from a nearby duty-free shop. They spoke to her in Russian before she turned to me and said, “They want you to sign.” Are they kidding me? This woman is a cashier, not a translator! “I don’t know what this is,” I said, “and I’m not signing.” I remembered Relle’s warning and kept refusing, and the lady and the men got louder and more insistent. Round and round we went until finally I buckled. Whatever. Maybe if I sign this, I can go. The agent then put the vape pens in the bag, folded it over, sealed it, and left me there with the same stupid order: “You wait.” It seemed they needed my signature to put the vape pens into evidence. Not sure.

A half-hour later, the agents came back. “You go with us,” Anton said. Go where? “We go to office,” he said. What kind of office? I hesitated for a moment, thought about resisting, but what real choice did I have? I’d already signed a document I couldn’t even read, much less understand. This was no different. I had to go with them, even if I had no clue where they were taking me. They pointed at a nearby corridor and started walking. I pulled on my backpack, grabbed the handle of my roller and followed. They didn’t handcuff me. They didn’t need to. They’d confiscated my passport. My flight was long gone. I was already their prisoner.

The hallway led to an exit. When the door swung open, a burst of cold hit my face. February in Russia is no joke. I hadn’t packed a coat in my carry-on, hadn’t thought I’d need one. As we walked toward a parking lot, I stopped for a moment to pull on my hood and gazed up at the Moscow sky. Gray like always, grayer on this evening, the sun fading as dusk set in. We wove in and out of several cars until the guy who was not Anton stopped and unlocked a trunk. Whose car is this? It was a banged-up sedan, the Russian version of a ’98 Honda Civic, and not one that looked official. He lifted the trunk and motioned for me to put in my roller, which I did. He then opened a rear door and turned to see the question on my face: Where are you taking me in your cruddy personal car? “Get in” was his only answer. I lumbered into the back, crouching my head low just so I could fit. He slammed my door and then he and Anton got in up front.

We looped around to a fenced area next to the airport. As we approached, the gates rolled open to reveal a redbrick building that looked like a mini-prison. Could be customs headquarters. An armed guard stood out front. He and Anton spoke briefly before the guard waved us in. We walked upstairs to an office, where the agents sat behind a desk across from me. Another guy came in, blue camo uniform, didn’t speak, just sat by the door. Maybe a guard. Meanwhile, Anton started talking my ear off. Sometime between our duty-free showdown and now, his English had magically improved. “So, what do you think of LeBron?” he said with a grin. “Is he as good as Michael Jordan?” “No idea,” I muttered. He kept talking, not caring that I’d clearly caught on to his tactic. “How do you feel about Trump?” he asked. I flipped the script. “How do you feel about Trump?” I asked. He and the others laughed. “I think Trump’s great,” he said. This continued, with Anton asking me about sports, politics, even my WNBA salary, which he’d pulled up on the internet. I said little, mostly stared at my phone. Every few minutes he’d throw in a question like, “Do your teammates smoke weed too?” I shrugged. “I don’t know what they do,” I said. “Weren’t you bringing drugs to somebody?” he asked. I repeated the truth: “I didn’t know I had the pens.” “So, you don’t know any drug dealers here?” he pressed. “Advocat,” I said. Since this had become an interrogation, I needed a lawyer, anyone, at my side. I prayed I’d hear from home.

Heaven must’ve heard me because my screen lit up. It was Lindsay, my agent in the United States, reaching out on WhatsApp. Like Relle, she got straight to the point. “Where exactly are you?” she asked. “I need you to drop a pin.” As I did, she pulled up Google Maps and spotted the redbrick building. Even before Lindz reached me, she’d started rallying the troops. Alex Boykov, a Moscow attorney, was standing by to help me. She gave me his number and sent him my pin.

Alex called me when he arrived. The guard wouldn’t let him upstairs, he said, so he was waiting down at the entrance, in the cold. On Google Translate, I typed in “My lawyer is here” and showed Anton the screen. He wrinkled his face. “You wait,” he said. “Why?” I shot back. He shrugged. I continued pushing and eventually pieced together the reason for the holdup. My cartridges had been taken to forensics for testing. The “investigation” — whatever that meant in a country where a duty-free cashier could serve as a customs translator — was still underway. Alex could meet with me only when I was charged. Translation: Wait.

At 8 p.m., Anton started arguing in Russian on the phone. He hung up and turned to me. “Checked bags?” he said. “Yeah, two,” I said. They’d just realized I had more luggage, which was idiotic since that was noted on my boarding pass. The three of us got back in the car and went to the checkpoint. I described my luggage to Anton: two black hard-case rollers with my name on the tags. An hour later he returned with a green canvas bag. Not mine. “Open it,” he ordered. I backed up. “I’m not putting my handprints on that,” I said. He left and stayed away long enough for the other agent to hit on a flight attendant who’d waltzed by.

Anton returned with the correct bags. When I unzipped the first one, he glanced around at my collection of Creole seasoning, pancake mix and candy — the kind of stuff I couldn’t get in Russia. He didn’t inspect one item. Also, he never even opened the second roller. He just shoved a document at me and said, “Sign here.” I was too exhausted to resist. I could’ve had kilos of drugs stashed in those containers. But these agents didn’t care what might be mixed with my barbecue sauce. They had all the evidence they needed for their so-called investigation.

Back in redbrick purgatory, a customs investigator finally arrived with the forensic results. I glanced at my phone: 2 a.m. He read from a document as Anton translated, said the vape pens contained cannabis oil. No surprise. The real blow came when I heard my charge, Article 229.1, Part 2 in the Russian criminal code. I’d been accused of smuggling a significant amount of narcotics into the country. Significant amount? They’d found 0.2 grams in one cartridge, 0.5 in the other — a total of 0.7 grams, so little oil that it’d be gone as soon as the pens were warmed up. In America, that’s not enough weed to raise a brow even in the handful of states yet to legalize it. But in Russia it’s considered a “significant amount,” punishable by five to 10 years and a fine of up to 1 million rubles — about $10,000.

Around 3 a.m., they let Alex come upstairs. When I hear the words Russian lawyer, someone old, dry and stoic comes to mind. Alex was the opposite: young, cool, shoulder-length hair, a Russian hippie with a photo of Gregg Allman as his WhatsApp profile pic. He greeted me warmly, and we stepped into the hall to speak.

I had a thousand questions and even more fears, but my heart raced so fast I could hardly get them out. “Yo, so what’s, like, the worst-case scenario?” I asked. He cleared his throat. “Well, right now it’s just one charge,” he said. “We have to let the investigation finish.” Forget that. “But for real, how many years could I get?” I asked. He drew in a breath. “I mean, it could be a year or two,” he said. He paused. “Or it could be the whole 10.”

Alex didn’t seem surprised I’d been asked to sign a document before seeing a lawyer. Still, he seemed hopeful that I wouldn’t get anywhere close to the maximum sentencing because I had no criminal record. I’d later learn that in 2021, the year before I was detained, 36 people were sentenced with the same charge in the Russian criminal code. In 10 of those cases, the defendants received less than three years in prison; in five, up to five years; and in two cases, five to eight years. The remaining — more than half — had their sentences suspended. By those numbers, the odds seemed in my favor. But in that moment, I felt doomed. Back inside, interrogation stepped up. Alex sat next to me. I answered robotically, the way I had for the past 10 hours: “I didn’t know I had the pens.” Period. Done and done. I was in that chair, insisting on the truth, but my mind was all over the place. I thought of my teammates, my family and my friends. Imagined how they’d react when they heard the charge. I mostly thought of Relle, the big plans we’d made, all of that now in limbo.

After the grilling, Alex and I met in the hall again. He said, “You’ll be taken to Khimki City Police Station,” a temporary detention center, like county jail in America. I welled up. “This will all be okay,” he said when he noticed my tears. Will it? Alex was trying to comfort me in a moment when no one could’ve. There I stood in a foreign country, on my way to jail and with no clue as to how long I’d be there or what conditions I might face. Even if everything became all right, it wasn’t as I cried in that hall.

The agents confiscated most of my belongings. Backpack. Carry-on. Rollers. They gave it all to Alex. They also seized my most valuable possession: my phone. They didn’t give that to Alex. They needed to keep it as part of their “investigation,” they said.

At around 6 a.m., two local cops arrived, one of them holding handcuffs. I’d grown up playing with my dad’s cuffs, a shiny steel pair with a double lock. These were dented and rusty, with a single lock, operated with an ancient-looking skeleton key. The officer gestured for me to hold my hands together so he could cuff me at the front. Click. As he turned the key and tightened the cuffs, the metal cut into my flesh. I cringed. “You need to loosen them,” Alex said. The cop rolled his eyes and cuffed me again as I stared straight ahead.

On Feb. 15, I’d left Phoenix. Three hellish days later, just before dawn, I lost my life as I’d known it. As the cops led me away through the fierce morning air, Alex walked beside me. He carried a small plastic bag with the few items I’d be allowed to take: three pairs of underwear, a couple T-shirts and sweatpants, a flannel hoodie, and a book of sudoku puzzles. The time was around 7 a.m. The future was unimaginable.