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Sarah Krivanek, an American woman who was arrested trying to flee Russia late last year and has been jailed there since, was "desperate" to leave the country, according to a family member who previously begged her to return to the States.
Carolyn, who declined to give her last name but noted that Krivanek calls her "Nannie," says the woman she treated like a daughter had been struggling with grief and a relationship when she first landed in legal trouble in Moscow in Nov. 2021.
Krivanek lived with Nannie when she was a teenager and is the mother of Nannie's grandson. Though Krivanek and Nannie's son never married and are no longer close, Nannie says she remained "real, real close" to Krivanek through the years and spoke to her often during her time in Russia, which began in 2017.
"I talked to her like a mother. I'd tell her what I'd tell my own kids, I kept telling her to get out," Nannie tells PEOPLE in a phone interview. "And the winters are so cold and all, but she was trying to make everything work till she could get out."
"In the States, Sarah had a beautiful home, a new car and a wonderful, well-paying job," Nannie says. "And then she went to Russia and look where she ended up."
Following a Nov. 11, 2021, domestic dispute involving her partner, Mikhail Karavaev, Krivanek was charged by Russian authorities with "intention to inflict slight bodily harm" and "threatening to kill or do grievous bodily harm."
In court, Krivanek alleged that Karavaev had a history of violence and indicated that she was defending herself during the incident, which left him cut on his nose by a knife, PEOPLE learned last week. Karavaev reportedly withdrew his complaint and gave evidence in court that he hadn't meant to attack her and was sorry that he had.
Krivanek was released on bail after agreeing in writing that she would not leave Moscow and would demonstrate good behavior until her trial. But on Dec. 15 she was arrested at an airport before she was able to board a plane and flee back to the U.S.
Sarah Krivanek Facebook
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 States. She also reportedly secured a diplomatic escort to the airport.
A State Department official told PEOPLE last week that the agency was aware of Krivanek's December 2021 arrest but said the U.S. Embassy was not aware that she was ordered to stay in Moscow until her trial related to the November assault charges.
After her airport arrest, Krivanek was sentenced to one year and three months in jail in connection with the original assault charges.
"She waited until the situation there got really bad, but when she was finally prepared to leave there was no money to do it," Nannie says.
Chris Costa, a 34-year veteran of the Department of Defense and former U.S. Army intelligence officer who is now the executive director of the International Spy Museum, explained to PEOPLE that Krivanek's case is different from another American woman jailed in Russia, WNBA star Brittney Griner.
Unlike Griner, Krivanek does not appear to be considered "wrongfully detained" based on criteria laid out in the Levinson Act, though he said the determination is likely ongoing and could change. He also said that her status does not indicate that no one is trying to help her behind the scenes.
"Sarah's family could be optimistic that the United States is really redoubling," Costa said, adding later in an interview with PEOPLE: "Just because Sarah [Krivanek] is not declared wrongfully detained, meeting the criteria of the Levinson Act, that does not mean that day in and day out, that the Consular Affairs in Russia are not working on her case."
Sarah Krivanek Facebook
Krivanek's friend Anita Martinez, who was on a video call with her when she was detained at the airport, reached out to U.S. authorities, looking for information.
"Anita had been doing all this stuff, calling the embassy, the State Department just trying to find out what happened," Nannie tells PEOPLE.
In a letter dated Feb. 7, Krivanek wrote from a Moscow detention center, pleading for help. PEOPLE has seen two pages of a letter that Nannie said was intended for her, though the addressee is not visible.
"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 writes 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.
"We got this letter but we didn't know what to do. There was no number for her," Nannie says of the note Krivanek sent, which was later passed around among her friends and family on social media apps.
"Before that we didn't know what had happened to her. I even thought someone had kidnapped her at the airport. You know people do such crazy things. We had no clue what was going on," Nannie says. "We all prayed, we all talked back and forth. We were just beside ourselves and then we were afraid to talk to anybody."
Nannie says that when Krivanek moved to Russia in 2017, "it was exciting at first" because she was experiencing "a different culture and teaching kids and people who showed her appreciation."
Sarah Krivanek Facebook Sarah Krivanek
"Worker, worker," Nannie says of Krivnak, who taught English to Russian schoolchildren in Moscow before she was arrested. "Anybody she worked for just raved about her. She could take a business and just go forward with it. But she's always searched just for that one person to love her."
In early 2021, Krivanek lost her mother, Nannie tells PEOPLE, adding that the two were not close.
"Then her father died. It was pretty sad," Nannie recalls. "I kept telling her and begging her try to get home, please try to get home. But then when she finally did try all of this happened."
"I missed her so much. I was so worried. I used to talk to her all the time and then suddenly nothing," Nannie adds.
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"Her dad died suddenly and that was so devastating," she says. "I knew she'd go downhill after that because he really, really did love her."
Describing the situation as "terrible," Nannie says the uncertainty of Krivanek's future is difficult to endure. "I know she was just desperate to leave. But when she does come back, I don't know how this will have affected her."
Meanwhile, Nannie is taking it one day at a time until she hears more from her friend. "It's like steppingstones," she says. "You put one stone down and then another and keep taking steps until you get to the place you want to be and she's finally back and safe."