One man’s struggle to save Russia’s honor
On April 11, Vladimir Kara-Murza, one of the last nationally recognized opposition leaders to Vladimir Putin still at liberty in Russia, was arrested in Moscow. Any day now, an inevitable conviction by a kangaroo court is almost certain to send him to prison for years.
The Kremlin tried to finish Kara-Murza off twice before. In 2015 he nearly died in Moscow, saved only by emergency doctors at Moscow’s First City Hospital as his vital organs were shutting down. “A victim of poisoning,” concluded a team of U.S. doctors cited in an FBI report. In more cautious terms, the FBI’s own lab pointed in the same direction: Kara-Murza’s “symptoms and health effects could not have been brought about without a toxin introduced to his system.” A year and a half later, he was at death’s door again, with the same symptoms.
Kara-Murza’s close friend and mentor, Boris Nemtsov, the leader of the pro-democracy opposition, was gunned down in 2015 a few hundred meters from the Kremlin three months and a day before Kara-Murza’s near-fatal illness. Yet Kara-Murza continued to go back, crisscrossing the country for the Open Russia nongovernmental organization, meeting with pro-democracy activists and screening a terrific documentary he made about Nemtsov. This past April, he returned to Moscow less than a month after another leading critic of the Kremlin, Alexei Navalny, began serving his nine-year sentence.
Why risk his life again and again, going to Putin’s Russia and leaving behind his wife Zhenya and their three young children in Centerville in Northern Virginia? His answer to me in private was the same as the one I recall him giving publicly: ‘Why should I be afraid?” he said. “It is they, Putin and his henchmen, who should be afraid. Why should I leave Russia? It is they who should leave while the going is good.” As he told CNN on the day of his arrest: “I have absolutely no doubt the Putin regime will end this war in Ukraine and there will be a democratic Russia after Putin.”
Kara-Murza is steadfast in this belief. His faith in the Russian people’s ability to self-govern in liberty is unshakable. A Cambridge-educated historian, he detests the trope of Russians’ alleged love for “a strongarm,” or their backs’ longing for a lash. He is convinced that in free elections unmarred by terror and propaganda, the Russian people would choose wisely.
Over my 20-year friendship with Kara-Murza, he has never tired of reminding me of the 1917 election to the Constituent Assembly. Likely the most democratic and freest anywhere in the world at the time, the poll was, as he put it in an essay, “universal, equal, and direct.” Every Russian citizen aged 20 or older could vote by secret ballot, regardless of gender, religion or ethnicity. (Women’s suffrage came to Russia three years before the 19th Amendment was passed in the United States.) Even under the radicalizing pressures of a disintegrating state, economic hardships, a string of defeats in World War I, and after the overthrow of the Provisional Government by the Bolsheviks, the Russian people elected over twice as many Socialist-Revolutionary and Menshevik moderate socialists as they did Bolsheviks.
“Just arrived in DC for meetings in Congress …” Kara-Murza wrote to me a month before his arrest. “I will be going back [to Russia] soon but it is important to communicate with leaders here.” One of his engagements was a speech to the Arizona House of Representatives.
That was his alleged offense. He was brought up by the Investigative Committee, Russia’s Star Chamber, on a charge of “publicly spreading admittedly false information about the utilization of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.” Article 207.3 had been added to the criminal code by the rubber-stamping Duma after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Along with other amendments to the code, it sealed Russia’s transition from an electoral autocracy to a military dictatorship.
“Motivated by political hatred,” read the charge, “in his remarks to the members of the House of Representatives of the state of Arizona, Kara-Murza presented as true facts the obviously false information about the bombing by the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation of residential neighborhoods, objects of social infrastructure, including maternity wards, hospitals, and schools, as well as the utilization of other banned means and methods in the course of the special military operation on the territory of Ukraine, thus having done considerable harm to the interests of the Russian Federation.” The charge carries a sentence of between five and 10 years. If the “considerable harm” is seen as entailing “grave consequences,” he could be put away for 15 years.
Then, last week, the Investigative Committee accused Kara-Murza of another crime: participating in the activity of a “foreign undesirable” organization. The organization in question is the Free Russia Foundation, based in Washington, D.C. Kara-Murza’s “participation” was a conference in support of Russian political prisoners, which he organized in Moscow’s Sakharov Center last October, allegedly using the foundation’s money. The maximum sentence for this offense is six years.
The CNN interview evidently was the last straw. Putin’s regime, Kara-Murza said, is not just corrupt and kleptocratic, not just authoritarian — it is “a regime of murderers.” He was arrested a few hours later.
Kara-Murza admires Soviet dissidents, whose story he told in a profound and moving documentary titled “Oni vybirali svobodu” (“They Chose Freedom”). He likes to quote Natalia Gorbanevskaya, who, along with six men, went to Red Square on Aug. 25, 1968, to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, pushing her 3-month-old baby in a carriage: “A nation minus me is not an entire nation,” she said to Kara-Murza in his documentary. “So they could no longer say that there was a nationwide approval in the Soviet Union for the invasion of Czechoslovakia.” He added recently: “Every voice in opposition is precious. And even seven people can sometimes save the honor of an entire nation.”
That is what Vladimir Kara-Murza has been up to: trying to save Russia’s honor.