‘They can’t imprison everybody’ Yevgenia Kara-Murza on assuming the mantle of her husband’s political work — and explaining his arrest to their children
Vladimir Kara-Murza has been fired from his job, declared a “foreign agent,” and poisoned twice. But despite all of the threats and persecution, he’s remained in Russia and continued to fight for a freer future. On April 22, Kara-Murza was prosecuted for spreading “fake news” about the Russian army (under Criminal Code Article 207.3). Now, the public fight for Kara-Murza’s release is being led by his wife, translator Yevgenia Kara-Murza, who left her NGO work behind to help her husband and keep his work alive. Meduza spoke with Yevgenia Kara-Murza about life across two countries, the role fear plays in her life, and the sacrifices that come with being married to a high-profile member of the Russian opposition.
What does your life look like right now?
The situation is awfully distressing. I’ve never been in a position like this, even with all the times they’ve targeted Vladimir before. Because when he was poisoned in 2015 and 2017, I immediately flew to where he was and could stay by his side. Then I brought him to the U.S. for treatment, and I stayed with him until the moment he picked up his cane and — after recovering — hobbled back to Russia. Now I’m in Virginia with my children. I didn’t go to Moscow, because Vladimir needs me to stay free. Because it’s my job now to continue the work he was doing. Because I need to speak on his behalf — and on my own behalf as a citizen of the Russian Federation.
We also have three children, and they constantly need at least one parent at arm's length. That’s why I need to be here, and not in Moscow. But it’s breaking my heart.
You and Vladimir decided to live in two different countries for security’s sake back before his first poisoning in 2015. Were you expecting the repression against him even back then?
We’re not émigrés. I would say we ended up in the U.S. mostly by accident. After the 2003 parliamentary elections, which Vladimir ran in, he got an offer to come and try his hand at broadcast journalism. He was interested. So we thought, why not? I was working as a translator and could work from anywhere. So we packed our things and came to America. We weren’t planning to stay here for this long, but with every passing year, the situation in Russia got more difficult. We soon realized it wouldn’t be possible for Vladimir to do honest, objective journalism in Russia. Politics, too — it would be impossible for him to run and get elected. New risks keep arising. With Russia’s interests in mind, he promoted personal sanctions against corrupt figures in international forums. He advocated for the release of political prisoners, and he’s spoken out against the war since it began. He’s talked about real war crimes committed by the Putin regime on another country’s sovereign territory.
When the war in Ukraine began, the speed with which new repressive laws were passed was unprecedented. Quite a lot of people left Russia at that point. Did you and Vladimir talk about him leaving?
We never discussed it specifically. There was an understanding between us about what he was doing and why. He always believed that his place was there [in Russia]. That he should be on the front lines, showing people they shouldn’t be afraid. And as a politician, he would have no moral standing to call on people to continue the fight against this regime if he was safe himself.
Family members of opposition figures have to live with the anxiety of knowing their loved ones are unsafe and there’s nothing they can do about it. Do you get scared? Have you ever tried to talk your husband out of this kind of work?
I didn’t marry Vladimir Kara-Murza the politician. I didn’t even marry Vladimir the activist. I married Vladimir the man, the person I loved spending time with. I looked at him and thought, “Okay, here’s somebody I can spend my whole life with. We never run out of things to talk about.” He and I see eye-to-eye on practically everything. The things he does are a part of him. How could I not accept that — and, more importantly, how could I not respect it? He’s a decent man to his core — a man of integrity. Imagine if I started trying to convince him to betray his own convictions, to leave Russia, never to return. That’s not who he is. How could I ask that of him, even if I’m scared? And I am scared. But so what? I mean, is nobody else scared? None of the 15 thousand people who have been arrested [at anti-war protests] since the military invaded Ukraine? They all must have families, moms and dad, small children, brothers and sister, and loved ones, too. They’re scared, too. I think there comes a moment when you realize you just can’t be scared anymore.
Maybe it’s just the way I was born, but when I’m scared, I want to go full steam ahead. A lot of people become petrified; others retreat, and that’s probably a more logical reaction to fear. I have the reverse reaction — I do the opposite. It seems to me that you should act in defiance of fear, especially in situations like this. When we’re witnessing mass violence in two countries. In Ukraine, people are being killed, massacred; in Russia, we’re dealing with serious repression. In a situation like this, saying, “Oh, I’m scared, I’ll just sit and wait until things quiet down” is not the answer. Because when we stay silent, we’re complicit. You can’t stay silent. Complicity in something like this is absolutely unacceptable in every form.
How do you explain what's going on to your children?
I just tell them the truth. Our youngest is 10 years old. We also have a 13-year-old and a 16-year-old, both girls. When Russia’s intelligence services poisoned their dad, we gave it to them straight. Our kids, thank God, live in a society where they have access to objective information. They’re growing up in an open world — a world without limits. I’m under no illusions about the fact that my oldest daughter can go on any social network, look at any media outlet, and read about what happened to her dad on her own.
Since they have access to objective information, they can form their own objective opinion about what’s going on. I know for a fact that my kids are worried about their dad. That’s inevitable in a situation like this. For them, he’s not a politician — he’s their dad, who teaches them how to drive; who works the grill; who brings them back chocolate from his trips. Still, I think they know what he does — and deep down, they’re proud of him. Even if they’re really scared, I think they’re proud of him.
How are they coping right now?
They have good days and bad days. But we talk through everything. I talk with them about it, with each of them separately — because they’re at different ages, and they have different understandings of the situation. They have different ideas about what’s happening and what might come next. I try to answer all of their questions.
You said you married Vladimir the person, not Vladimir the politician. How did you two meet? Is it true that you were both very young?
Oh, we were so young. Vladimir was the age our son is right now: 10. I was 11. We met in school — we were classmates. Then Vladimir’s mom moved to England and took him with her. He finished school in English, then he graduated from Cambridge, packed his suitcase, and went back to Russia. Which says something about what a Russian patriot he is. After Cambridge, it would have been easy for him to get a job somewhere in England or in any Western country and have a comfortable life, but he didn’t. He would say, ‘England will be fine without me, but I want to make a difference in Russia.” He and I have been together for 20 years. Not since we first met in school, but for the last 20 years.
That’s a long time.
It doesn’t feel like a long time when you’re with the right person and you’ve built a life together. When there’s somebody around to watch our kids, like when our parents are staying with us, then I'm able to pack a suitcase and go with him. When he’s home, we try to spend as much time together as possible. We have an understanding that when he’s home, he’s with us. He studies with the kids and makes sure to spend time with each of them individually. And we find time for each other, too.
I’m also a very organized and disciplined person. I plan out each day down to the minute; I have a job and three kids, and the kids are also very busy, so it’s not like I’m bored here. Sometimes there’s not even time to brush my teeth. And that probably helps.
So you have a triple load: you work, you’re raising three kids, and you help Vladimir, making public appearances, giving interviews, and talking about his case. How do you do it all?
What other choice do I have? I want my kids to get their dad back. I want this bloody war in Ukraine to end. I want something good to finally happen in Russia.
That question is hard to answer, because I’ve never put much thought into how I do it all. It just works out. Every day, I get up, get dressed, drink my coffee, send the kids to school, work, then they come home, I take care of them, then I work some more. Just like all moms in the world.
As for the things I do on Vladimir’s behalf, well, of course I do that. He’s my other half. I’ll continue to do it as long as I have the strength.
I’m not surprised, exactly — it’s more like admiration. Are you still working as a translator?
Unfortunately, I had to stop doing my translation work, which I really loved. Before Vladimir’s arrest, he was just drowning in projects, and at some point I agreed to stop my ongoing translation work and work with him instead.
From the moment he was arrested, talking about his case and drawing attention to the problem of political prisoners in Russia and to what’s happening in Ukraine became my main job. And I’ll do it as much as necessary to get Vladimir free and to bring an end to the war in Ukraine, which is an indescribable catastrophe.
It absolutely breaks my heart. I think any decent person right now is waking up and going to bed to the news of what’s happening in Ukraine. It’s an endless hell. It must stop.
Tell me about the poisonings. I think Vladimir is the only person they’ve tried to poison twice.
In 2015, after his first poisoning, it was obvious that he hadn’t just eaten bad mushrooms. It was clear that what they told us at City Hospital No. 1 in Moscow about the cause of his multiple organ failure was completely false. They told us he had taken the wrong medicine, that he’d used nasal spray for his allergies and it had caused an adverse reaction, that he’d eaten something bad, and that he’d drunk too much.
The explanations were just completely insane. In 2017, when Vladimir collapsed in Moscow with the same symptoms and was taken to the hospital again, Denis Protsenko, the chief physician at Yudin Hospital [in Moscow], diagnosed him with “poisoning with an unspecified substance.” So they didn’t give us any more nonsense about nasal spray, medicine, or alcohol. We have an official diagnosis that says it was poisoning.
Why did it happen twice? I think it’s because poisoning is a convenient way to kill people. You can always say, ‘Well, just prove it was poisoning. Maybe he had low blood sugar! Or maybe he ate bad yogurt!” If a person dies, then they cite either some natural cause of death or they say, ‘Unexplained deaths happen sometimes. What can you do?”
In other words, it’s hard to prove it beyond a doubt. We’ve spoken to a lot of toxicologists since Vladimir’s poisoning, and they told us that if we want to determine exactly what substance was used, we have to know how to look for it. It’s a catch-22: you’re searching for the substance that was used to poison him, but in order to do that, you have to conduct a series of tests, which require you to know what substance you’re looking for.
Thanks to Insider’s brilliant investigation, we know the people who do this. We know what substances they use, and that there’s an entire institution dedicated to developing different poisonous substances. It’s true: the authorities have killers working to help them get rid of their political opponents.
When Navalny had the same symptoms Vladimir had had, did you get in touch with his family? Have you discussed the poisonings with them?
I know Vladimir did. He contacted Alexey’s family, and I know he also got in touch with Denis Protsenko, who treated him both times — in 2015 and in 2017.
This will be my last question, but it’s a broad one: how have the last few years changed you, and how have they changed Vladimir?
It hasn’t changed us much at all. The stakes have been raised. Death practically came to our door. Because in 2015, on the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge, our daughter’s godfather [Boris Nemtsov] was shot.
So the risks are palpable. Our children have almost lost their father twice now. And now he’s in prison — and he’s being threatened with a five-to-10-year sentence.
But no matter what happens, the truth is still the truth. Vladimir isn’t doing what he’s doing because of some pragmatic considerations. He’s doing it because he’s a patriot. Because he understands that freedom must be fought for.
It seems to me that if I started trying to convince him to quit all this, I would be a hypocrite. If that happened, I could tell you this had changed me. Fear changes a person. I don’t want that to happen to me. I know that through all of his actions, through all of his work, Vladimir has proven that you don’t have to let fear control your actions. I’m trying to measure up to him.
The situation is absurd: they try to kill him twice, then they send him to prison on ludicrous charges of distributing “fake news.”
I think that after Alexey Navalny’s investigation, after the names of the perpetrators and even the name of the substance they used became public, the Russian authorities decided to change their tactics. Now they’re trying to put every member of the opposition in jail to prevent them from working. When he was free, Alexey was very effective with his Anti-Corruption Foundation [FBK]. Vladimir was always very effective in his campaign to get personal sanctions passed.
Now they’re going to put everybody behind bars in order to obstruct their activities. But they won’t be able to. Because me, his colleagues, and his friends will continue his work. And I know the FBK will continue Alexey’s.
They can’t imprison everybody. It’s not possible. Soon or later, they’ll run out of space in the prisons.