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Vladimir Kara-Murza has been in politics for over twenty years, but he’s more famous abroad than inside Russia. When in April 2022 a criminal case was brought against Kara-Murza under a wartime law against “fake news” about the Russian military, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch immediately declared him a prisoner of conscience and demanded his release. Speaking to Meduza, journalist Mikhail Fishman called Kara-Murza “political prisoner number two in Russia” — second only to imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Meduza tells the story of how Vladimir Kara-Murza fought the Russian elite, survived two attempts on his life, and wound up in jail for condemning the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine.
A child of Perestroika
According to his wife Evgenia, Vladimir Kara-Murza’s upbringing was largely influenced by his family, who she described as “classic old-Moscow intelligentsia.” His father, Vladimir Kara-Murza Sr., was a journalist. His mother, Elena Gordon, was an art historian and worked at the Pushkin Museum, later becoming a translator.
Kara-Murza has said it was a matter of principle for his father not to work for the Soviet regime. After Perestroika he become one of the most famous independent journalists in the country.
Besides his family’s influence, Kara-Murza regards the specific time in which his adolescence took place as formative. “In a sense, the politicization of my generation, at least in Moscow, was inescapable,” he said. “My childhood was during the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties; a time of society’s awakening, of the first sips of freedom.”
His first political memories are from August 1991: tanks in the streets, barricades, and the graffitied pedestal of the monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky on Lubyanka Square. His father spent three days and three nights at the White House, “among hundreds of thousands of unarmed people who took to the streets and stopped the tanks.”
“A very important lesson of those days, which will stay with me my whole life, is that no matter how powerful an authoritarian regime seems, if enough people are ready to defend their freedom and dignity, all that power amounts to nothing,” Kara-Murza wrote in his correspondence with Meduza.
Politics with ‘clean hands’
During the 1999 State Duma election, Kara-Murza — then a young journalist for Novye Izvestia — interviewed Boris Nemtsov, who was one of the leaders of the Union of Right Forces (SPS) party at the time.
“There was an immediate connection,” Kara-Murza recalled. “My first, strongest impression was openness, respect for the interlocutor, lack of distance. And this despite the difference [in status] that was between us.”
SPS campaigned under slogans emphasizing youth and novelty. The bloc entered parliament with 8.5 percent of the vote. Nineteen-year-old Kara-Murza became advisor to Nemtsov, a member of the State Duma’s third convocation.
“To say that [Nemtsov] influenced me is to say nothing,” Kara-Murza explained. “I wouldn’t be who I am, and I wouldn’t have done much of what I’ve done, if it wasn’t for him.”
His wife Evgenia agrees: “Volodya lives [his life] completely convinced that politics can be done with clean hands. Because of Nemtsov.”
‘Free, but not fair’
Kara-Murza often says that since the very beginning of his career, he’s harbored no illusions about the Russian regime. As he told Meduza:
“I understood well who Mr. Putin is and where he’d take our country — this was on December 20, 1999. Chekist Day. Putin (then prime minister) unveiled a memorial plaque on the Lubyanka to the ‘outstanding statesman’ Yuri Andropov — a person who helped organize the invasion of Hungary and created a special KGB department to persecute dissidents. Are there any questions [about who Putin is] after that?”
Kara-Murza called Russian politics of the early 2000s “a textbook example of the gradual and, as it were, ‘legitimate’ transition from democracy to authoritarianism.” “In this respect,” he said, “Putin is a diligent student of Mussolini who, when he was installing a fascist dictatorship in Italy in the 1920s, said that ‘it’s better to pluck a chicken one feather at a time so that it peeps less’.”
He considers 2003 to be a turning point: “Three significant things happened then: in June, the last independent federal channel (TVS) was taken off the air; in October, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested (a clear signal to the business world not to support the opposition or independent politics); and in December, Duma elections were held that, according to observers from the Council of Europe, were declared ‘free, but not fair.’ After this Russia could no longer be considered a democratic country.”
Kara-Murza himself ran in the 2003 State Duma elections as a single candidate from two parties (Union of Right Forces and Yabloko). The combination itself was surprising, since these parties traditionally disagreed with each other.
The ruling party, United Russia, attempted to remove Kara-Murza from the elections. “They said, you can’t make campaign materials featuring symbols from two parties,” he recalled. “I had to bring the election commission a sample of my poster signed by the two [party] leaders [Boris Nemtsov and Grigory Yavlinsky]. Today this poster hangs in my home office in the U.S.”
During a televised debate with the United Russia candidate, the sound suddenly cut out “due to technical reasons” when Kara-Murza was speaking. “They tore down leaflets, refused to deliver the newspaper with my advertisement, and didn’t issue documents to [election] observers — in a word, it was a typical election of the ‘early Putin’ epoch, when oppositionists could still get on the ballot,” he told Meduza.
According to official results, Kara-Murza received eight percent of the vote; his opponent from United Russia received more than 50 percent. On election day (as was the case throughout the campaign), numerous violations were reported.
‘A universal tool to fight impunity’
In 2003, Kara-Murza agreed to head the Washington bureau of the RTVi television channel. He worked there for eight years, acquiring American contacts who would later help him bring to life one of his most important projects: personal sanctions against members of the Russian elite.
During the summer of 2010, a bill was submitted to the U.S. Congress to close entry into the country and freeze the assets of sixty Russian security officials involved in the death of Sergei Magnitsky. The bill was co-sponsored by Senators Benjamin Cardin and John McCain, who, thanks to Kara-Murza, had met with Boris Nemtsov.
According to Kara-Murza, Nemtsov suggested to Cardin and McCain that the bill be extended to apply “not only to those involved in the specific case, but to all who violate human rights in Russia — that is, to turn [the bill] into a universal tool to fight impunity.”
Kara-Murza remembered that initially he was “slightly horrified” by the scope of the task. “Throughout 2011 and most of 2012, I went to Capitol Hill as a job — nonstop meetings with members of congress, their advisors, aides, staff,” he explained. “When I needed to ‘bring out the big guns,’ I’d ask Nemtsov to come — and he always came.”
On December 14, 2012, the Magnitsky Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama. “This was still the time of the so-called ‘reset’, when the White House wanted to be friends with the Kremlin and opposed anti-Kremlin initiatives,” Kara-Murza recalled. “The Obama administration did everything to stop the Magnitsky Act.”
A pro-Russian bill
American financier Bill Browder, whose investment fund was a client of Sergey Magnitsky, met Vladimir Kara-Murza at the Canadian parliament in 2012. They had both come to Ottawa for the same reason: to support Canada’s adoption of the Magnitsky Act.
“There were always those who were afraid of the Magnitsky Act because they didn’t want to do anything anti-Russia. In response, Kara-Murza would explain that this act isn’t anti-Russia, but pro-Russia,” Browder told Meduza. “It’s an anti-kleptocracy bill. He repeated this again and again. He liked to say that if a normal justice system ever arose in Russia, he’d be the first to seek the repeal of the Magnitsky Act.”
According to Russian opposition figure Ilya Yashin, Nemtsov and Kara-Murza emphasized that the sanctions should target “people, not the country.” “They explained that sanctions against Russia [would] backfire,” Yashin underscored. “When you impose sanctions on the country, you give [Russian authorities] an argument that helps them, the opportunity to rally the people around them.”
Update: Meduza interviewed Ilya Yashin for this article prior to his arrest on June 28, 2022. Since then, the Russian authorities have brought criminal charges against Yashin for allegedly spreading “false information” about the Russian military.
In this sense, Yashin said, “Nemtsov and Kara-Murza did an amazing thing.” They were able to convince American politicians to lift sanctions against the country as a whole and to instead pass the Magnitsky Act, which entailed restrictions against specific people.
As Browder noted, “the Magnitsky Act was the prototype for the sanctions Western countries adopted against Russian officials in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea. [It was also the prototype] for sanctions imposed during the war with Ukraine. Before the Magnitsky Act, freezing assets of individual officials wasn’t done, but today it’s a widely used practice.”
In the summer of 2012, Kara-Murza was fired from RTVi. The Russian Embassy revoked his press credentials a month and a half before the official date of his firing. This was justified on grounds that Kara-Murza “is no longer a journalist.”
Kara-Murza found work as a senior advisor at the New York-based Institute of Modern Russia, which was headed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s son Pavel. When Khodorkovsky was released from prison, he invited Kara-Murza to return to Moscow and become the coordinator of the Open Russia movement.
“I agreed immediately […],” Kara-Murza told Meduza. “It was very interesting to work in America, […] but I can’t live without Moscow.”
At the time, Khodorkovsky “strongly recommended” that Kara-Murza’s family remain in the United States. “I’ll never forget that conversation,” Kara-Murza said. “Honestly, I thought he was being overly cautious. What could happen? This was before Nemtsov’s murder, before my poisonings. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to him now for that ‘strong recommendation’ concerning my family.”
‘There’s nothing wrong with his heart’
On the morning of May 26, 2015, Kara-Murza had breakfast at a Moscow café and then headed to a meeting with Mikhail Yastrubitsky. During the meeting, Kara-Murza suddenly became ill.
“We, in general, didn’t understand, didn’t imagine, didn’t assume that something so horrible could happen,” Yastrubitsky said. “We ended our conversation and as we left, [Kara-Murza] was already lying in the corridor on some chairs. He had terrible vomiting, had to run to the toilet every five minutes.”
Yastrubitsky called an ambulance. A woman passing by happened to be a doctor. After examining Kara-Murza, she speculated he’d been poisoned. He was brought to Davydovsky Hospital, where the doctors diagnosed him with heart failure.
An operation was scheduled for the following morning. But right before it began, the well-known cardiac surgeon Mikhail Alshibaya stopped the doctors. “What are you doing? There’s nothing wrong with the heart, it’s poisoning!” Kara-Murza’s lawyer Vadim Prokhorov recalled Alshibaya saying.
Kara-Murza grew even more ill and was transferred to intensive care. Nobody understood the nature of his poisoning. He experienced multiple organ failure and fell into a coma. The doctors estimated his chances of survival to be five percent.
But survive he did. Kara-Murza spent over a month in the hospital. He came out of the coma and began the long process of recovery. His peripheral nervous system had been damaged, and he couldn’t move his left arm and leg. In July 2015, he was brought to the United States for rehabilitation. Khodorkovsky paid for his evacuation and treatment.
A month and a half after returning to America, Kara-Murza still had difficulty speaking. But he wanted to return to Russia at the first opportunity to continue his work — and he did so as soon as he was able. In November 2015, Kara-Murza, still walking with a cane, boarded a plane for the first time since being poisoned.
‘An unidentified substance’
On February 1, 2017, Kara-Murza was sitting in the Italian café Rukkola with his friend Kirill Goncharov, who was then a Moscow Regional Council deputy from the Yabloko party. Afterwards, Kara-Murza went home. He was supposed to fly to the United States the next day.
But around five o’clock in the morning, he woke up in a state very similar to the one he found himself in back in May 2015. He called his wife.
Evgenia messaged Denis Protsenko, the doctor who had treated Kara-Murza after his first poisoning. Now the chief physician at Yudin City Clinical Hospital, Protsenko replied: “Bring him to me here. I’ll assemble the team.”
Kara-Murza was saved, but he had to return to the United States rehabilitation once again. This time everything went faster, Evgenia said, since the doctors “already knew what they were dealing with.” Indeed, Kara-Murza was immediately diagnosed with “poisoning by an unidentified substance.”
Attempts by Kara-Murza and his lawyer Vadim Prokhorov to force Russian law enforcement agencies to investigate both poisonings came to nothing. As of this writing, no criminal case has been launched.
While the FBI investigated the poisonings, they initially refused share their findings with Kara-Murza. Prokhorov believes this was the result of a visit top Russian security officials paid to Washington in January 2017.
It was only after Kara-Murza sued the FBI that he and his lawyer leader that federal investigators believed he’d been poisoned both times (the poison itself, however, remained unknown). What’s more, according to Prokhorov, the declassified documents revealed that Kara-Murza’s poisonings had indeed “been the subject of talks” between FSB Chief Alexander Bortnikov and the FBI.
The ambassador of a free Russia
On June 28, 2019, the Free Russia Foundation organized a conference to discuss how to combat Kremlin propaganda without violating freedom of speech. Kara-Murza was one of the main speakers, and he quickly decided to work for the foundation.
Half an hour after the conference concluded, the foundation’s staff learned that the Prosecutor-General had designated the Free Russia Foundation an “undesirable organization.”
“Will we continue?” asked Natalia Arno, the foundation’s chairwoman. “Isn’t it dangerous for you?”
“Of course, we already agreed,” Kara-Murza answered. “We’ve planned so many programs. I’m not afraid.”
In July 2019 Kara-Murza began serving as Vice President of the Free Russia Foundation. He worked on pushing for personal sanctions and helping political prisoners.
According to Arno, from the very beginning ,“many leaders of the Russian opposition dubbed [the foundation] an informal embassy of pro-democracy forces in the West. And on our team, Kara-Murza played the role of a minister of international affairs, an ambassador of an independent, free Russia.”
Kara-Murza was forced to leave the Free Russia Foundation in 2021, after Russia introduced criminal liability for cooperating with “undesirable” organizations. But he continued to his involvement politics and journalism in Russia. He worked as senior adviser at Human Rights First, hosted a weekly program on the radio station Ekho Moskvy, wrote columns for The Washington Post, advocated for sanctions against Russian officials around the world, and spoke out in support of political prisoners.
‘This is our country’
On February 24, the day Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Kara-Murza was in Moscow. He soon left for the United States — to attend his eldest daughter’s birthday.
A month later, on March 28, he dining with Bill Browder at a restaurant in London. Browder had just published a new book and wanted Kara-Murza to speak at a reading in Washington.
“Yes, of course,” Kara-Murza told him. “But first I’ll go to Russia.”
Browder was shocked by this answer. “You don’t have to go there,” he said. “You could be killed.”
Kara-Murza stood his ground, explaining that a Russian politician should be in Russia.
Other members of Kara-Murza’s circle recall similar conversations. Kirill Goncharov, the deputy chairman of Yabloko’s Moscow branch, called Kara-Murza in early March. Goncharov was thinking of leaving the country and wanted Kara-Murza’s advice. Kara-Murza’s recommendation was to stay: “This is our country, and not the country of some officials and security forces.”
Russian politician Dmitry Gudkov told Meduza that he and Kara-Murza “discussed his security a lot.” In many ways, he said, Kara-Murza’s desire to return to Russia again and again was due to his belief that he didn’t have the moral right to engage in Russian politics while abroad.
‘The darkest night before dawn’
On April 12, Kara-Murza gave an interview to CNN. “This regime that is in power in our country today, it’s not just corrupt, it’s not just kleptocratic, it’s not just authoritarian. It is a regime of murderers. And it is important to say it out loud. And it is really tragic — frankly, I have no other word for this — that it took a large-scale war in the middle of Europe, which Vladimir Putin is now conducting against Ukraine, for most Western leaders to finally open their eyes to the true nature of this regime.”
A few hours later, Kara-Murza was arrested at his home in Moscow. He was taken to the Khamovniki Police Station, which subsequently went into lockdown. The authorities categorically refused to say whether the opposition figure was there.
Later that same day, Kara-Murza was summarily sentenced to 15 days in jail on charges of “disobeying law enforcement.” The police report states that he “behaved inappropriately, changing the trajectory of his movement” after he saw a police car near his home.
While serving out this administrative sentence, Kara-Murza wrote a column for The Washington Post, sending the text through his lawyer. The column was published under the title “Russia will be free. I’ve never been so sure.”
Ten days later, on the morning of April 22, Kara-Murza was transferred to a special detention facility inside the Investigative Committee’s main office. According to Prokhorov, this practice is traditionally reserved for “the most high-profile and dangerous cases.”
As it turned out, a criminal case had also been opened against Kara-Murza on the day of his arrest. The authorities had charged him with spreading “false information” about the Kremlin so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine over a speech Kara-Murza gave at the Arizona House of Representatives on March 15.
“Today, the whole world sees what the Putin regime is doing to Ukraine,” Kara-Murza said in the speech. “The cluster bombs on residential areas, the bombings of maternity wards, and hospitals, and schools — these are war crimes.”
That same evening, Basmanny District Court Judge Elena Lenskaya remanded Kara-Murza in pre-trial detention until June 12. This detention was later extended another two months. Kara-Murza was officially indicted at 11 o’clock that night. The Russian Justice Ministry also blacklisted him as a “foreign agent.”
* * *
In his letters to his loved ones written while in pre-trial detention, Kara-Murza says he feels as though he’s fallen into the memoirs of a Soviet-era dissident.
“There are striking parallels between the dissident movement in the USSR and today’s opposition,” Kara-Murza also wrote to Meduza. “Not long ago I was rereading the memoirs of several famous dissidents […] — now I can’t shake the feeling that I’m inside a book.”
The main parallel, he says, is a “primordial moral message: the impossibility of being silent.” “This dissident message — not to become a silent accomplice in the crimes [of the state] — has been very relevant for us in Russia in recent years, especially during the last four months.”
The “seeming hopelessness of the struggle” is another commonality:
“Almost all the Soviet dissidents I’ve encountered have said there’s no hope of victory […] The imperative was always a personal and moral one: to remain a citizen, to be true to oneself, to live not by lies.
But in the end — although, of course, there were many factors that led to the collapse of the communist regime — it was the dissidents who played the most important role in de-legitimizing Soviet power in the eyes of the country’s population.
For me the lesson of the dissident movement in the USSR is one of the most optimistic in history. It shows us that even a handful of people, ‘armed’ only with words and ready to defend their dignity, can be stronger than a totalitarian machine.”
Kara-Murza says this knowledge helps him remain optimistic: “Even in the conditions in which I find myself.”
One of the phrases Soviet dissidents loved — and that Kara-Murza repeats over and over again in letters to friends — is “the darkest night before dawn.” As Kara-Murza recalled: “They were laughed at when they said this [shortly before the collapse of the USSR], but they were right.”
Abridged and translated by Meghan Vicks
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