The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Vladimir Kara-Murza: Prison doesn’t give me many views of the sun

Russian activist and Post contributing columnist Vladimir Kara-Murza attends in October. (ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images)

PRETRIAL DETENTION CENTER 5, Moscow — June is my favorite month in Moscow. Summer has finally arrived, but the heat is not as overwhelming as it can be in July or August. The days are long. And the Boulevard Ring — the circular road around the center of the city — is covered with the rich foliage of lindens, poplars and maples. The Boulevard Ring is among the most picturesque areas of Moscow; there was a time when I took the tram along it every day, to school and back. In recent years I haven’t taken it very often, but on the day of my arrest in April, I happened to drive home along the ring, as if saying farewell.

It’s June in Moscow, but I don’t get to see much of it. The view from my cell window looks out onto a barbed-wire fence. The exercise yard is covered by a roof, with only a narrow strip of the sky visible beneath it. The prisoner vans in which I get transported have no windows. The only glimpse I get of the sun and of the treetops is during the 10 seconds or so that I am escorted, in handcuffs, from the prisoner van to the detainee holding room of the Basmanny District Court, which rubber-stamps the extension of my arrest every two months. These 10 seconds — and again on the way back — are almost worth the exhausting day-long trip in a hot, overpacked van that distributes prisoners to various Moscow courts.

The most important bonus, of course, would be to see my friends and colleagues, even if only through the glass of the cage in which defendants are kept during the court’s deliberations. At the hearing in early June — the one that extended my arrest through mid-August — the court honored the prosecution’s request to ban any spectators, including journalists and diplomats, from the room. It was a scene reminiscent of the dissident trials of the Soviet era. Even if the outcome is predetermined, the last thing the Kremlin needs is to have the uncomfortable truth about its bloody war in Ukraine publicly voiced in a courtroom in downtown Moscow.

It is this truth that is being meticulously hidden from the Russian public. Since Vladimir Putin launched his invasion in February, more than 3,000 websites, both Russian and foreign, were blocked by the government censorship agency by early May for violating its order to only report “official information” — that is, the Kremlin’s propaganda message — about the war. More than 200 media outlets have been blocked or shut down altogether — among them Echo of Moscow radio, TV Rain and the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which have stood as the last major bastions of media freedom in Russia. (Novaya Gazeta’s editor in chief, Dmitry Muratov, was last year’s co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.)

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Parallel to his stuttering invasion of Ukraine, Putin has conducted a highly effective blitzkrieg against what remains of political freedoms in Russia, turning his regime from highly authoritarian to near-totalitarian almost overnight. As someone who now has to endure Orwellian “news” programs on Russian state television on a daily basis, I can judge for myself the skillfulness of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, which successfully manipulates tens of millions.

This is a point worth stressing — especially to those Western commentators who continue to play into Putin’s hands by uncritically repeating Kremlin claims of “overwhelming public support” in Russia for the war. The fact is that most Russians are not aware of the horrendous war crimes being committed by Putin’s forces in Ukraine.

Propaganda is not the only reason; repression is another. Anyone who publicly criticizes Putin’s war in Ukraine could face arrest and years of imprisonment — as I now do under one of the hastily instituted new articles of the criminal code. There are already more than 200 criminal cases connected to antiwar protests or the “distribution” of antiwar information — and more than 2,100 cases under the parallel defamation clause in the code of administrative offenses. Those arrested or charged include journalists, lawmakers, mayors, artists, clergymen, teachers, police employees — and many others in Russia who refused to stay silent in the face of Putin’s aggression, even at the cost of near-certain imprisonment. In all, there have been more than 16,300 police detentions at antiwar protests across Russia since the start of the invasion.

Each of the thousands of Russian antiwar protesters is standing up not only for the people of Ukraine and for the international rule of law but also for the future of our own country. Each one is giving another reason to hope that a renewed, reformed post-Putin Russia can one day take its place in the community of democratic nations — and in a Europe that would finally become whole, free and at peace.

And even if I cannot see the outside world from my cell, and only catch small glimpses of the sun on my way to court, I still believe this future will one day come.