(Illustration by Nicole Rifkin for The Washington Post; based on photos by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images and Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/AFP via Getty)
(Nicole Rifkin for The Washington Post; based on photos by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images and Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/AFP via Getty)

Opinion Russia locked up Vladimir Kara-Murza for telling the truth about Ukraine

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On a cold spring evening in April, Russian opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza was parking outside his Moscow apartment building when five uniformed police officers surrounded his car. The officers yanked him from the vehicle and hustled him into a waiting van. Next thing he knew, he was occupying a 6-by-9-foot cell in Moscow’s notorious Khamovniki police station.

Initially, he was detained on a spurious charge: disobeying the police. But on April 22, 11 days after his arrest, Kara-Murza was indicted on a charge of “spreading deliberately false information” under a law passed in the wake of Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. It’s a charge that could bring 10 years in prison.

The charging document cited a speech that Kara-Murza, a Post contributing columnist, had given weeks earlier to the Arizona House of Representatives. His remarks accused Russian forces of dropping cluster bombs on residential areas in Ukraine and staging airstrikes on maternity wards, hospitals and schools. He did not mince words: “These are war crimes that are being committed by the dictatorial regime in the Kremlin against a nation in the middle of Europe.”

The atrocities Kara-Murza described have been verified by news organizations around the world and have led to international war crimes investigations. But Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin couldn’t bear the spectacle of a Russian citizen airing these uncomfortable facts — so it locked him up for telling the truth.

Read this essay in Russian: Кремль отправил Владимира Кара-Мурзу в тюрьму за правду об Украине

If telling the truth qualifies as a “crime,” it is one that the 40-year-old Kara-Murza has committed proudly and consistently. For two decades, he has been an outspoken opponent of the Putin regime. His efforts have come at a huge price: He was poisoned in 2015 and again in 2017, narrowly surviving both attempts on his life. Over the years, associates and friends have been attacked, jailed or killed — experiences that have hardened his ideological rejection of Putin’s Kremlin.

Yet he’s not afraid to say so. The day before his latest arrest, he told CNN in an April 10 interview that Russia’s current government “is a regime of murderers.”

Even when it has been clear that pursuing his ideals might put his life at risk, Kara-Murza — a historian and documentary filmmaker as well as a journalist and activist — has continued to campaign for human rights and liberal democracy. Meanwhile, many politicians in the West have abandoned these values, whether by appeasing dictators such as Putin or by eroding democratic principles in their own societies.

Kara-Murza didn’t have to take this path. Years ago, he settled his family — his wife, Evgenia, and three children, now ages 16, 13 and 10 — in a Northern Virginia suburb. He holds a British passport as well as a Russian one; he easily could have embraced a full-time life in the West. His friends often express dismay over his insistence on returning to Russia — but Kara-Murza maintained that he could not advocate for the rights and freedoms of the Russian people without enduring the same travails they face.

Kara-Murza recently described his imprisonment as a kind of badge of honor worn by an illustrious line of Russian oppositionists before him. In a letter sent from prison, he cited the example of dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who proudly recalled being charged with “anti-Soviet activity”: “I wear these convictions like medals!”

“He’s one of the very few people of the new generation who could be called an heir of the [Soviet-era] dissident movement, of its ideals and its critiques,” says 68-year-old Aleksandr Podrabinek, who was a political prisoner for 5½ years in Soviet times. “He knows its history; he understands its meaning. He’s one of our dissident family.”

As Putin’s Russia backslides into a state resembling its Soviet past, Kara-Murza finds himself in a role that he knows well from his study of history. In the 20th century, dissidents such as Podrabinek used the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan to illuminate the communist regime’s brutality. Now, Kara-Murza has become a prisoner of conscience in his own right for daring to oppose yet another cynical war.

The Russian opposition has produced many talented leaders over the years. The most prominent today is Alexei Navalny, a rousing populist who made a name for himself with highly effective online campaigns against the corruption of officialdom. Navalny, who was successfully building a national grass-roots organization until he was poisoned in 2020, is serving a nine-year sentence in a maximum-security penal colony.

Yet few can make the case with the same depth and rigor as Kara-Murza. And that makes him dangerous. Since Putin invaded Ukraine in February, Kara-Murza has argued that the war enjoys far less support among ordinary Russians than the Kremlin claims. Saying that out loud strikes at one of the regime’s most vulnerable points. “The regime is so afraid of the people,” his wife, Evgenia, told me. “It wants to create this image for the international community that everyone supports Putin’s actions in Ukraine, that Russia is a strong country, and that Putin’s leadership is approved by his population who stand behind him in everything that he does. None of that is true.” That’s why the Kremlin is cracking down, she says, on anyone who challenges the official narrative.

If Kara-Murza were free to speak, he’d scold me for making him the center of attention. I have edited his columns for The Post for five years — exactly 101 columns so far — and over those years, I’ve been honored to call him a friend. He shies away from attempts to single him out, instead redirecting attention to the plight of other democratic activists. Fluent in English and French as well as Russian, Kara-Murza often comes across as soft-spoken and cerebral — an image somewhat belied by his fondness for 1970s British TV comedy and a natural ease with people.

But there can be no mistaking the intensity of his quarrel with Russia’s regime. For 20 years, Kara-Murza has battled against Putin and everything he stands for — a conflict fueled by the two men’s radically divergent biographies. Putin chose a career in the KGB as a devoted servant of the Soviet system. The Kara-Murza family has long defined itself by its opposition to that system. Two of Kara-Murza’s ancestors — a great-grandfather and a great-great uncle — were shot by Stalin’s secret police.

Vladimir Kara-Murza from jail: Russia will be free. I’ve never been so sure.

Kara-Murza was born in September 1981 at the nadir of the Cold War. His first political mentor was his father, also named Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Soviet-era dissident who became a nationally known journalist during the 1990s. His parents divorced early in his childhood. Later, his mother, Elena Gordon, married a British citizen and took her teenage son with her to live in Britain.

At 16, while studying at British schools, Kara-Murza started working as a correspondent for a Moscow newspaper and other Russian media outlets, too. His work brought him into contact with a man who would become his political mentor: Boris Nemtsov, a liberal member of the Russian parliament who had served as a deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin. Soon, Kara-Murza was helping Nemtsov organize visits to Britain; in 2000, he became one of Nemtsov’s parliamentary aides.

In 2003, Kara-Murza completed his undergraduate degree in history at Cambridge. Then he returned to Moscow, where he threw himself into the work of the liberal opposition. Officially a member of Nemtsov’s party, he campaigned for a seat in the national parliament. Just a few years into Putin’s rule, it was already clear that democrats faced an uphill battle, even if the tactics used against them were relatively benign. His opponents unplugged lights illuminating one of his campaign billboards, blocked distribution of his election pamphlets and turned off his microphone during a televised debate. Little surprise, Kara-Murza lost to a Putin-backed candidate.

In many respects, Russia’s fledgling democracy in the 1990s — complete with private property, elected government, freedom of assembly and of the press — was a remarkable achievement. It lasted more than a decade, longer than any such experiment in the previous thousand years.

But it also brought chaos. Many Russians came to identify post-Soviet democracy with runaway inflation, unpaid wages and social turmoil; organized criminals ran amok, and a tiny coterie of oligarchs seized control of much of the economy.

Vladimir Kara-Murza from jail: The worst nightmare for political prisoners

In the 2000s, the disillusioned initially welcomed Putin’s reassertion of state power even as he maintained some popular achievements of the Yeltsin era, such as the right to open a business or travel abroad. For Putin’s supporters, his dismantling of press freedom and representative government seemed an acceptable price to pay for stability. As Putin settled into office, however, the pro-democracy parties, riven by factionalism and private feuds, could do little to counter the Kremlin’s gradual restoration of the police state.

Over time, Russians — especially younger ones — began to see signs of deepening stagnation. That sentiment exploded into mass protests in 2011, when Putin announced — without even a nod at consulting the voters — that he would return to the presidency after four years as prime minister (and showed what a sham it had been when he stepped down to comply with term limits). Russians in major cities took to the streets by the tens of thousands, at a moment when the Arab Spring was elsewhere reminding the world that sclerotic dictatorships are never as stable as they appear. The Kremlin, palpably unnerved, crushed the protests, with some demonstrators sentenced to long prison terms.

One source of the discontent stood out: the rampant corruption of the ruling elite. Those Yeltsin-era oligarchs who had accepted Putin’s rise to power had been joined at the top by a new class of ex-KGB billionaires, who used their proximity to the president to seize control of lucrative assets. Despite their nationalist rhetoric, they tended to park their ill-gotten gains overseas; economists recently estimated that some 50 percent of Russian wealth is stashed abroad. In 2009, the machinations of a coterie of corrupt police officials had led to the death in prison of an idealistic young Russian lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky. The ensuing quest for justice by one of his clients, the investor Bill Browder, would have far-reaching consequences — for Russian human rights abusers and for Kara-Murza, who soon joined the cause.

Until this time, sanctions on authoritarian regimes usually targeted entire industries or economic sectors — and ordinary people often ended up bearing the brunt. But when Browder sought justice for Magnitsky, he lobbied for legislation in the United States and elsewhere that would impose personal sanctions on individual Russian human rights abusers, banning them from travel to the West and allowing the seizure of their assets. In other words, the measure would hit them in their pocketbooks.

The law, named the Magnitsky Act, was passed by the U.S. Congress in 2012. Browder and his allies then lobbied for similar legislation in Canada, Britain and the European Union. Kara-Murza, helped by his status as one of the very few leading members of the Russian opposition who spoke fluent English, played a key role. “Vladimir was indispensable,” says David J. Kramer, a George W. Bush administration State Department official who assisted in the Magnitsky Act campaign. “No one can question his bona fides to speak personally directly about the abuses, if not the outright atrocities committed by the Putin regime.”

Putin saw the Magnitsky law as a threat to himself and his cronies. Browder, a U.S.-born British citizen, soon found himself fending off death threats, lawsuits and eight Interpol arrest warrants filed by the Russian government. But for Putin’s Russian critics, the risks were worse. In February 2015, Nemtsov was gunned down crossing a Moscow bridge just a few hundred feet from the Kremlin. Hours before the late-night attack, Nemtsov had given an interview in which he denounced Putin’s “mad, aggressive and deadly policy of war against Ukraine,” referring to Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and deployment of Russian troops.

The Russian government tried and convicted five Chechen men for Nemtsov’s murder — while suppressing evidence that suggested the killers had ties to the Kremlin. “This is personal for me,” Kara-Murza said in 2017. “Boris Nemtsov was my closest friend. He’s godfather to my younger daughter; that’s family in Russia. I know that for so many people, this is personal.”

Despite entreaties from many friends and allies, Kara-Murza insisted on staying in Russia. A few months later, on May 26, 2015, soon after visiting a Moscow restaurant with a colleague, he began to feel violently ill. Suddenly, he was sweating and vomiting, his heart racing: “Within the space of 10 to 15 minutes, I went from feeling completely normal to being a really sick man,” he later told an interviewer.

Kara-Murza passed out before arriving at a Moscow hospital, where doctors discerned that his kidneys were shutting down. Other major organs followed. When his wife, Evgenia, arrived from the United States a day and a half later, doctors estimated his chances of survival at 5 percent.

Yet survive he did. Recovery was a long, slow process — rebuilding his strength involved relearning such basics as how to hold a spoon. A few months after the poisoning, Kara-Murza was invited to a reception at the British ambassador’s residence in Moscow, where one British lawmaker declared that he opposed passage of a Magnitsky Act-style law, saying he thought it would be bad for British business. As Browder tells the story, Kara-Murza, still relying on the aid of a cane, responded: “They tried to kill me over this thing, and you’re worried about doing a bit of business with Russia?”

As he recovered, Kara-Murza continued his opposition work. He traveled, organizing grass-roots activists for Open Russia, a pro-democracy group funded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oligarch who was imprisoned for 10 years for defying Putin. Kara-Murza made a film about Nemtsov that celebrated his mentor’s achievements as a defender of democracy, screening it to audiences inside Russia and abroad. And he continued lobbying foreign governments to pass Magnitsky Act-style personal sanctions.

Then, on Feb. 1, 2017, he was attacked again. After eating in a Moscow cafe with a fellow activist, Kara-Murza suddenly began experiencing familiar symptoms: difficulty breathing, plummeting blood pressure, a racing heart rate. Before he lost consciousness, he managed to call Evgenia, who swiftly boarded a flight for Moscow. Before she arrived, doctors placed Kara-Murza in an artificial coma to aid their treatment of his failing lungs and kidney. Their diagnosis: “acute intoxication with an unknown substance.”

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

Kara-Murza fought his way back to health after the 2017 poisoning and again rejoined opposition efforts. In public appearances in Russia and elsewhere, he persisted in calling out the Putin regime for falsifying election results and other distortions of the truth — despite the obvious risk. He also began to write regularly for The Post. His opinion columns vividly portrayed Russia’s real political life, with all its complexity and turmoil, and its contradictions with the official image of a people seamlessly united behind a strong leader.

In a 2018 column about Putin’s suppression of political opponents, for example, Kara-Murza wrote: “A leader with real popular support would not be afraid of real competition at the ballot box.”

An impressive array of U.S. legislators has called for Kara-Murza’s release, as have politicians and human rights organizations around the world. “As I said at the time of Vladimir Kara-Murza’s arrest, the Kremlin’s charges against him are a cynical attempt to silence him,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this month. “Vladimir should be released, as should all of those who have been detained for doing nothing more than speaking the truth.” Fred Ryan, publisher of The Post, said: “The Biden administration and Congress must use all the levers at their disposal — including tougher sanctions on those closest to Putin — to secure Kara-Murza’s freedom immediately.”

Putin, however, shows little sign of relenting. On June 8, a Moscow court extended Kara-Murza’s pretrial detention by two months. His lawyer, Vadim Prokhorov, recently announced that investigators in Moscow opened another criminal case against Kara-Murza this month based on his alleged membership “in an undesirable organization."

All this has tragically vindicated Kara-Murza’s two decades of warnings about Putin. Meanwhile, the Magnitsky Act-style sanctions he has long advocated are serving as the model for a host of international measures punishing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. An unprecedented wave of internal repression has put more than 16,000 Russians behind bars. And it has put Kara-Murza on a collision course with a ruthless dictator who acts as though he has little left to lose.

Yet Kara-Murza remains upbeat. In a recent letter from prison, he characteristically noted others who have dared to speak out against tyranny. “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,” he wrote. “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.”

Such optimism might sound misplaced at a moment when Russia is once again reverting to despotism. Knowing Vladimir Kara-Murza, though, I know how he would respond to my skepticism: The night, he would say, is always darkest before the dawn.

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