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Opinion Vladimir Kara-Murza from prison: In Putin’s Russia, dissent is now ‘treason’

Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza sits on a bench inside a defendants' cage during a court hearing in Moscow on Oct. 10. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images)
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PRETRIAL DETENTION CENTER NO. 5, MOSCOW — I wondered about the long faces of prison guards as they escorted me from my prison cell to the interrogation room last week. It was supposed to be a routine meeting. The chief investigator on my case, Andrei Zadachin, had told my lawyers he was going to present the final indictment, unifying my two previous charges: for publicly denouncing Vladimir Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine (in official Kremlin-speak, “spreading deliberately false information about the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation”), and for organizing a conference in support of Russian political prisoners (“carrying out the activities of an undesirable organization”).

These two charges were indeed included in the final indictment that Zadachin laid out on the table after some usual good-humored small talk — along with the third that overshadowed them all. The words “high treason” stood out immediately on the first page. Even my seasoned attorneys Vadim Prokhorov and Olga Mikhailova — who worked for many years with, respectively, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov (who was assassinated in 2015) and the poisoned and now imprisoned Putin opponent Alexei Navalny — seemed baffled as they delved into the text.

They had reason to be. My case marks the first moment in post-Soviet Russia when public criticism of the authorities is officially clarified as “treason.” The three counts in the indictment are my address to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly about the illegitimacy of Putin’s term-limit waiver; my speech at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee award ceremony for Russian historian and political prisoner Yuri Dmitriev discussing repression in Putin’s Russia; and my testimony before the U.S. Congress’s Helsinki Commission on the pervasive media censorship imposed by Putin to hide the war crimes his forces are committing in Ukraine.

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According to the indictment, my speeches “threatened the security and constitutional order of the Russian Federation,” “damaged the international reputation of the Russian Federation,” and gave Russia an “image as an aggressor state in the eyes of the international community.” (While flattered by the Investigative Committee’s assessment of my influence, I must admit that Putin has done a far better job on all three counts than I ever could.) And, unlike what is customary in actual treason cases, no foreign country benefited from my actions — the alleged subject instead is the Free Russia Foundation, a U.S.-registered pro-democracy nongovernmental organization founded and led by Russian activist (and citizen) Natalia Arno.

One would be hard-pressed to find precedents even in post-Stalin Soviet times when the authorities indicted dissidents as “traitors.” Among the best-known opponents of the Communist regime, such charges were leveled only against Nobel Prize-winning writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn before his expulsion to West Germany in February 1974, and against Anatoly (now Natan) Sharansky, a leader of the Jewish refusenik movement and co-founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group, in 1977. In Sharansky’s case, even the Soviet KGB felt the need to allege that he had disclosed “military secrets” by publishing refuseniks’ places of employment to substantiate the accusation of “treason.” The current Russian government seems to feel no need for such formalities.

The news of my indictment spread quickly throughout our prison. One inmate, a prominent banker, came up to me in the corridor to shake my hand. “Aren’t you afraid?” I asked. “I am proud,” he responded. Others — especially older prisoners who remember the Soviet era, when the charge of treason carried the death penalty — looked at me with sympathy, as one views a condemned man. Under the Russian Criminal Code, each count of treason carries up to 20 years of imprisonment — this in addition to 14 years on my two previous charges.

I won’t lie: It’s not a pleasant feeling to see such apocalyptic numbers in the indictment with my name at the top of the page. Worst of all was the thought of how my wife and our three children would take this news. I had no way of knowing: For many months now, I have not been allowed to even hear their voices on the phone. Adding significant insult to a very real injury was the accusation of “betraying” the country I love — coming from the people who really are destroying its future, its reputation and its standing in the world.

But what really helps — apart from the knowledge that I am right and they are wrong — is my background as a historian. Why? Because all of this has happened before, and we know how it will end. Aggressive wars launched by Russian and Soviet rulers for domestic political purposes — from the Crimean War of the mid-19th century to the misnamed “small victorious” Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 to the invasion of Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s — ended up backfiring badly on their masterminds, who managed to turn both their own people and the world against them. This war will be no different — and it is remarkable how diligently Putin is stepping into the same traps that caught his predecessors.

The great Russian historian Vasily Klyuchevsky once said that “history doesn’t teach anyone anything — it only punishes for lessons not learnt.” It won’t be long before Putin finds out just how true these words really are.