Who Is Vladimir Kara-Murza, The Russian Activist Jailed For Condemning The Ukraine War?

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Vladimir Kara-Murza

In a speech to lawmakers in the U.S. state of Arizona in March 2022, weeks after Russia launched its large-scale invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Kara-Murza accused the “dictatorial regime in the Kremlin” of committing “war crimes.”

It was a pointed address and one in which the 41-year-old said he had understood where Vladimir Putin would take Russia back in December 1999, when the then-prime minister unveiled a plaque honoring hardline ex-Soviet leader Yury Andropov at the former headquarters of the KGB.

But it was par for the course for Kara-Murza, one of Putin’s most vocal critics, who was sentenced on April 17 to 25 years in prison by a Moscow court that convicted him of treason and other offenses in a trial that has been widely condemned as politically motivated. It is the longest sentence handed down to a Kremlin opponent in the post-Soviet era.

Kara-Murza had long angered the Kremlin before turning his criticism on Russia’s war against Ukraine. A historian by education, he had repeatedly warned Western leaders against “appeasing” Putin, comparing what he called the longtime president’s methodical dismantling of democracy and freedom to that of fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

Perhaps more significantly in the eyes of the Russian state, Kara-Murza played a leading role alongside his mentor Boris Nemtsov — who was assassinated in 2015 — in persuading the U.S. Congress to pass groundbreaking sanctions legislation that targets corrupt officials and human rights abusers in Russia, including people close to Putin.

His work in advancing the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which gives the U.S. president the authority to freeze the U.S. assets of Russian government officials and businessmen accused of gross violations and blocks them from accessing U.S. financial markets, may have nearly cost him his life twice.

Kara-Murza was hospitalized in serious condition in 2015 and 2017 following what he and others believe were cases of intentional poisoning while he was in Russia. He suffered organ failure in 2015 and underwent therapy to walk again.

U.S. authorities investigated the illnesses as intentional poisonings, Justice Department documents reviewed exclusively by RFE/RL in 2020 showed. The government records also showed that U.S. doctors and scientists mulled the possibility that he was targeted with a biotoxin or a radioactive substance.

Kara-Murza believes he was targeted for his efforts in support of the Magnitsky Act. He has said that Putin’s Kremlin fears only street protests more than targeted sanctions.

The Kremlin indeed lobbied the United States hard in the 2010s to block and then to overturn the Magnitsky Law, without success. The legislation is named after a Russian lawyer who died in a Moscow prison after exposing evidence of massive tax fraud involving Russian officials. In pitching the Magnitsky Act to Congress, Kara-Murza called it “pro-Russian” legislation that directly hits Putin’s associates. Other Western nations subsequently passed similar legislation, dealing further blows to the Kremlin.

Vladimir Kara-Murza had to walk with a cane after being hospitalized with a suspected poisoning in 2015. (file photo)
Vladimir Kara-Murza had to walk with a cane after being hospitalized with a suspected poisoning in 2015. (file photo)

Among the first people to be sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act was Sergei Podoprigorov, the judge in Kara-Murza’s trial.

Following passage of the Magnitsky Act, Kara-Murza continued to encourage the United States to increase the number of Russians subject to sanctions under the legislation, urging a March 2017 hearing of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee to do so “without regard for rank or influence.”

A month before Kara-Murza’s second suspected poisoning in February 2017, then-President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on Aleksandr Bastrykin, Putin’s university friend who as head of Russia’s Investigative Committee has played a major role in the Kremlin’s crackdown on the opposition. At the time, he was the highest-profile Russian to be sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act.

Nemtsov Aide

Kara-Murza has been politically active since he was a teenager. In 2000, while studying in the United Kingdom, he became an aide to Nemtsov, a liberal deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament who had been a regional governor and had served as first deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin.

Nemtsov, who led the Union of Right Forces (SPS), a coalition of democratic parties, lost his seat in the 2003 parliamentary election as Putin used his increasing control of the state, including the media, to squeeze out the opposition.

Kara-Murza remained close to Nemtsov, one of the most outspoken critics of Putin, until Nemtsov’s killing in February 2015. Nemtsov was in the process of organizing a protest against Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea region a year earlier when he was gunned down on a bridge near the Kremlin. Kara-Murza has continued to help keep Nemtsov’s memory alive in Russia.

Vladimir Kara-Murza (left), with Boris Nemtsov in Washington in 2014.
Vladimir Kara-Murza (left), with Boris Nemtsov in Washington in 2014.

Kara-Murza took active part in the mass protests that erupted in Moscow following the 2011 parliamentary elections, which Kremlin critics decried as rigged. The protests were at the time the largest in Russia since Putin came to power in 1999.

He later joined Open Russia, a nonprofit organization that promotes civil society and democracy by financing various projects. Open Russia was founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil tycoon and staunch Putin opponent who was imprisoned for 10 years on tax evasion charges he calls politically motivated.

While taking an active part in Russia’s opposition movement, Kara-Murza was also following in the footsteps of his father, also named Vladimir Kara-Murza, one of the country’s most prominent journalists and a pioneer of independent post-Soviet television. He worked for RFE/RL’s Russian Service, among other outlets.

The younger Kara-Murza worked as a reporter for various Russian newspapers in the early 2000s while earning his master’s degree in history from Cambridge University. He later moved to Washington, where he served as bureau chief for RTVi, a global Russian-language media company. He held that position until 2012.

During his time in Washington, Kara-Murza developed strong relationships with U.S. officials, including long-serving Senator John McCain, (Republican-Arizona), one of the fiercest critics of Putin on Capitol Hill, and Senator Roger Wicker (Republican-Mississippi).

McCain called Kara-Murza “one of the most passionate and effective advocates for passage of the Magnitsky Act.”

In what many say was a parting shot at Putin from McCain as he was dying from brain cancer in 2018, he requested that Kara-Murza be one of the pallbearers at his funeral.

Kara-Murza continued to speak out against the growing repression inside Russia and openly condemned Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine even after the Kremlin outlawed such criticism.

‘The Darkness Will Dissipate’

In April 2022, he was arrested and charged with spreading “false information” about the Russian Armed Forces. Then in August, Russian authorities added the charge of involvement in an “undesirable” foreign organization, followed two months later by a charge of treason for his comments in Arizona.

He described his trial — which was conducted behind closed doors — as rivaling the Soviet show trials of the 1930s under dictator Josef Stalin. In a final statement on April 10 that was published in The Washington Post, he told the judge that he did not repent his acts of opposition, but on the contrary was “proud” of them.

He said he is certain “that the day will come when the darkness over our country will dissipate…when a war will be called a war, and a usurper a usurper; and when those who kindled and unleashed this war, rather than those who tried to stop it, will be recognized as criminals.”

Vladimir Kara-Murza and his wife, Yevgenia (file photo)
Vladimir Kara-Murza and his wife, Yevgenia (file photo)

Kara-Murza’s trial followed those of other high-profile opposition figures who have been sentenced to long prison terms in the past two years or so on charges they contend were fabricated, amid the steepest repression in Russia since Soviet times.

Aleksei Navalny, who was arrested upon returning to Russia in January 2021, is serving terms of nine years and 2 1/2 years. Ilya Yashin was sentenced in December to 8 1/2 years.

In recent years, Kara-Murza lived part-time outside Washington, D.C., with his wife and children. In willingly returning to Russia in April 2022, following his speech in Arizona, he was adhering to an important lesson he said he learned when he was 10 years old.

In August 1991, people took to the streets of Moscow to stop an attempted coup by hard-liners against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Their actions helped sweep away a powerful, authoritarian regime almost overnight.

“However strong the dictatorship and the repression, if enough dedicated people are prepared to stand their ground and stand up for their liberty and their rights and their dignity, they will prevail,” Kara-Murza said in a 2017 interview with the U.S. network PBS.

  • Todd Prince

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