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Why Vladimir Kara-Murza Gave Up His Freedom

The Russian dissident journalist and activist knew if he returned to Russia he would be imprisoned or worse. But he was plagued by one question that compelled him to go. 

By Pedro Pizano

April 2024

The day before dissident journalist and activist Vladimir Kara-Murza returned to Russia, his friends pleaded with him not to embark. After all, he had been a legal permanent resident of the United States for ten years, held a British passport, and had three American-born children. And he knew the risks he faced: He had been poisoned in Moscow by Vladimir Putin’s regime not once, but twice. The second time, his organs failed and he had to be induced into a week-long coma.

But Kara-Murza returned to Russia nevertheless. He had been plagued by a question he shared with his friends right before leaving for the airport: “How can I ask my fellow Russians to stand up to Putin if I’m too afraid to do it myself?”

Two years ago, on 11 April 2022, Russian authorities arrested him. This is the story of Vladimir Kara-Murza, the “black prince” — Kara-Murza means “black prince” in Tatar — of Russian liberty, now serving the longest sentence for speaking the truth about Putin’s Russia: 25 years in IK-7, a Segezhlag gulag.

Kara-Murza’s words were his only crimes. On 15 March 2022, the McCain Institute and the Phoenix Council on Foreign Relations invited Kara-Murza to speak in Arizona. While there, he addressed the Arizona House of Representatives, where he said: “The whole world sees what the Putin regime is doing to Ukraine. The cluster bombs on residential areas, the bombings of maternity wards, hospitals, and schools, and the war crimes. These are war crimes that are being committed by the dictatorial regime in the Kremlin against a nation in the middle of Europe.”

For that speech, he was indicted in Russia on the charge of “dissemination of knowingly false information about the Russian Armed Forces,” which carries a sentence of ten to fifteen years. The indictment alleged that “Kara-Murza . . . distributed, under the guise of reliable reports, deliberately false information,” which included data on the Russian military’s bombardment of residential areas and social-infrastructure facilities (maternity homes, hospitals, and schools) and on the use of prohibited “means and methods of warfare during a special military operation in Ukraine.” Thus Kara-Murza had caused “substantial harm to the interests of the Russian Federation,” the indictment accused.

Unsatisfied, Russian prosecutors reached back to a speech Kara-Murza delivered in Lisbon on 8 October 2021, where he urged the community of Western democracies to deny recognition to Putin should he use a set of illegally enacted constitutional amendments from 2020 to remain in power beyond his current and final presidential mandate.

To seal air-tight their case for “high treason” under the Russian Criminal Code, prosecutors added a speech he gave on 29 October 2021 at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee’s Sakharov Freedom Award Ceremony in Oslo. There, Kara-Murza said: “Russia is not a place where human rights reign . . . There are more political prisoners in Russia today than at the end of the Soviet Union . . . a stark reminder of the grave mistake Russia’s short-lived democratic government made in the 1990s by its inability — or its unwillingness — to fully come to terms with the Soviet past.”

And finally, the prosecution included a speech from 29 March 2022 at the Helsinki Commission hearing in Washington, D.C., where Kara-Murza remarked: “Most Russians, as mind-boggling as it sounds, are not even aware of the horrendous war crimes committed by Putin in Ukraine. Those who speak out against this war are liable for criminal prosecution. So those who simply call it a war, receive up to fifteen years in prison, according to a new law heartily passed by a so-called Parliament, and just as heartily signed by Putin on Monday.”

For those four speeches and for belonging to an “undesirable organization,” the Free Russia Foundation, Kara-Murza was charged and found guilty of “high treason” and “spreading ‘false’ information.” He expected a stiff penalty. Kara-Murza received a 25-year sentence.

Why such a harsh judgement for a handful of speeches? Putin may have been motivated by revenge. In 2012, Kara-Murza helped pass the U.S. Global Magnitsky Act. The targeted sanctions regime, arguably the world’s most effective, first authorized U.S. sanctions against Russian officials involved in the detention and death of Russian tax advisor Sergei Magnitsky, and subsequently made Putin’s cronies frequent targets. In a cruel irony — as I have written elsewhere — Kara-Murza’s prosecutors were among those he had once helped to place on the Magnitsky Act’s list of sanctioned individuals.

Kara-Murza took his courage back to Russia for a greater cause. He shows us, if we care to look, what those of us lucky enough to be born among the slim share of people who enjoy liberty, sufficient wealth, and opportunity take for granted. If a liberal democracy is working as it should, its citizens can pursue their own ends rather than toiling to secure their freedoms.

But on occasion, in darker times, someone like Nelson Mandela, Leopoldo López, Martin Luther King Jr., or Vladimir Kara-Murza will dare to be imprisoned for his beliefs. By doing so, he lives not only according to the truth of his convictions — but also experiences a fundamental kind of freedom.

No one put it better than Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, during the closing statements of her trial:

By and large, the three members of Pussy Riot are not the ones on trial here. If we were, this event would hardly be so significant. This is a trial of the entire political system of the Russian Federation . . . Despite the fact that we are physically here, we are freer than everyone sitting across from us on the side of the prosecution. We can say anything we want and we say everything we want. . . .

So, open all the doors, tear off your epaulets; come, taste freedom with us.

These words could be said just as well of Vladimir Kara-Murza today.

Pedro Pizano is an international lawyer currently working as an assistant director of the McCain Institute at Arizona State University.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image credit: NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images




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