Opposing Russian president Vladimir Putin is a “dangerous vocation,” the dissident writer and activist Vladimir Kara-Murza told me during an interview at the Oslo Freedom Forum in May 2016. He was speaking from experience: On Feb. 27, 2015, Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and leading Putin opponent for whom Kara-Murza had worked since 1999, was assassinated 200 yards from the Kremlin walls in Moscow. Three months later, Kara-Murza, 35, fell ill during a trip to eastern Russia and was kept alive at a Moscow hospital with the help of eight separate artificial life-support systems—at one point, doctors gave him a 5 percent chance of survival. Kara-Murza believed someone had poisoned him. “No doubt it was intended to kill,” he told me last May.
Last week, on the eve of a planned visit to the United States, Kara-Murza’s health rapidly deteriorated again: He has reportedly experienced organ failure and is now in intensive care. His wife says doctors diagnosed Kara-Murza with “acute poisoning by an unknown substance” and, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, she has sent samples of her husband’s hair, skin, and fingernails to an undisclosed private lab in Israel for testing.
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In Oslo, a year after his apparent poisoning, the lanky and balding Kara-Murza walked with a cane—a living reminder of the burdens of citizenship under an autocratic system, and of the impossible choices those systems impose. He has paid a steep personal cost for his political activities, beginning with Nemtsov’s murder. Kara-Murza revered his one-time mentor, whose assassination marked an even deeper rupture in Kara-Murza’s life than his own poisoning a few months later. Nemtsov had been “the best of us,” Kara-Murza said, someone who had lived fearlessly and demolished some of Russia’s most corrosive social and political stereotypes. “He broke the stereotype that you cannot be successful if you’re honest and honorable,” said Kara-Murza. “He broke the stereotype that you cannot win elections in Russia if you are Jewish. I mean he was Russian orthodox by religion but he was ethnically Jewish. He never hid it—he was open about it.”
Silence carries its own burdens, but a dissident’s life is often one of thankless sacrifice proceeding an ultimate failure. I posed what was perhaps an impertinent question, given all that he’d been through: Why bother? “To be honest I don’t even ask myself this,” Kara-Murza replied. “It is so obvious that it goes without saying. It’s my country. I care about it. I don’t want to see its future being destroyed by crooks, by thieves, by kleptocrats, by authoritarians.”
Kara-Murza had few illusions about the gravity of his decision to stay in politics and return to Russia after his first poisoning. In Oslo, he mentioned that he had three young children, and worried about the kind of country they would inherit. Kara-Murza believed that Putin’s ascension had blown Russian history horribly off course. But the situation was correctable. After all, an alternative vision existed and had nearly been realized: Nemtsov, who Kara-Murza said had once been the “heir apparent” to the Russian presidency, had championed “a more democratic, more European, more hopeful Russia.” If Nemtsov had become president instead of Putin in the late ’90s, “we’d be talking about a different Russia and frankly a different world right now.” It wouldn’t be easy to get to that other Russia or for a country of 150 million people to reverse direction. But Kara-Murza was willing to stake his life on the possibility.
Kara-Murza knew the enemy intimately enough to avoid errors of over-analysis. Putin wasn’t a puzzle to him: “Everything we’ve been seeing for the past 16 years is KGB methods, KGB tactics, KGB goals, so frankly there’s nothing enigmatic about Putin. It’s all on the surface.”
While observers have made a political science sub-genre out of discerning the actual lines of authority within Putin’s government, Kara-Murza hasn’t spent much time dwelling on the question of who’s really in charge. “This regime is a monolith,” he said. “No actor within this regime is allowed any kind of real autonomy or real independence.”
Even Ramzan Kadyrov, the megalomaniacal Chechen warlord whose inner circle has been credibly implicated in Nemtsov’s assassination, was little more than a Putinist pawn. This wasn’t a comforting reality for Kara-Murza, since Kadyrov had directly threatened him as well. “When Kadyrov issues public threats against those who oppose Putin and the Russian opposition—when he shows myself and [former] prime minister [Mikhail] Kasyanov in the crosshairs of a sniper rifle—and Kadyrov and his henchmen say that those who oppose Putin are traitors and enemies of Russia, all this means is that the Kadyrov regime in Chechnya is being used by the Kremlin as the attack dogs against the Russian opposition. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Even back then, five months before Donald Trump was elected U.S. president and nine months before the second alleged poisoning, the tide appeared to be turning against Kara-Murza and people like him—dissidents are politically inconvenient in the best of times, and were seemingly hopeless underdogs in the world of early 2016. It wasn’t just Putin’s winning streak in Syria, Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine, or the democratic world’s flagging resolve to confront of even sanction Moscow, or the rise of leaders like Trump, who openly embraced authoritarian strong-men and had little apparent interest in democracy and human rights, that were cause for cynicism or discouragement. As Syria burned and the U.S. inched closer to the regimes in Iran, Cuba, and Russia, it appeared that human rights had lost much of its political and moral urgency.
At one point, Kara-Murza hopefully recalled that Gerald Ford’s refusal to meet with the Soviet dissident author Alexander Solzhenitsyn during a period of entente with Moscow might have contributed to the republican’s defeat in the 1976 presidential election. I remarked that these days, Americans were unlikely to care that much about the president’s treatment of any human rights activist. Although he didn’t dispute my premise, Kara-Murza’s reply was tinged with a hopeful certainty. “There are always going to be people who don’t care, who are apathetic, who could care less about people being jailed and tortured and killed for their beliefs,” Kara-Murza replied. “Unfortunately there are always people like that. But fortunately there are always people who care, and people for whom it’s important, and I think it’s those people that are on the right side of history.” This confidence extended to Kara-Murza’s homeland. Putin’s defeat was inevitable: “Frankly he’s been there too long,” Kara-Murza said. “As history teaches us, if dictators cling to power that long they completely lose sense of reality… I think that that’s the biggest danger for him, that he’s lost touch with what’s actually going on in the country.”
When I met him last May, Kara-Murza had already seen a close friend murdered, and his own body horrifically violated. Even if Kara-Murza believed in a successful end to his fight against Putin, there was no guarantee that he would be alive to see it. But he believed he had no other option but to stay in Russia and continue his work. “As Boris [Nemtsov] always said, it’s our country, we have to fight for it,” said Kara-Murza. “It may sound simple, but that’s all it is.”
He calmly acknowledged the hazards of his continuing to live and work in Russia. “It’s a dangerous vocation to be in the opposition to Mr. Putin’s regime,” he said when asked if he feared another attempt on his life. “But I believe what we do is important. They want us to give up and run away, but we’re not going to do that.”
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