Editor’s Note: In the current issue of National Review, we have a piece by Jay Nordlinger on Vladimir Kara-Murza, the Russian democracy leader. This week in his Impromptus, Mr. Nordlinger expands that piece.
Two years ago, in May 2015, Vladimir Kara-Murza was poisoned. He fell into a coma. The doctors told his wife, Yevgenia, that he had just a 5 percent chance of surviving. He survived.
I’m sitting in a Washington, D.C., restaurant with him. I tell him that I’m always happy to see him. (We first met last year.) But today I am especially happy to see him.
Smiling, Kara-Murza says, “I’m very happy, and very grateful, to be sitting here with you.”
The poisonings — the attacks — took place in Moscow, where Kara-Murza is the vice-chairman of Open Russia, a civil-society group. This is the group started by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian businessman who crossed Vladimir Putin, spent ten years in jail, and is now in exile.
One by one, Kara-Murza’s colleagues have been exiled, like Khodorkovsky. Or imprisoned. Or killed. Kara-Murza is determined to press on, however, believing that he has important work to do. And if people shrink from doing it, how will it get done?
He is 35 years old, born in 1981 to a distinguished family. His peculiar name — Kara-Murza — means “Black Prince.” In all likelihood, it comes from Golden Horde days, centuries back.
Vladimir was just shy of ten in August 1991. That was a pivotal month in the history of Russia. Hard-liners in the Soviet government attempted a coup against the party leader, Gorbachev. Kara-Murza will never forget it. Those few days in August are stamped on him indelibly.
Tanks were in the streets of his hometown, Moscow — just as they had been sent to Budapest in 1956, as he says. And to Prague in 1968. And to Vilnius, earlier that same year, 1991 (January).
Thousands and thousands of people poured into the streets of Moscow — armed with nothing. They were fed up. Fed up with oppressive rule. They stood in front of the tanks — their own tanks, Russian tanks, or Soviet tanks. Those tanks turned around and left.
At the end of the year — Christmas — the Soviet Union dissolved.
“No matter how powerful the forces against them,” says Kara-Murza, “when people are prepared to stand up for what they believe, they succeed.” In fact, “that’s the basis of my hope for the future of Russia.”
We talk a little about Yeltsin — Boris Yeltsin, the president of Russia in the ’90s (1991-99). He is widely remembered as an alcoholic buffoon. But he was a lot more than that, as Kara-Murza says.
“He was in power for eight years — two terms — and then he left. Compare that with what we have now.” (Putin has been entrenched since 2000: 17 years.)
“We had a real parliament, not a rubber-stamp parliament. Compare that with what we have now.”
Also, you had free elections and a free press. Satirical programs regularly skewered the president. It was practically a national pastime.
Boris Nemtsov was deputy prime minister under Yeltsin. Nemtsov liked to tell a story about going to see Yeltsin in the Kremlin. The TV was on, and a program was cutting up the president, as usual. “Boris, hand me the remote control,” said Yeltsin. “I can’t take it anymore.” He switched off the television.
Today, under Putin, that sort of thing doesn’t happen.
Kara-Murza believes that history will remember Yeltsin more kindly than people tend to now.
“But what about corruption?” I ask. “What about the corruption under Yeltsin?” Kara-Murza responds that Russia has always had corruption — that’s no secret. But today’s corruption is on a whole different scale.
“The sheer billions that Putin and his cronies have acquired,” says Kara-Murza. Putin is probably the richest man in the world. The corruption extends all the way from the top, says Kara-Murza, down to the local police chiefs, who extort bakers and other small businessmen.
Kara-Murza adds something: The world knew a lot about corruption under Yeltsin — because Russia had a free press.
Vladimir Kara-Murza’s father, also named Vladimir Kara-Murza, is famous. In the 1990s, he was an anchorman for NTV. Then came Putin — and away went independent media. NTV still exists, but it is another arm of the Kremlin. Before, it was independent; now it’s just another propaganda outlet.
Today, Kara-Murza Sr. works for a couple of outlets that endure, with dignity, even in the Putin era. One is the Echo of Moscow radio station; the other is America’s Radio Liberty.
Young Kara-Murza went to Cambridge in England. He studied history at Trinity Hall. Then he embarked on a career in journalism and politics, doing all sorts of things, all with an eye to helping Russia be free and democratic: a country where the rule of law governs, and human rights are respected.
Kara-Murza is one of those intellectuals who decide to devote themselves to journalism and politics. He could easily be a professor of history somewhere, writing his books, staying out of trouble (except for academic trouble). Instead, he is dodging murder.
For 15 years, he worked with Boris Nemtsov — the leading liberal politician in Russia. (By “liberal,” I mean democratic, pro-market, and anti-despotic.) He was a regional governor and, ultimately, deputy prime minister. Yeltsin wished him to be his successor.
“That was one of the biggest missed opportunities for our country in our entire history,” says Kara-Murza.” Russia got Putin instead of Nemtsov. “Things would have been very, very different, not just for Russia but for the whole world.”
Nemtsov sacrificed a lot for politics, for a freer Russia — and I’m not just talking about his life, his mortal life. (More about that in a minute.) He was a brilliant scientist. He earned his Ph.D. in physics at age 25. He was a protégé of Vitaly Ginzburg, a great physicist who would share the Nobel Prize in 2003.
There came a day when Nemtsov told Ginzburg he was going in a different direction: into politics rather than physics. Ginzburg told him he was making a terrible mistake, one he would surely regret. The young man could go very far in physics, Ginzburg said.
He went far in politics too, for as long as he could.
Together, Nemtsov and Kara-Murza urged the U.S. Congress to pass the Magnitsky Act. This is the law that imposes sanctions on Russian officials who abuse human rights. It’s named for Sergei Magnitsky, the whistleblowing lawyer who was tortured to death in 2009.
The law passed the House on November 16, 2012 — the third anniversary of Magnitsky’s death. Nemtsov and Kara-Murza were sitting in the visitors’ gallery, watching.
On more than one occasion, Nemtsov said, “The Magnitsky Act is the most pro-Russian law ever passed by a foreign legislature.”
For many years, Nemtsov was Kara-Murza’s closest friend, “despite the age difference,” says Kara-Murza. (Nemtsov was born the same year as Kara-Murza’s father: 1959. Indeed, the same month: October.) Also, “he was family,” says Kara-Murza of Nemtsov. Nemtsov was godfather to one of Kara-Murza’s daughters. “In Russia,” notes Kara-Murza, “that makes you family.”
Kara-Murza’s wife, Yevgenia, and their children have lived in the U.S. for a number of years. “Obviously, it’s not an ideal situation,” says Kara-Murza, “but it has to be this way. I go back and forth, but I spend most of my time in Russia. It’s one thing to risk myself, but I can’t risk my family.”
His colleagues told him, years ago, that it would not be prudent to have his family with him in Russia. He thought they were being overly cautious. He learned better.
On February 27, 2015, Boris Nemtsov was murdered as he walked on a bridge in sight of the Kremlin. This murder was a devastating blow to many people — including Kara-Murza. “There are no words,” he says. He’s the most articulate of men. But, about this — Nemtsov’s murder and its effect — he is speechless.
(I will continue this series tomorrow.)
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