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 has expanded that piece. For the first two installments, go here and here. The series concludes today.
In America, we’ve had a lot of talk recently about patriotism and nationalism. In Russia recently, there was an amazing conversation in a classroom. On one side were a teacher and a principal; on the other, the students. This was in the city of Bryansk, about 235 miles southwest of Moscow.
And a student recorded the conversation, which was later transcribed and published at Meduza, the Russian news site. (The journalists who work at Meduza operate in Riga, Latvia, so that they can report freely and truthfully on their homeland, Russia. It’s too dangerous to do so at home.) To read a transcript of the conversation in English, go here.
A student says that “there are videos going around” showing Russian troops in Ukraine. The principal says, “The videos are staged, for starters.” The teacher chimes in, “And you shouldn’t believe them.”
The student says, “And what does it mean to be a patriot? That you support the authorities?”
Every day, people such as Vladimir Kara-Murza are called “national traitors.” They are “American spies” and the like. In response to this, Kara-Murza talks to me a little about Boris Nemtsov, his late friend, the leader of the Russian opposition.
“He was a great Russian patriot. He gave his life for his country. What more can you do than that? So many other people who are supposedly liberals or democrats from the ’90s chose to settle for a quiet and comfortable existence under the Putin regime, either working for it or keeping their distance from the opposition.”
Nemtsov could have done anything, says Kara-Murza. He was a brilliant scientist — remember that Ph.D. in physics at age 25 — and he had extensive, nearly unique experience in Russian politics. He could have taught anywhere in the West. But he never considered it. “This is my country,” he would say, “and I have to fight for it.”
Kara-Murza says, “There is nothing more unpatriotic than stealing from your own citizens, which is what Putin and his cronies are doing. There is nothing more unpatriotic than shutting people up, beating up peaceful protesters, rigging elections, which is another form of stealing — stealing votes from your own people. How is that patriotic?”
According to Kara-Murza, “true patriots are trying to change things. They think that Russia should be a normal, modern, democratic country. People are prepared to fight for it, even at the risk of their own lives. They are the true patriots in Russia.”
Ukraine is important. I ask Kara-Murza to tell me why — why Ukraine is important in the context of Russia.
“The most important motivation of Mr. Putin’s aggression in Ukraine was not geopolitical. It was not related to foreign policy. It was domestic. It wasn’t about ‘sphere of influence’ or restoring the old Soviet empire, although these things might have been added benefits, from the regime’s point of view.”
No, continues Kara-Murza, “the most important motivation was domestic, at least as I see it.”
Consider: “When Mr. Putin saw those images of hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of Kiev, and those images of Mr. Yanukovych hastily boarding his helicopter and fleeing — he didn’t enjoy those pictures. It hit too close to home. Think of it: a kleptocratic strongman, forced out of power by mass protests on the streets of the capital.”
In Kara-Murza’s view, Putin fears a Ukrainian-style democratic uprising in Russia. “That may sound unlikely now. It was unlikely in Ukraine, too, until a few years ago.”
Kara-Murza makes a point I have never heard before: Democracies in Estonia, Poland, and other neighbors — that doesn’t spook Putin and his crew so much. Democracy in Ukraine? That’s another story.
“We live so close to each other. We are close as peoples, as cultures, as nations. We’ve been living together for centuries. Our languages are similar — I understand 80 percent of Ukrainian.”
A successful Ukrainian democracy? A democratic and European Ukraine? A modern, normal, democratic nation? That would set a hell of an example for Russia. It would be an inspiration for Russians.
Which is why Putin et al. are dead set against it.
There are many who maintain that the Russians aren’t fit for democracy, or aren’t desirous of it. They like a firm, authoritarian hand.
Of course, similar things have been said of many peoples. Southern Europeans, for instance, worshipped throne and altar. They would never cotton to liberal democracy. Neither would East Asians. They had “Asian values” instead. Liberal democracy was just an Anglo-American hang-up.
Kara-Murza says that the charge against Russia is flat wrong — and a convenience for those who are loath to see an open Russia.
Many in the West will tell you that Putin is popular in Russia. Very, very popular. They cite opinion polls. President Trump has done this several times: say how popular Putin is and cite opinion polls.
Vladimir Kara-Murza asks for reason. Russians have been subjected to one-sided government propaganda for many years. They see what happens to people who protest in the street: They are beaten up, carted off to prison, etc. They see that opponents of the government are called traitors, spies, and so on.
And then they get a phone call from a “polling agency,” wherein a stranger asks, “Do you support Putin or not?”
Really? Are you kidding me?
Kara-Murza says, “People should stop talking about Russia in terms taken from democratic countries: ‘polls,’ ‘elections.’”
He also says this: If Putin is so popular, why does he have to censor the media? Why does he have to rig elections? Why does he have to exile, imprison, or kill opponents? Huh?
For many years — decades — people in free countries told me how popular Fidel Castro was in Cuba. Oddly enough, he never risked proving this popularity in a genuine election.
Of course, there are many, many people who support and like Putin in the West. Kara-Murza says that many are simply ignorant. They don’t know what Putin truly is. Others, meanwhile, are on the take. They profit from the Putin regime. Kara-Murza suspects we will learn a lot about this once the regime falls, even as we learned a lot from records after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Then there are people who support Putin out of affinity. “There have always been fellow travelers and enablers,” says Kara-Murza: “people who themselves live in the West and choose to justify and defend the actions of dictators who abuse the rights of their own people. I find such behavior despicable.”
“We’re not asking for Western help,” says Kara-Murza. “It’s our task to change the government in Russia — to bring democracy and the rule of law to Russia. This is for us to do: not Trump, not any outside forces.”
He then says, “The only thing we ask of Western countries is that they live by the principles that they espouse. That they practice what they preach. That they not serve as havens for Putin’s kleptocrats, stashing money that was looted from the Russian people. We ask them not to help Putin by treating him as a respectable partner on the global stage.”
I mention to Kara-Murza that many say that the Russian people are indifferent — that they have a sense of futility about change, and simply want to keep their heads down, getting through life as best they can.
In fact, there is an old saying, which I repeat to Kara-Murza: “People don’t make history, they make a living.”
So true, says Kara-Murza. In every situation, there are always a few — a relative few — spearheads. But then he asks me to consider something else: the mass protests in Russia that started in the winter of 2011-12. The “Snow Revolution,” some people call it.
“If somebody had told me in September 2011 that three months later there would be more than 100,000 people standing across the Moscow River from the Kremlin, demanding Putin’s resignation, I would have said, ‘You’re living in cloud cuckoo land.’”
Kara-Murza continues, “For years, if we got 500 people at an opposition rally, we were happy. If we got a thousand, it was a great success. But that winter, we had 100,000, 125,000, 150,000 people coming out and saying, Enough is enough.”
Unfortunately, says Kara-Murza, “the push wasn’t hard enough. You know how it ended.” (With Putin’s crackdown.) “But these things can happen quickly and unexpectedly.”
Kara-Murza points out that young people have never known anything but Putin. He has been in power for 17 years. Young people find out how people live elsewhere — and ask, “Why can’t we?”
What faith do the ruling elite, those great patriots, have in the future of Russia? Kara-Murza says they tend to send their families abroad — “which tells you a lot. They don’t care about Russia or believe in Russia. They treat it as a source of revenue: a source of looting and money-laundering.”
Kara-Murza’s family is abroad, of course: in America. That’s a matter of prudence, a matter of safety. Kara-Murza has been poisoned — nearly murdered — twice. His doctors have told him: “If there’s a third one, you won’t survive it.”
And yet Kara-Murza is going back — back to Russia — once he makes a full recovery from the second poisoning, the second murder attempt.
Will his name protect him? Kara-Murza is fairly well-known, and, as I’ve mentioned, he has been featured on 60 Minutes here in America. Kara-Murza answers, in effect, Are you kidding? “If they can kill the leader of the opposition on the bridge next to the Kremlin, they can do anything.”
Ah. Good point. (Kara-Murza is speaking, as you know, of Boris Nemtsov.)
I introduce him to an American expression — one that I believe comes from sports: “Don’t be a hero.” Don’t be reckless, recklessly brave. You could get hurt. Of course, you can’t tell someone like Kara-Murza something like this. I have had long experience. They go ahead and do it anyway. They feel compelled.
If Kara-Murza wanted to take it easy — keep his head down — anyone would understand. The most die-hard oppositionist would forgive him. Two poisonings is enough, right? Kara-Murza has “paid his dues.” And yet, he is determined to press on.
What about Yevgenia? What does his wife think of all this? If you ask her, she’ll say, “I knew what I was signing up for, when I married him.” Vladimir tells me, with a hint of a blush, “I’m grateful to have such a woman in my life.”
I tell him how much I admire him, how astounding he is. He will have none of it. “I’m just stubborn.”
A word from the National Review Store: To get Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger, go here.