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 is expanding that piece. For yesterday’s installment, Part I, go here.
So, as we’ve said, Boris Nemtsov was murdered — shot in the back on February 27, 2015, about 200 yards from the Kremlin walls. Who killed him? Who did it?
Kara-Murza gives a long answer. But it comes down to this: He can’t tell you who pulled the trigger or triggers — who the triggerman or triggermen were. But, in his mind, there is no doubt about who is ultimately responsible: Putin and his regime.
I ask a very awkward question: Did they make a mistake? Did Nemtsov’s murder backfire on them? Kara-Murza says that he will return a very awkward answer: No, they did not make a mistake. “They knew whom they were killing. From their point of view, they did exactly the right thing.”
Nemtsov was by far the most effective opposition leader in Russia, Kara-Murza explains. He could talk to anyone, from heads of state to the man on the street — most any street. He could enter a hall full of people hostile to him, and come out with many new friends.
“There is a saying that no one is irreplaceable,” Kara-Murza notes. “But Boris was unique. It’s hard to imagine that he can be replaced.” Nemtsov’s murder was a huge blow to the Russian democracy movement, and to Kara-Murza personally.
“My life is divided into before and after February 27, 2015,” he says. Before and after Nemtsov’s murder.
‐Three months after the murder, Kara-Murza was poisoned. One by one, his organs shut down. The experience was, needless to say, terrifying and brutal. Kara-Murza was shuttled from hospital to hospital, as doctors tried to figure out what was going on.
Finally, they realized that Kara-Murza had been attacked by a poison — one of an extremely sophisticated nature.
‐ When he was able, Kara-Murza resumed his work. Yet there was always a threat over his shoulder. In early 2016, for example, Putin’s man in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, did something charming. He posted to his Instagram page a video showing two men in the crosshairs of a sniper. Those men were two Putin critics: Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister, and Kara-Murza.
‐Kara-Murza made a film about Nemtsov. He felt he had to do it, in order to counter the Kremlin’s constant propaganda against the late leader. He was screening the film in various Russian cities when he was poisoned the second time.
‐“When the symptoms began, I knew,” he says. “I didn’t want to admit it, but I knew straight away what it was, because the symptoms were the same as before. I knew I had only a few minutes before I would become completely incapacitated. And I used those minutes wisely.”
He called his wife in America, who messaged a doctor in Russia — Denis Protsenko, who had been Kara-Murza’s main doctor before.
‐On the floor of the U.S. Senate, John McCain made a statement about Kara-Murza, a friend: “Vladimir has once again paid the price for his gallantry and integrity, for placing the interests of the Russian people above his own interest.” Congressman Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called Kara-Murza “one of the bravest people I know.”
‐Once more — for the second time — Kara-Murza survived. He says he now has three birthdays: “the one my parents gave me, and the two that Dr. Protsenko has given me.”
‐As you can imagine, there are people — the Putin gang — who say that Kara-Murza is faking all this, to make the Kremlin look bad. Interviewing Kara-Murza on 60 Minutes, Lesley Stahl raised this — quite rightly — and Kara-Murza answered as follows:
“To those who say that this is a plot [on the part of the Russian democracy movement], I honestly, and I mean this sincerely — I wish they never have to experience what I’ve experienced twice in the last two years, when you’re trying to breathe and you cannot. When you feel your organs shutting down, giving up on you one after another. And when you feel the life coming out of your body in the next few hours, and you don’t remember anything for the next month.
“And then for the next year you’re trying to relearn how to walk, how to use cutlery, how to talk to your kids again. I wish these people who tell you these things never have to experience this. I honestly, sincerely do.”
(For Stahl’s interview with Kara-Murza, go here.)
‐Does Kara-Murza have any doubt that it was his government that tried to kill him? Twice? No, he does not. This kind of poison is not your garden-variety weapon. “You can’t go into a pharmacy and buy it,” Kara-Murza remarks to me.
For many years, the Russian security services have been developing these poisons. They have used them all over the world, not just in Russia. Indeed, one of their most famous hits was in London. The victim was Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian security agent who turned whistleblower.
And the hit, or hits, on Kara-Murza? He can’t tell you the “who” or the “how.” He has no idea who, specifically, carried out the attacks on him, or how he (or she or they) did it. But he’s sure of the “why”: These attacks were retribution for his work in the political opposition, especially his support of the Magnitsky Act.
‐You can read long lists of Putin critics who have died in mysterious ways. Strange suicides and the like. In the last several weeks, there have been at least three incidents that have made the international news.
Yevgeny Khamaganov, a journalist, 35 years old, died in an emergency room. No one seems to know why. Two years earlier, thugs jumped him and broke his neck.
In Kiev, Denis Voronenkov was shot dead in the street. Once a member of the Russian parliament, he had fled to Ukraine and was a key witness in the treason case against Viktor Yanukovych, the Putin ally who was deposed as Ukraine’s president in 2014. (Yanukovych is now under Putin’s protection in Russia.)
In Moscow, Nikolai Gorokhov was tossed from the fourth floor of his apartment building. Putin’s media said that Gorokhov was helping movers carry a jacuzzi, and, whaddaya know? Such an unfortunate accident.
Gorokhov is the Magnitsky family’s lawyer. (Sergei Magnitsky, as you recall, was the lawyer and whistleblower who was tortured to death in 2009.) The day after the “accident,” Gorokhov was to make an important court appearance. He survived the fall — but was no in shape for court, to put it mildly.
‐People will tell you that these endless incidents can’t be pinned on Putin and his men. While running for president, Donald Trump defended Putin, saying, “It’s never been proven that he’s killed anybody. So, you know, you’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, at least in our country.” Vladimir Kara-Murza makes three pertinent points.
1) Putin has control over the police, the judiciary, and the media. Good luck convicting him or his agents.
2) We should ask the old question Cui bono? Who benefits from these killings and maimings?
3) There is an unusually high mortality rate among people who oppose Putin or work as independent journalists in Russia. This is “a mortality rate that defies any statistical model,” as Kara-Murza says.
He has a lot more to say. See you tomorrow, dear readers, for our third and final part.
A word from the National Review Store: To get Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger, go here.