Readers are familiar with Vladimir Kara-Murza. He is a Russian democracy leader, human-rights activist, and writer. He worked with Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition leader, who was murdered in 2015. Kara-Murza himself has survived two murder attempts (by poison). I wrote about him in 2017, in three parts: here, here, and here. Kara-Murza and I have now done a Q&A podcast: here.
We talk of many things, starting with Memorial, the civil-society group that the Russian government has just shut down. I will have more to say about Memorial in a piece to come. The purpose of Memorial has been two-fold: to tell the truth about the past and to tell the truth about the present. Both of these aims are intolerable to the Putin regime.
In the 1990s, says Kara-Murza, there was a clear Russian break with the Soviet past: clear and brief. Russia had competitive elections; a multi-party parliament, with robust debate; independent media, free to criticize the authorities. When Putin came to power, he and his partners re-Sovietized. There were some symbolic acts: the revival of the Stalin-era anthem; the restoration of the Andropov plaque at the Lubyanka. But the new government’s acts went far beyond the symbolic. Away went a competitive political system; away went independent media — and the jails once more had political prisoners.
According to Memorial, there are about 430 political prisoners in Russia today. This is a low and conservative number, as Memorial is using strict criteria, and can account only for known cases. There are unknown ones, to be sure: people confined or “disappeared” off the books.
What’s more, says Kara-Murza, the Russian government is staffed with veterans of the KGB, beginning with the ruler himself: Putin. The Russian government is full of former operatives from the very organization responsible for so much misery, terror, and blood. It stands to reason that the government can’t tolerate Memorial, with its fact-finding. As Kara-Murza says, who likes to be reminded of his past crimes? Or his present ones?
Some of these guys, Kara-Murza adds — these men occupying positions of power — are carrying out personal vendettas.
Question: Do Putin & Co. long for the restoration of the Soviet empire or do they long for the restoration of the Russian empire? Some people think this is important. Vladimir Kara-Murza is not one of them. “The only thing that Putin and his people really long for is power and money. The form, to them, is secondary, and even ideology is superficial, and almost for show purposes. Their real ideology is to steal as much money as possible and to stay in power for a long as possible, to protect that money.”
And they are enabled, says Kara-Murza, by the West: Western governments and banks and other institutions. It is estimated that private Russian assets stashed in the West exceed $1 trillion. (Note the “t.”) “By providing the Kremlin and its cronies access to the Western financial system,” says Kara-Murza, “the West is giving Putin the lifeline that he then uses to attack the West itself. This is the horrible, vicious cycle that we are witnessing.”
Ukraine is very important. To Ukrainians, first and foremost. And to Europe and the world at large. But also to Vladimir Putin, personally, says Kara-Murza. Why?
In Ukraine, there was a democratic uprising, and such uprisings unnerve dictators, wherever they occur. Ukraine has been especially unnerving to Putin — because of longstanding ties between Ukraine and Russia: cultural, religious, linguistic. Millions of families have ties across the border. It’s one thing if New Zealand, let’s say, is democratic. But Ukraine?
Says Kara-Murza, “A successful democratic experiment in Ukraine presents an existential threat to Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian kleptocracy in Russia.”
Putin is unnerved by Belarus, too. In the summer of 2020, Belarusians rose up (once more) against the country’s longtime dictator, Alexander Lukashenko. Putin rushed him aid and muscle.
Think of the rulers in Beijing — how Taiwan must look to them. Taiwan is a nation of Chinese people practicing democracy, and flourishing. That must scare the hell out of the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese on the mainland may get ideas — uppity, democratic ones. Hong Kong scared the Party, too. But now the Party has brought that city to heel.
Toward the end of our conversation, our Q&A, Kara-Murza and I talk about support for Putin in the West. There is a lot of it: from political parties, from media, from elsewhere. There is pro-Putin sentiment and anti-anti-Putin sentiment alike. I get whiffs of it — often strong ones — every day.
In November, Putin gave Russia’s Order of Friendship to the Hungarian foreign minister (a bauble well earned). As I asked previously on this blog: “Who will be the friends of the political prisoners and other abused Russians? Who will speak out for Memorial?”
Some Westerners, as Kara-Murza points out, are simply pro-authoritarian. There are such people in every society. No society is exempt. Other people are simply duped, by propaganda. They are told that Putin is a great patriot, looking after his country’s interests. He is a great nationalist (never mind other people’s nationalism, such as Ukrainians’). He is an anti-woke scourge. He is a champion and defender of Christian civilization.
What kind of patriot, says Kara-Murza, steals from his own people? Loots his country? And do the Ten Commandments still apply? How about “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not steal”?
As there were apologists for the Soviet Union, and fellow travelers with the Soviet Union, there are apologists and fellow travelers today. Some people are motivated by simple material interest. Kara-Murza quotes Vladimir Bukovsky, the late Soviet-era dissident, who said something like: “Too many Western politicians put their desire to fry their morning bacon on Soviet gas above their own declared values.”
And yet many in the West stand with Russians who desire a better and freer society. Kara-Murza mentions the late John McCain, who was a mover behind the Magnitsky Act, which allows the U.S. government — or whatever government adopts such an act — to sanction individual human-rights abusers, without sanctioning a whole people. McCain asked Kara-Murza to be a pallbearer at his funeral (which he was).
Kara-Murza is not one who thinks that Russia is destined to be ruled by despots. He quotes a phrase from Reagan: “cultural condescension.” In his Westminster Speech (June 1982), Reagan said, “Democracy already flourishes in countries with very different cultures and historical experiences. It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy.” Kara-Murza himself says, “I have absolutely no doubt that one day we will have a normal, modern, accountable democratic government in Russia. There’s no reason that our nation is destined to be an outlier in Europe or the world, and to live under the yoke of a dictatorship.”
You can learn a great deal from this man, Vladimir Kara-Murza. He reminds you that not all Russians are alike, which should be obvious, but may not be. There are Americans of many, many stripes. And Frenchmen, and Chinese, and others. Lots of Russians think like Putin, to be sure. But other Russians think like Kara-Murza and the men and women of Memorial, who are doing their best to find out and tell the truth, in very dangerous circumstances.
Again, my Q&A with Kara-Murza is here.