Yesterday, the Human Rights Foundation hosted an event they called “PutinCon” — a conference devoted to the Russian “president,” Vladimir Putin: his rise and his deeds, both at home and abroad. Participating were both Russians and well-wishing foreigners. It was, above all, a day of truth-telling — a festival of truth amid many lies and much obfuscation as concerns the Putin regime.
Many people in the West, I think, would rather turn away from Putin and not know. Because knowing would entail doing, or acting — and that, people shrink from, as one can well understand. We had a long cold war. Why engage in another conflict, even at a much lower level?
As in the Cold War, many people blame neocons and others for stirring up trouble. Why can’t we all get along? Why do we have to “poke the bear” (to use Nigel Farage’s phrase) when the bear would just live peacefully beside us, if only we refrained from poking?
The problem is, he won’t. The bear won’t. Putin keeps trying to tell us this, but we’re reluctant to listen.
I have done a podcast with two of the speakers at PutinCon — two men well known to readers of National Review: Bill Browder and Vladimir Kara-Murza. The latter is the democracy leader who has twice been poisoned and has twice survived. Naturally, we talk about Putin’s latest poison attacks in Britain. We also talk about the sham of an election that Putin will stage tomorrow.
Why is he going through this charade? Like gangsters with money and power, dictators crave respectability. Putin, like his fellows, wants a democratic veneer.
A name was to be on the ballot tomorrow: that of Boris Nemtsov. He was the leader of the opposition. Yet he was murdered three years ago, about 200 yards from the Kremlin wall. His name will not appear on the ballot. Neither will that of Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist who is now the main opponent of Putin. They haven’t killed him yet. But they have barred him from running.
Vladimir Kara-Murza worked alongside Boris Nemtsov. Nemtsov was his closest friend, and the godfather of one of his children. Last month, Kara-Murza spoke at the unveiling of Boris Nemtsov Plaza, outside the Russian embassy in Washington.
You may remember that, during the Reagan years, we named the street outside the embassy “Andrei Sakharov Plaza.”
In our Q&A, Kara-Murza repeats to me what he said at the ceremony last month:
“When Sakharov Plaza was named — this was in 1984 — the Soviet government, as you can well imagine, was not pleased. Seven years later, there was a Sakharov Avenue in Moscow, and there was no longer a Soviet government. To me as a Russian citizen, there’s nothing more patriotic than to name a street in front of the Russian embassy in honor of a Russian statesman, and whatever the people in the Kremlin think of this now, I know that one day the Russian state will be proud that our embassy in Washington is standing on a street named after Boris Nemtsov.”
Bill Browder is the financier who flourished in Russia and then was declared persona non grata — he had gotten under the skin of Putin’s oligarchs. He made it out of Russia, but his lawyer did not. That was Sergei Magnitsky, a fearless whistleblower, who was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured to death.
From that moment on, Bill Browder has been a crusader for justice. He has spearheaded “Magnitsky acts,” which impose sanctions on persecutors in Russia.
He could have taken another path. He could have put Russia behind him as a dark, weird chapter. He could have put his feet up in London and counted his millions. Done a little reading. Yachted about the world. Instead, he has put himself in the crosshairs of one of the most brazen and murderous governments on earth.
Why? Why the hell? This is what Browder said to me yesterday:
“I’m doing this for Sergei Magnitsky. Sergei Magnitsky died in my service. He effectively died as my proxy, and the burden of guilt, the burden of responsibility I feel to him is overwhelming, and has been since the day I learned of his death at 7:25 a.m. on the 17th of November , and I owe it to his memory and to his family and to myself to carry on with this campaign till I’ve really, truly gotten justice for Sergei Magnitsky.”
Again, to hear this Q&A — divided between Bill Browder and Vladimir Kara-Murza — go here.