Vladimir Kara-Murza, the Russian democracy leader who has escaped death twice
In May 2015, Vladimir Kara-Murza was poisoned and fell into a coma. The doctors told his wife he had just a 5 percent chance of surviving. He survived. Almost two years later, in February 2017, Kara-Murza was again poisoned. Again, they told his wife he had just a 5 percent chance of survival. Once more, he survived.
“I’m very happy, and very grateful, to be sitting here with you,” he tells me, in a Washington, D.C., restaurant. “Same here,” I respond.
The poisonings — the attacks — took place in Moscow, where Kara-Murza is the vice chairman of Open Russia, a civil-society group. One by one, his colleagues have been exiled, imprisoned, or killed. He is determined to press on, though, believing that he has important work to do. And if people shrink from doing it, how will it get done?
He was born in 1981 to a distinguished family. That peculiar name, “Kara-Murza,” means “Black Prince,” and it probably comes from Golden Horde days, centuries back. He was just shy of ten in August 1991. That was when hard-liners in the Soviet government attempted their coup against Gorbachev. Kara-Murza will never forget it. Those few days are stamped on him indelibly.
Tanks were in the streets of his hometown, Moscow, just as they had been sent to Budapest (1956), Prague (1968), and Vilnius, earlier in the year (January 1991). Thousands and thousands of people poured into the streets, armed with nothing. They were fed up with oppressive rule. They stood in front of the tanks, which turned around and left. At the end of the year, 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. That’s the basis of my hope for the future of Russia.”
His father, also named Vladimir Kara-Murza, is famous. In the 1990s, he was an anchorman for NTV. Then came Vladimir Putin, and away went independent media. NTV still exists, but it is another arm of the Kremlin.
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.
He worked closely with Boris Nemtsov, the liberal politician. (“Liberal” meaning democratic, pro-market, and anti-despotic.) Nemtsov held many positions, including deputy prime minister under Yeltsin.
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. It 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 many occasions, Nemtsov said, “The Magnitsky Act is the most pro-Russian law ever passed by a foreign legislature.”
He was Kara-Murza’s closest friend. He was godfather to one of his daughters. “In Russia, that makes you family,” notes Kara-Murza. For a number of years, Kara-Murza’s wife and children have lived in the United States. His colleagues thought it would be prudent not to have them in Russia. Kara-Murza thought they were being overly cautious. He doesn’t think that anymore.
On February 27, 2015, Boris Nemtsov was murdered as he walked on a bridge in sight of the Kremlin. “Who did it?” I ask Kara-Murza. He can’t tell you who pulled the trigger or triggers. But, in his mind, there is no doubt who bears ultimate responsibility: Putin and his regime.
I ask an awkward question: “Did they make a mistake? Did Nemtsov’s murder backfire on them?” Kara-Murza gives an awkward answer. They did not make a mistake, he says. “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. “He was unique. It’s hard to imagine that he can be replaced.”
Three months after Nemtsov’s murder, Kara-Murza was poisoned. One after the other, his organs shut down. The experience was, of course, terrifying and brutal. He 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, of an extremely sophisticated nature.
When he was able, he resumed his work. There was always a threat over his shoulder. In early 2016, Ramzan Kadyrov did something charming. He is the head of the Chechen Republic, and Putin’s man there. To his Instagram page, he posted a video showing two men — two Putin critics — in the crosshairs of a sniper. Those men were 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. I didn’t want to admit it, but I knew straightaway 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 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.”
Kara-Murza says he now has three birthdays: “the one my parents gave me, and the two that Dr. Protsenko has given me.”
Does he have any doubt that it was his government that tried to kill him, twice? No. This kind of poison is not your garden-variety weapon. “You can’t go into a pharmacy and buy it.” The Russian security services have been developing these poisons for years. They have used them all over the world, not just in Russia. One of their most famous hits was in London: 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 past couple of 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.
In Moscow, Nikolai Gorokhov was tossed from the fourth floor of his apartment building. He is the Magnitsky family’s lawyer. The next day, he was to make an important court appearance. He survived the fall and, at this writing, is still breathing.
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 several points.
First, Putin has control over the police, the judiciary, and the media. Good luck convicting him or his agents. Second, we should ask the old question Cui bono? Who benefits from these killings and maimings? Third, there is an unusually high mortality rate among people who oppose Putin or work as independent journalists in Russia — a mortality rate that defies any statistical model.
According to Kremlin propaganda, the likes of Kara-Murza are “national traitors.” According to the likes of me, they are Russian patriots. Kara-Murza agrees, but will not speak of himself. Instead, he speaks of Nemtsov.
“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.”
Many in the West — including President Trump — claim that Putin is popular in Russia, citing opinion polls. Those polls are farcical, says Kara-Murza: It could be bad for your health if you tell a stranger taking a poll that you oppose President Putin. Moreover, says Kara-Murza, if a leader is so popular, why does he have to censor the media, rig elections, and exile, imprison, or kill opponents?
Kara-Murza rejects, emphatically, the idea that Russians are unfit for democracy, or undesirous of it — that they like a strong autocratic hand. He regards this as a smear and a lie, cherished by those who are loath to see an open Russia.
Despite all that he has experienced, he is going back to Russia, once he regains his health. He will resume his work in his homeland. If he wanted to hang back, anyone would understand: Two poisonings is enough. If there is a third one, his doctors have told him, he won’t survive it. But Kara-Murza feels compelled to return and defend his country, as he sees it.
His wife, Yevgenia, is supportive. If you ask her, she’ll say that she knew what she was signing up for, when she married this man. He says, with a hint of a blush, “I’m grateful to have such a woman in my life.”
Before we part, I tell him how much I admire him, how astounding he is. He will have none of it. “I’m just stubborn.”