VLADIMIR KARA-MURZA – RUSSIA
“We want Russia to be a country free from fear, a country of freedom, a country of dignity.”
You worked closely and were close friends with Boris Nemtsov, then leader of the opposition and pro-democracy activist, who was assassinated in 2015. What did you learn from Boris Nemtsov? Working with Boris Nemtsov was the greatest honour of my life. Everything I learned, everything I did, everything I continue to do in Russian politics I owe to him. No less important than his political skills were his human qualities. There's this stereotype that a successful politician cannot be a decent human being – he proved that stereotype to be false. He always said what he believed, he never betrayed his principles or his friends. He always did what he knew to be right – not what was easy or convenient or profitable or safe. Boris Nemtsov was good about a lot of things and that made him so dangerous for the current regime in the Kremlin. He was an amazing communicator and was able to find a common language with a local market saleswoman in Yaroslavl as well as a US Senator in Washington. He had successful government experience, which very few of us have because of the length of time that Vladimir Putin has been in power. He was a four-term member of the Russian parliament and a very successful regional governor in the 1990s in Nizhniy Novgorod. Boris Nemtsov was of course a government minister and Deputy Prime Minister, he was a ready-made potential President, which in itself made him very dangerous for the Putin regime. He was a key advocate for targeted western sanctions in the form of visa bans and asset freezes – what we call the Magnitsky Laws – against corrupt actors and human rights abusers, in Vladimir Putin's close circle. One other thing that he was very successful at was organizing mass street demonstrations against Vladimir Putin's regime. I will never forget the last march of Boris Nemtsov's life – it was in September of 2014 – just a few months before he was killed. It was a march against Vladimir Putin's war on Ukraine. The government tried to make us think that those of us who were against the war were just a small marginal group of nobodies. Then to see the tens of thousands of people – the unending sea of faces and flags and people all the way down Moscow's Boulevard ring – who came out to say “No, not in my name” to reject Putin's aggression, to reject the war in Ukraine. For all of these reasons, Boris Nemtsov was the most effective, the most prominent and frankly the most dangerous political opponent to the Putin regime. He could not just stand by and idly watch what was happening. He could not be bought, he could not be scared, he could not be compelled to leave the country and so he was silenced the only way he could be – by five bullets into his back on that bridge next to the Kremlin in February 2015. This was the most brazen, the most high-profile political assassination in the modern history of Russia and to this day, the organizers and masterminds of this assassination continue to be fully shielded and fully protected from the highest levels of the Russian state for reasons that I think are obvious for everyone. One does not investigate oneself.
Vladimir Kara-Murza at the Boris-Nemtsov-Award ceremony 2019 with the daughter of the laureate Anastasia Shevchenko and Zhanna Nemtosva.
What remains of his legacy today? After Boris himself was killed, the Russian authorities continued to fight him – even in death. They continued to fight his legacy – time after time they denied petitions to install even a small plaque at the site of the murder, they sent the police and municipal services to pillage the makeshift memorial that exists on that bridge near the Kremlin, where people continue every single day to this day to bring fresh flowers and light candles in memory of Boris Nemtsov. Time after time they have been letting us know that they will not allow us to commemorate a Russian statesman in Russia and so we went to free countries, to democratic countries to ask them to do what we for now are unable to do at home. I am proud that today Russian embassies in Washington, Vilnius, Kiev and Prague stand on squares that are named after Boris Nemtsov. Every time I speak at these unveiling ceremonies, I always say the same thing: To me as a Russian politician and a Russian citizen, there can be nothing more pro-Russian than to name a street in front of the Russian embassy after a Russian statesman. I have no doubt that one day Russia will be proud as a nation, as a country, as a state that our Embassies in these four cities – and hopefully many other world capitals are standing on streets and in squares that are named after Boris Nemtsov. These designations send a very powerful message of solidarity and support to those of us in Russia who continue to stand up for the values and principle that Boris Nemtsov believed in, that he lived for and that he gave his life for. But the best tribute of Boris Nemtsov will be when Russia finally becomes the country which he always wanted to see and always believed Russia could be: a free, modern and hopeful country, a European democratic country. We continue to the best of our ability to carry on that vision and to continue this work. When that day finally comes this will be the best possible tribute to the legacy and the memory of Boris Nemtsov. As a human rights defender and a liberal politician – what kind of Russia do you envision and fight for? In one of his interviews shortly before he was poisoned with chemical weapons by Russian FSB officers in the summer of 2020, Alexey Navalny was asked by a journalist what program the opposition has and what kind of Russia it wants to see. I suppose the journalist was expecting a long detailed and drawn-out response about programs and policies. But Navalny responded with one simple phrase: “We want Russia to become a normal European country”. To anybody who knows Russian history and Russian culture and who follows Russian politics this short answer embodies so many things at once. We want Russia to be a country where human rights and human dignity are respected, where people actually have a say in the running of their state, where the judiciary works independently and issues decisions in accordance with the law not in accordance with phone calls that they receive from higher-ups. We want Russia to be a country, where the media, including the national television channels, are free to speak the truth and are free to criticize the government, where people can exercise their basic civic and political rights including the right to freely demonstrate and to freely voice their grievances without fear of being beaten up or detained and arrested and losing their jobs or being expelled from universities. In short, we want Russia to be a country free from fear, a country of freedom, a country of dignity, a country like most other countries on the continent of Europe. This goal may seem far-fetched and over-optimistic today but I'm a historian by education and I know that every time major political change came to Russia, it came suddenly and unexpectedly, including for the participants of this change. This is how it happened in 1905, in 1917 and in 1991, when one of the most horrific repressive regimes in the history of humanity collapsed in three days. To many people, the Putin regime seems solid, it seems unshakable, it seems firmly in control. The truth is, this regime is weak and insecure. Everything it does comes from fear and insecurity. The reason Putin has not allowed a single free and democratic election in the 20 years that he has been in power, is because he knows that the result would not be what he and his regime wants. This is why the only method that they still have to keep their power is through coercion and repression – this is why opponents of the regime are being murdered or poisoned, why we have hundreds of political prisoners, why opposition parties and opposition politicians are in most cases not allowed to even participate in the elections. But even when real opponents are removed from the ballot, very often pro-Putin, pro-regime candidates still lose to no names and technical spoilers because so many Russians are looking for ways to send a message that they have had enough. The restlessness and the public fatigue with Vladimir Putin are undeniable, especially among the young generation. We saw this in the mass nationwide demonstrations in support of Alexey Navalny this year. This growing public fatigue is manifested even in the opinion polls – however difficult it is to speak about opinion polls in an unfree authoritarian society when many people lack access to objective information and many more fear giving an open and honest response about their attitude. Despite all these caveats, we see in the recent polls both by the independent Levada Center but also by government polling agencies, that Putin’s United Russia Party is polling in the 20s – just a few weeks ahead of the parliamentary election scheduled for September. We know that there are millions of people in Russia who believe in our vision of a free modern and democratic country, who fundamentally reject Putin, Putinism and everything they represent – both in the domestic repression, the external aggressiveness and the unthinkable levels of nepotism and corruption. What does it mean to be a human rights defender in Russia today, with the repressive laws that are being passed daily? It is not easy to be in opposition in Russia today. We know what can happen to those who publicly oppose Vladimir Putin, we know that Boris Nemtsov was murdered in plain sight of the Kremlin, we know that Alexey Navalny was poisoned with chemical weapons by officers of the FSB, Russia’s federal security service. I myself have twice been the target of such assassination attempts, by the same FSB squad as investigative journalists at Bellingcat have found out and published. They identified not only the specific unit but also the specific officers who are responsible for the poisonings. This is also the reality of Vladimir Putin's Russia: that in a European country in the 21st century there is a professional squad of assassins in the employment of the state whose job it is to physically liquidate political opponents of the government. This is the reality we are living in and we know that there are nearly 400 political prisoners in Russia today, according to the Memorial Human Rights Center. We know it is not easy or convenient or safe to be in opposition, but we know it is the right thing to do and so we will continue. I spent 15 years working alongside Boris Nemtsov and one of the main principles by which he lived and which he tried to teach and pass on to us is this old principle from French literature: “Do what you must and come what may” – in other words you must always do what is right – regardless of the benefits and also of the dangers. This is what we try to do to the best of our ability. We care about our country, we love our country and it deserves so much better. You survived two assassination attempts on your life and continue to spend a lot of time in Russia. Why is it important for you to continue your fight from within the country? Many people have asked me why I’m still in Russia after two assassination attempts by poisoning. Why did Alexey Navalny return to Russia after he was poisoned? The answer is very simple: because Russia is our country and because we are Russian politicians – and Russian politicians have to be in Russia. The biggest gift we could give to Putin would be to give up and run away. I returned home to Russia after the poisoning as soon as I was physically able to stand up and walk. Ever since the Soviet times, the authorities came to a very clear conclusion that the most effective way to neutralize political opponents was to exile them because once a political opponent is outside of the country he or she very quickly loses not only the sense of reality, but also the moral right and moral credibility to continue. You cannot sit somewhere in a faraway safe place and call on people to do something. So although they want us to leave and to run away, this is not going to happen. Because Russia is our country, because we care about it, because we care about its future and because we know that Russia deserves better. For the sake of the future of our country, we have to continue. I have absolutely no doubt that the day will come when Russia becomes a normal, modern, democratic European country - that respects the rights of its own people and that behaves as a responsible citizen on the international stage. Everything we do in the Russian democratic opposition today aims to bring that day just a little closer.
Vladimir Kara-Murza is one of Russia’s most well-known opposition politicians, a human rights defender and a pro-democracy activist. He has become one of the most vocal critics of Vladimir Putin. He was a long-time colleague of then Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated in 2015 and chairs the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom.