Updated: Nov 6, 2022
Hosts: Zach Johnson & Taylor Ham, February 9, 2022
Zach: Welcome to another episode of the Slavic Connexion. My name is Zach Johnson. I'm here with my colleague and co-host Taylor Ham, and today we’re talking with Vladimir Kara-Murza. Mr. Kara-Murza, welcome.
Vladimir Kara-Murza: Well, thank you so much for having me. It's great to join you guys for this conversation.
Taylor: To begin, I wanted to ask your thoughts on the current state of the [Russian] opposition — where it's headed, what trends you see coming up…
Zach: Yeah, as much as you can generalize. What is the current state of the opposition in Russia now, after the parliamentary elections of this previous fall [of 2021]?
Kara-Murza: Let's settle on terms before we even start this subject, because, you know, the term opposition usually comes from democratic systems. Oppositions usually sit in parliaments and television studios, they take part in elections and so on. In my country, most prominent leaders of the opposition are either dead, exiled, or in prison.
Boris Nemtsov, who was the leading political opponent of Vladimir Putin, former Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, and who was assassinated literally under the walls of the Kremlin nearly seven years ago in February of 2015 — in one of his last interviews, he was sort of asked the same question, something about the opposition or him being an opposition leader, and he broke off the journalist and said, “Please don’t call me ‘opposition leader,’ call me ‘a dissident,’” and he said it for that precise reason, because the term “opposition” comes from democracies. I don’t think it’s really applicable to the kind of political system we have in Russia today.
To the substance of your question, though, sometimes for people outside, people in the West, it's difficult for them to notice the fact that there even is an opposition in Russia, the fact that there are people who who oppose the current regime, because Vladimir Putin and his massive, well-oiled, well-financed, well-developed propaganda machine are doing their best to try to pretend that there is no opposition to Putin’s rule in Russia, that everybody loves him, everybody supports him — and that's, of course, what every dictatorship does. If you look at these so-called election results that the world’s dictators produce, it’s usually 99.9%. This is what happened in Soviet times, is what you see in countries like North Korea and so on because they want to maintain this pretense that they’re universally loved and admired by the people. Of course, I don’t need to say that that’s nothing to do with reality.
Beyond this façade of unanimity and popular support created by Putin's regime, there are many people in Russia who fundamentally oppose what’s happening to and in our country today; what’s been happening in our country for more than two decades now since Vladimir Putin has been in power; [many people] who fundamentally reject Putinism in all of its aspects, both in the domestic and foreign policy. Domestic aspects include autocracy, corruption, kleptocracy, “rule by thieves,” classic definition from ancient Greece. This is exactly what we have in Russia today, the people who are in power are stealing from our country and from our people. There’s a lack of alternative, a lack of political competition, a lack of political pluralism. You know, you can get years in prison for taking part in a peaceful opposition rally. And that's not the worst that can happen if you oppose the regime.
And, of course, I don't need to tell you about the foreign policy aspects of Putin’s dictatorship. An aggressive stance, neo-imperialism, trying to reconquer some of the territories lost with the collapse of the Soviet empire — very prominently, we see this today with what’s happening on the borders with Ukraine, and there are many, many people in Russia who fundamentally reject this system and this worldview and we want our country to be different. You know, one of the most prominent leaders of the Russian opposition today, anti-corruption leader Alexei Navalny, who is, of course, in prison as we speak, and who was poisoned in 2020 by a special death squad that operates within the Russian FSB, the Federal Security Service, was giving an interview a couple of years ago, I guess on Echo of Moscow Radio, which is the last major remaining independent media outlet in Russia, and he was asked by the journalist, you know, “What’s the opposition’s program? Let's say you come to power tomorrow. What are you going to do?” I suppose the journalist was expecting a long, drawn out, detailed response with, I don't know, policy proposals or whatever. Navalny just responded with one sentence, he said, “We want Russia to be a normal European country.”
I travel a lot around Russia. I’m a Muscovite myself, I live in Moscow, but we are the largest country in the world, and so I do travel a lot around the regions and speak with people, and especially among the young people in Russia, there is a growing sense of — not so much even perhaps political opposition, but just restlessness, because we've had one man in power for 22 years and counting, and this is simply not normal. You know, we have an entire generation in Russia who have no other political memory than Vladimir Putin and his regime. We have people in Russia who were born, went to kindergarten, went to school, went to college and now, you know, are entering their adult professional lives, and all this time one man has stayed in power. You in America have had five presidents of different political parties all that time that we've just had this guy, and so there's a growing realization that this… this has to change. Of course, the problems with systems like we have is that they do not allow for change at the ballot box. Whatever criticism you can have towards your political leaders, you have an opportunity every four years to come and peacefully change them in the ballot box. We do not have that opportunity, and history shows that very clearly. Before being a politician and journalist, I'm actually a historian by education. History shows very clearly that, in countries where governments cannot be changed at the ballot box, they are sooner or later changed on the streets, and I think this is the only way forward that's possible for us in Russia.
Zach: On that note, of those who do oppose Putin, what are your views on the other parties? There’s United Russia, but how do you view LDPR, how do you view the Communist party? I think as “Russia-watchers,” we kind of tend to think of them as public parties of the state, playing a certain role in the political theater of Putin’s Russia, but then we do see situations like in Khabarovsk in 2021, with Mr. Furgal, and this incredible outpouring, and the sheer disdain that it seems the [political] center and United Russia had for this figure of a different party. So, in that sense, it seems that there is a role for these — I’m not going to call them “opposition parties” after your previous response, but these… other parties — but then, at the same time, they can simply be an item of political theater in Putin’s Russia as well.
Kara-Murza: So, you know, there are always well wishers, or wishful thinkers, I should say, in the West, who try to find something good in every new Kremlin leader that comes to power. You know, decades ago when Yuri Andropov, longtime head of the Soviet KGB, became general secretary — this was in the early 1980s — he was somebody who had epitomized the worst of the worst of post-Stalin Soviet political repression. He put dissidents in prison, in psychiatric hospitals, he was one of the people behind the invasion of Hungary 1956 and so on — but, you know, those Western wishful thinkers tried to find something good about him. There were these rumors spread that, you know, he secretly listened to jazz. He liked French cognac, or something.
So, when Putin came to power, more than two decades ago now, it was pretty clear to everybody, certainly to many of us in Russia, just who this guy was and what his policies would be, but of course, you know there were the wishful thinkers in Western capitals who said, “No, but look, this guy spent seven years of his life in Germany. Surely something must have rubbed off on him.” Well, something certainly did. The problem was, it was the wrong Germany. He was stationed in Communist East Germany, the so-called German Democratic Republic, and the political system, the party system, that Vladimir Putin created in Russia today, to go to your question, strikingly resembles the system they had in Communist East Germany because unlike the Soviet Union, which was a one party state in which only the Communist Party existed and nothing else, East Germany, on paper, was a multiparty system. They had, of course, the ruling party, the Socialist Unity Party, but they also had the Christian Democrats, they had the Liberal Democrats, they had God knows who else. Of course, this was all a shell. In all the important questions — in fact, in all the questions — these so-called alternative parties unanimously voted in favor of whatever the regime proposed.
This is exactly the system we have in Russia today. On paper, our so-called parliament, the Duma, now includes five political parties. Such a step forward for democracy after the so-called elections in 2021. But, of course, if you look at all the important votes in the Duma, they go unanimously in favor of what the Kremlin wants, or nearly unanimously. There's sometimes very few exceptions, such as the one vote in opposition of the annexation of Crimea in 2014, or eight votes in opposition on the blanket ban on adoptions of Russian orphaned children by U.S. citizens, back in 2012, but these are small exceptions. Generally, all these so-called opposition parties are in complete agreement with the Kremlin, and this is how it’s supposed to be, this is the whole nature of the system.
I'm old enough to remember what a democratic Russia looked like — when we still had independent media, we still had free elections, we still had a pluralistic parliament. This has long ceased to exist. Mr. Putin made sure of that. I think one of the best sentences that will go down to define the Putin regime in future history books was the phrase uttered a few years ago by Boris Gryzlov, current Russian ambassador in Minsk, who was at the time the Speaker of the Russian Duma. He said, and I quote, “Parliament is not a place for discussion.” This is the reality of what we’re living in. There are no genuine opposition parties — almost none, I should say, there’s one partial exception still left. There is a party called Yabloko, which is sort of a veteran pro-democracy party, the last holdover of the 1990s, our brief period of political freedom. It's the last registered opposition party that still retains ballot access, that speaks out on issues candidly, that opposes not just Putin's domestic policy but also his foreign policy, including for example, everything he’s doing towards Ukraine, and in our last so-called election, in September 2021, Yabloko was branded as a foreign agent, so we now have not just foreign agent NGOs, media outlets, journalists, individuals. We now have foreign agent political parties, and so all of their campaign literature, all the leaflets, you know, T-shirts, newspapers or their YouTube ads, whatever, everything had to be labeled with the slanderous designation that “this is a party that contains Candidate X, who is designated as a foreign agent,” because they have the tenacity to nominate a political prisoner as one of the candidates — actually, my good friend and colleague, Andrei Pivovarov, who is currently sitting in a detention center in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar, facing up to six years in prison for making a few Facebook posts, and this is also the reality of Vladimir Putin’s Russia today.
Zach: So you mentioned Western well-wishers, and certainly as far as the Putin government goes, this begins with Bush, the “sense of Putin's soul,” we saw the “Cheeseburger Summits” with Medvedev and Obama, and we even saw some kind of rapprochement with Biden initially. Why do our leaders seem to have, if we can set aside naivete, why do they have this… almost burning desire, it seems, to try to engage with Mr. Putin after 22 years?
Kara-Murza: This is a central question, and thank you for making that point because I think it's, you know, we talk about everything that the Putin regime has done in the last two decades-plus, and continues to do. Obviously, the lion’s share of responsibility lies with Mr. Putin and his close entourage for everything that happened, but there is a role also for Western enabling, and the way that Western leaders, in particular American presidents of both political parties, have been frankly complicit in the establishment and strengthening of Putin's authoritarian regime, with all the consequences that we see from that today.
There were five different American presidents during the time that Putin has been in power. Probably not fair to include Bill Clinton, because he was a lame duck by the time Putin came in, it was his last year, so let's keep him out of this, but everybody else, to one extent or another, acted in complicity and acted as an enabler of Vladimir Putin's regime. George W. Bush, as you just alluded to, famously or infamously looked into Putin's eyes and and you know, “saw a sense of his soul” or whatever it was, Barack Obama had the “reset” — ill-fated “reset” with the Kremlin, and publicly praised Putin for the great work he's doing on behalf of the Russian people, this is a quote. On Donald Trump, I don’t know where to begin. He tried to get Putin back into the G8, publicly placated him, all the rest of it. I have to say, to a lot of people, the current U.S. administration has been a grave disappointment when it came to policy on the Kremlin. I'll just give you one one example, which I think tells a lot. In the time that Biden has been president, more than a year now, the U.S. administration has made zero designations against Putin's officials and oligarchs under the Magnitsky Act, which is a U.S. law intended to place targeted sanctions on Kremlin officials complicit in human rights abuses and corruption. There have been Magnitsky designations against individuals in a multitude of countries during this past year, you know, from Ukraine to Nicaragua to, you know, you name it, but not a single one in relation to the actual regime for which this law was intended. We see time after time, and you know, I use this term “wishful thinkers” — I think that there are stronger words that can be used. [But] it’s not a new phenomenon.
This happened, of course, in Soviet times as well, that’s where the term “fellow travelers” comes from, and we see this again today. If in the early years of Mr. Putin, some of this could sort of be, I guess, attributed to “just not enough knowledge,” or, you know, “he was only starting” — although again, let me repeat that to many of us in Russia it was clear from from the very beginning, literally from the first moment, what this man would do. One of the first things he did — Putin, that is, when he became President of Russia, was to restore the Stalin era Soviet national anthem as the national anthem of the Russian Federation. Russia is a country of symbols, and this is the most powerful one you can choose. But, let's be generous here. I guess you can say for the early years of Putin, some of these Western leaders may have just not understood him well enough. But you know, now that he’s been in power for nearly a quarter of a century, there really is no justification.
You know, there can be different reasons for this, but one of the reasons, I think, was offered very aptly several decades ago by Vladimir Bukovsky, who was a very prominent Soviet era dissident and prisoner of conscience in the Soviet Union. He once wrote that for too many Western politicians, their ability to fry their morning bacon on Soviet gas beats any kind of human rights concerns. And, you know, replace the word Soviet with the word Russian, or actually any other autocratic regime with energy resources, and that phrase rings as true today as it did when Bukovsky wrote it. You know, we don't need to go too far with examples on this, just take, uh, former Chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schroeder, who currently runs Putin’s errands, working for a million-euro-a-month salary, whatever it is, at the Kremlin-owned state energy giant Gazprom. So, I guess there's still quite a few Western politicians for whom bacon is more important than human rights… but I don't want to end this part of our conversation on a negative note. In my years now of advocacy, a lot of my work is international, I've worked, as you know, on advocating for the Magnitsky Act, not just in the US, but in many other Western countries, and I'm proud to say that almost every major Western jurisdiction now has this law in the books, not just in the U.S., but Canada, the U.K., the entirety of the European Union, Australia, just before the new year. To me, actually, the most important and the most optimistic take away of this work is that there are still enough political leaders in Western countries for whom human rights are no less important than bacon. And that, to me, is much more important and much more positive.
Taylor: I had a few questions on the issue of sanctions. For the United States foreign policy, sanctions are a huge part of our strategy. Do you think they’re working? Are they targeting the right people, the right businesses? Also, we have several Western European countries that have adopted them as part of their foreign policy tools as well. Do you see any other countries that we could bring on to maybe strengthen, their impact or strengthen how we can curb Putin's advancing into other countries and things like that.
Kara-Murza: So there are, of course, different types of sanctions. In, you know, in previous years, previous generations, sanctions would usually target entire countries. You know, if a Western democracy was unhappy with something an authoritarian regime was doing, it would place sanctions on the whole country, essentially targeting and punishing the entire population of that country, and we've seen this many times in history, but in relation to Russia, or then the Soviet Union, this was perhaps most prominent in the famous Jackson-Vanik amendment that was passed in the 1970s, in response to the restrictions on freedom of emigration from the Soviet Union, and those were general trade sanctions that targeted the entire Soviet economy, and this happened many times in history, for many other countries. The problem with such sanctions or general sanctions is, well, first of all, that they are fundamentally unfair, in my view. Why should the entire population be punished for the actions of a small, unelected authoritarian clique at the top, right? That's sort of the principal issue here, but also from a very practical standpoint, general sanctions give these dictatorships a very easy excuse to explain away the economic problems that their people are suffering from because of these regimes’ mismanagement and corruption and policies and so on. General sanctions from outsiders give these regimes an easy excuse to say, “oh, it's not because of us, it's because of the Americans over there.” So, more than a decade ago now, when the Magnitsky sanctions came into play as a tool of international sanctions policy, they absolutely revolutionized this world, because the premise of the Magnitsky sanctions is that they are by their very nature individually targeted.
Instead of going in a blanket way after an entire country or an entire population, these sanctions are fine-tuned to target specific individuals who are personally complicit in acts of human rights abuse or acts of corruption, by denying these individuals ability to get visas, own assets or use the financial and banking systems of the country that passes the legislation. Conversely to general sanctions, first of all, this is of course fundamentally just, because you're targeting the people who actually deserve it. And secondly, this is extremely effective, certainly in relation to regimes such as Vladimir Putin’s, because, you know, let's not forget Putin's regime is not just an autocracy, it is also a kleptocracy and these people who are in charge of the Kremlin today, they’ve long made a habit of stealing from our people in Russia and then stashing away and spending and investing that stolen loot in Western countries, where their money is protected by the rule of law — the very rule of law they deny their own citizens. And so there's this astonishing hypocrisy. We have the people who attack and abuse and undermine the most basic norms of democracy and rule of law in our country, and then come to enjoy the benefits and the fruits of the same notions of rule of law, democracy and human rights in countries of the West, where they have all that money, their bank accounts, their villas, their yachts, their wives, their mistresses, whatever.
And this is of course enormous hypocrisy on their part, but it also, to go back to what we were just talking about previously, is [due to] enabling, in my view, on the part of Western governments, which allow for this corrupt and dirty money to be stored in their systems, in their banks and financial institutions and so on. So, the Magnitsky Act, and Magnitsky principle, is intended to stop all that, and I have to say when we first started this work, together with the late Boris Nemtsov, the leader of the Russian opposition, he was absolutely key to convincing the American Congress to pass this law back in the early 2010s. The Obama administration was dead against it. They had the reset with Putin, as we were just discussing, and it took a lot of effort, a lot of time to convince the members of Congress to pass this legislation, and Boris Nemtsov played an absolutely central role in that process. Later, John McCain who was a co-author of the U.S. Magnitsky Act, once said publicly on the record that there would not have been a Magnitsky Act in America without Boris Nemtsov, and that is an astonishing statement from an American senator.
And I remember when we first began that work, this was 2010, people would sort of roll their eyes at us and say, “it's never going to happen, the interests are too powerful, and there's too many people who want this flow of corrupt money to continue” — and they're absolutely right, by the way, there are. But, you know, at the end of the day, when you take those arguments out into the public, there is no public argument for allowing murderers and torturers and crooks and thieves to use your banks and to get your visas. It does not exist. So, once this comes out into the public, of course, our side wins, and the Magnitsky Act was passed in the U.S. Congress in both houses with overwhelming majorities — and I don't need to tell you, not many pieces of legislation get overwhelming bipartisan majorities in this era, but the Magnitsky Act did — and then, similar laws were passed in the European countries, in Canada, in the U.K., and so on. But of course, it's not only about having the laws, it's also about implementing them, because the law itself doesn't impose any sanctions, right? The law only establishes the principles under which sanctions can be imposed, and it then falls onto the executive branch. So, in the American case, it's the State Department and the Treasury who have to make these designations, and as we have seen in this last decade now that the law has been operational, the executive branch has been really, really hesitant to actually use the authority that they have. And this is not just in the U.S., this is across the Western world. So, to answer your question, Taylor, how effective these sanctions have been, they haven't been effective, but that's only because they haven't been used — I was going to say to their full extent, but not even nearly, I mean, to the full extent does not even apply.
I mean, if you look at the list of the top, you know, oligarchs and kleptocrats around Putin, you will see that most of them, in fact, almost all of them, are still freely able to roam both sides of the Atlantic, as they do. And so, you know, for example, a year ago, in early 2021, after Alexei Navalny returned to Russia and was arrested, his team released a list of several key Putin associates and oligarchs who should be targeted by Western sanctions. Well, it’s now been more than a year, and most of those people are still nowhere to be found in any of those sanctions there. So, it's a question of political will, above all, and I think there is an important role for public opinion, for the media and for elected lawmakers for parliaments over in Europe, or for Congress here, to actually push the executive to do something about it. And we know of several examples where this has happened because of such pressure. To give you just two, Alexander Bastrykin, who is a top law enforcement official in Putin's regime, head of the investigative committee, the person who is responsible for many politically motivated prosecutions in Putin’s Russia. He was placed on the U.S. sanctions list under the Magnitsky Act directly because of congressional pressure, public congressional pressure. More recently, in 2019, one of the key organizers of the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, a close acolyte of Ramzan Kadyrov, who is the Putin appointed head of Chechnya — a man by the name of Ruslan Geremeyev, who is himself an officer in the Russian Interior Ministry, he was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury under the Magnitsky Act for his role in organizing the assassination of Boris Nemtsov. So, when there is enough public pressure, governments feel the need to act. By this stage, now that most Western countries have this legislative mechanism, it's a question of political will more than anything else.
Taylor: And correct me if I'm wrong, but the Magnitsky Act has a sunset mechanism.
Kara-Murza: The Russia-specific Magnitsky Act does not. It was permanent, the one that was passed in 2012, but the global Magnitsky Act that was passed four years later in 2016, which expanded the scope of this legislation to every country in the world — and that’s the double brilliance of the Magnitsky Act, it is both personal and global at the same time, personal in the sense that it targets individuals who are personally complicit in these abuses, and global in the sense that it doesn't discriminate between countries. And if you look at the current sanctions list that the US maintains under the global Magnitsky Act, you will find, for example, citizens of democracies, because, you know, it's not about countries, it's about individuals who are complicit in these abuses. The global Magnitsky Act did have a sunset. It was passed in 2016. The sunset was for six years. So this year it has to be reauthorized, in 2022. But I’m hopeful, even given the current, you know, not very bipartisan, let's put it mildly, atmosphere in Washington, I think this will be a rare exception and I'm hopeful and in fact confident that the global Magnitsky Act will be reauthorized.
As for the Russia-specific Magnitsky Act, it was permanent, but I remember, when it was being passed in November of 2012. Boris Nemtsov and I were sitting on the visitors gallery in the US House of Representatives Chamber in Washington, watching them vote on this bill, and, you know, when it was clear that it would pass, because you have the screen on the wall there and they show you the, you know, the vote tally, when it was clear that it would get over half the votes — and it ended up having nearly 90% of the House in favor — Boris Nemtsov turned to me and said two things which I'll never forget. He said, first of all, and I repeat this phrase often, he said, “this is the most pro-Russian law ever passed in the history of any foreign country, because it targets those people who abuse the rights of Russian citizens and who steal the money of Russian taxpayers.” And the second thing he said was that “when we have democracy and rule of law in Russia again, I will personally,” and he was speaking about himself, “I will personally come back here, to Washington, to Congress. I will thank the members of Congress for their support in this difficult time, and I will ask them to repeal this law because we will no longer have a need for it. We will have a justice system that will be able to take care of its own crooks and its own criminals.” Of course, we know that Boris Nemtsov will not be doing that, but I can tell you that, you know, if I live 'til that day, I will come to Washington. I will meet with those members who helped make this law possible, and I will ask them to repeal it.
Of course, that doesn't apply to the global Magnitsky Act. That is an instrument that is to stay there forever. Uh, a global instrument of accountability and oversight for these human rights abuses of the kind that never existed before, but I think that will now exist forever and ever.
Zach: So, we’ve painted, and you have, in your work beyond this interview, quite a vivid picture of the Putin regime, and certainly the abuses. As we're 10 years removed from the Winter Protests — and you said you're a historian by trade, which I certainly appreciate and love, and you’ve written on the 1905 Revolution and the short-lived Cadet Party — where do you believe Russia is, is if we're thinking in terms of a timeline, are we closer to a 1917? Or are we closer to another explosion, like we saw in 2011 to 2013? Where do we sit on that timeline?
Kara-Murza: That's a really important question. First of all, let me say, as a historian, the one thing that is basically impossible to do is to try to predict political developments in Russia. You know, in 1904, to go back to the period you were asking about, [Vyacheslav] von Plehve, who was tsarist interior minister, boasted of the need for “small victorious war,” in our case with Japan, to try to solve all the domestic problems of the empire, and distract, you know, the public attention away from those domestic problems. I don't think he expected that, largely as a result of that war, which turned out to be not so small and not so victorious, just one year later, Russia would be involved in a revolution, and the tsar would be forced to grant [the existence of] a Parliament, to grant press freedoms, to grant freedom of assembly, and so on and so forth. In late January, 1917, Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, was speaking to a group of young Swiss Social Democrats in Zurich, Switzerland, and he ended his speech with that famous phrase, “we old folks will not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution.” The revolution began in six weeks.
I'm old enough myself to remember August 1991, the democratic revolution in Russia, when nobody, at the beginning of August, could have predicted that the Soviet regime will not survive until the end of the month, and that one of the most horrendous and repressive totalitarian systems in the history of humanity would go down in three days. This is how things happen in Russia, so let me start with that massive caveat, that this could happen tomorrow and we wouldn't know about it, and that's important to keep in mind. And of course also, you know, I'm not a pundit, I'm a politician, and our job is not to predict, it's to prepare. It's to work for that future change, because one of the biggest problems with the fact that change comes so suddenly and unexpectedly in Russia is that nobody is ready for it. And we know all the mistakes that were made solely by the provisional government in 1917, but also, this is again something that's in my living memory, the democratic government in Russia made in the 1990s. A lot of those mistakes were not because of malice or bad intentions, but just because people were not prepared. I mean, it's difficult to be prepared when power falls on you in a matter of three days.
So, I believe, actually, and this is sort of linking up with your first question, one of the most important tasks for the Russian opposition today is to actually prepare for that future change, however unlikely it may seem today. It will come, and it will most likely come like this. Nobody will be ready for it, so we need to get those preparations now if we want to make sure the next window of opportunity succeeds.
But, to go back to your question, because I'm not dodging it — I, very often now, and you mentioned also that it's been 10 years since the Winter Protests, 2011, 2012, the biggest protests under Putin's rule and tens of thousands of people on the streets in Moscow and Saint Petersburg and other large cities to protest against election fraud — for many of us, it was a time of euphoria. And many of us, and, you know, I’m sort of ashamed to admit this now, but a lot of us thought that this will be the end for the regime. Suddenly there was this massive outburst of popular protests, which hadn't happened before under Putin. You know, for years we would be lucky to get 500 people at an opposition rally and suddenly there were 120,000 standing on Sakharov Ave. This was December 24th, 2011. Such an exponential, you know, increase in street activity, and many of us thought, “Okay, this is certainly the beginning of the end for the regime.”
Boris Nemtsov, with his wisdom and his knowledge and his experience and understanding, would sort of cool us down and say “no, this is not, it's not time yet. It's amazing that there are so many people protesting, but this is not deep enough yet in society, that critical mass of people who are needed in order for change to happen — we aren’t there yet,” he was saying 10 years ago, and you know, I would argue with him, “no, you don’t understand,” and he said no. He always said that major political changes in Russia will start happening around the mid 2020s. And he had several different reasonings for it. And this was of course, you know, many years ago, without knowing all the things that we know now, but Nemtsov was in many ways a visionary, you know, he was saying, if you look back and read his old interviews and articles, it’s striking how many things he actually got right that we see happening now. He always said that this is when major political changes will come in Russia, the mid 2020s. But you know what, that's tomorrow by historical standards, we're already in 2022. And so, you know, the more I think back to those conversations, the more I think that he was right. But then, so, all the more urgent is the task of trying to prepare for that future change, because when it will start happening, it'll be far too late to, you know, sit down and try to figure out what to do now. We need to make that figuring out now.
Zach: I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you this, having you here. We're coming up on the seven years, I believe, in a couple weeks, since Mr. Nemtsov was killed. Working so closely with him, and having such an intimate relationship with him, what is the legacy of Mr. Nemtsov now in Russia and beyond? Who was the Boris Nemtsov that you knew?
Kara-Murza: February 27th, 2015, is a day that will forever draw the line between the before and the after for so many of us. And we will have, as we do every year, we will have a memorial event. It falls on a Sunday, this year, February 27th. And of course, in normal times there would be a march of remembrance through the boulevards of central Moscow. Thousands of people. Of course now, under the pretext of COVID restrictions, they’ve banned everything, but, you know, for example, last year, despite these restrictions, thousands of people still came to the bridge to lay flowers and pay their respects, and I know that this will happen again this year. They could kill a human being, but they cannot kill his memory and his legacy. And it really drives them mad, the people in the Kremlin, that despite their best efforts, the hope that everybody just forgets and turns the page and moves on, it’s just not happening. And every year, thousands of people march, or come to the bridge in remembrance. Every day, there are fresh flowers and candles laid at that spot on the bridge, right next to the Kremlin, 200 yards from the Kremlin, where Boris was killed. The authorities have tried countless times, dozens of times, they've sent the police and municipal services to clear away the flowers, to throw away the candles, to arrest the volunteers for standing guard, and the following morning, the flowers and candles are back, because you cannot kill the memory.
And they’re trying to, you know, time after time, they have rejected public petitions to install a small memorial plaque on that bridge, they have refused a moment of silence in Parliament, even though Boris Nemtsov had been for years a Member of Parliament, so on and so forth. They're fighting a dead man. They are still fighting him after his death. And so his memory and his legacy, of course, lives on in the thousands of Russians who come to pay their respects, and the millions of Russians who share Boris’ vision for a free and democratic and European Russia, but what’s also really important for us is international solidarity. As of today, there are four world capitals — Washington, D.C., Prague, Kiev and Vilnius — that have officially commemorated Boris Nemtsov with street designations, street or park designations, in front of Russian embassies in those cities. We have worked with lawmakers in all these countries to make this happen, and every time I come to speak at these unveilings, I always say that to me, as 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. Whatever these people in the Kremlin and the Russian Foreign Ministry say and think about this today, I know there will come a day when my country is proud that our embassies in these great world capitals are standing on streets and squares that are named after Boris Nemtsov.
I think the most important way to commemorate and to honor the legacy of Boris Nemtsov will be to make Russia a country that he wanted it to be, that he lived for, and that he gave his life for — a country that would respect the rights of its own people and that would behave as a responsible player in the international community. A country that would be a little more like he was, more open, more kind, more free. And I have absolutely no doubt that that day will come, and everything that we do in the Russian opposition, dissident movement, democracy movement, whatever you want to call it, everything that we do has as its goal to try to bring that day just a little closer.
ABOUT THE GUEST
Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza is a Russian political activist, journalist, author, and filmmaker and protégé of Boris Nemtsov. He serves as vice-chairman of Open Russia, an NGO founded by Russian businessman and former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which promotes civil society and democracy in Russia. He was elected to the Coordinating Council of the Russian Opposition in 2012, and served as deputy leader of the People's Freedom Party from 2015 to 2016. He has directed two documentaries, They Chose Freedom and Nemtsov. As of 2021, he acts as Senior Fellow to the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. He was awarded the Civil Courage Prize in 2018. In April 2022, Kara-Murza was arrested on charges of disobeying police orders; later his arrest was extended after new charges of "discrediting" the military were introduced, and in October, new charges of treason were reportedly introduced against him. In October 2022 Kara-Murza was awarded Václav Havel Human Rights Prize. (Source: Wikipedia)
Read about his visit to The University of Texas at Austin in February 2022.
Check out his interview in Russian with SlavX hosts Misha Simanovskyy and Lera Toropin below:
Note: These episodes were recorded on February 9, 2022 at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. Mr. Kara-Murza appears courtesy of the Intelligence Studies Project (ISP) at UT Austin with support from the Global (Dis)Information Lab (GDIL); the Center for European Studies; and the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies (CREEES).