- Sarah Rainford
- Correspondent in Eastern Europe
When Vladimir Kara-Murza announced he would return to Moscow earlier this year, his wife Evgenia knew of the risk, but did not try to stop it.
Russia had invaded Ukraine. Thousands of protesters had been arrested and it was a crime to call the invasion a war. Yet the activist insisted on returning to Russia.
Vladimir is a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a vocal critic of atrocities committed by his country’s military.
He is imprisoned and charged with treason. Evgenia has not been allowed to speak to him since April.
However, in a series of letters he sent to me from Detention Center No. 5, Vladimir says he has no regrets because “the price of silence is unacceptable”.
Opposing Putin was already dangerous before the invasion, but the crackdown on dissent has intensified since. Almost all prominent critics have been arrested or left the country.
Vladimir was twice the victim of a mysterious poisoningand now the treatment towards him is particularly harsh.
Although the charges against him stem solely from his opposition to the war and Putin, his lawyer believes he could spend 24 years behind bars.
“We all understand the risk of opposition activity in Russia. But I could not remain silent in the face of what is happening, because silence is a form of complicity”, he explains in a letter sent from his cell.
He felt he couldn’t stay abroad either. “I didn’t think I had the right to continue my political activity, to call other people to action, if I was sitting safe somewhere else.”
“I could kill him”
Evgenia learned of her husband’s arrest through a call from her lawyer, who had located the activist’s phone, as he always did when his client and friend was in town.
On April 11, the phone stopped at a Moscow police station.
Finally, Vladimir was allowed to call his wife, who lives in the United States with their children for security reasons. He barely had time to say: “Do not worry!”.
Evgenia smiled at the absurdity of this instruction.
Both were children during perestroika and grew up during Russia’s democratic awakening after the Soviet collapse. Vladimir studied history at Cambridge and simultaneously began a career in Russian politics as an adviser to the young reformer Boris Nemtsov.
It’s the longest separation since they married on Valentine’s Day in 2004.
The activist says the hardest part is not seeing his family. “I think of them every minute of every day and I can’t imagine what they’re going through,” he says.
“I love and hate this man for his incredible integrity”Evgenia told me on a recent trip to London.
“I had to be there with these people who came out into the streets and were arrested,” referring to the many Russians detained for opposing the war.
“He wanted to show that you shouldn’t be afraid of this evil and I deeply respect and admire him for that. And he could kill him!”
Vladimir was first arrested for disobeying a police officer, but once in custody, serious charges began to rain down on him.
The activist was first charged with “spreading false information” about Russia’s military and “senior leaders”.
Since the start of the war, the rights group OVD-Info has registered more than 100 prosecutions under the so-called “fake news” law: a local councilor, Alexei Gorinov, was sentenced to seven years in July and activist Ilya Yashin he will be leaving soon. tried after referring to the killing of civilians in Bucha.
Vladimir’s case is based on a speech he gave in Arizona. He claimed that Russia was committing war crimes in Ukraine with cluster bombs in residential areas and “the bombing of schools and maternity wards”.
It’s all been independently documented, but according to the indictment I’ve seen, Russian investigators consider their statements to be false because the Ministry of Defense “does not authorize the use of prohibited means …to wage war” and insists that the civilian population of Ukraine “is not a target”.
Facts on the ground are ignored.
Another accusation stems from an event for political prisoners where the activist referred to what investigators call Russia’s “allegedly repressive policies”.
Then last month he was charged with treason to the state.
Regarding this accusation, the activist replied in his last letter: “The Kremlin wants to present opponents of Putin as traitors. The real traitors are those who destroy the well-being, reputation and future of our country in the name of their personal power, not those who oppose it.”
The treason charge is based on three speeches abroad, including one in which Vladimir said political opponents were persecuted in Russia.
Investigators say he was speaking on behalf of the US-based Free Russia Foundation, which is banned in Russia, where any ‘consultation’ or ‘assistance’ to a foreign organization deemed a threat to national security can be called treason.
“Treason of the state through public speeches? It is simply absurd. It’s just a persecution for free speech. By notice. Not for a real crime,” pleads Vadim Prokhorov, Vladimir’s lawyer, by telephone from Moscow.
Prokhorov says the activist had no connection with the foundation at that time.
“This is a political affair. They are trying to stigmatize the perfectly normal and civilized Russian opposition.”
Vladimir himself notes that the last person charged with treason for exercising political opposition was Nobel Prize-winning writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1974. “All I can say is that I am honored to be in such a company.”
“This fight is bigger than their fears”
Evgenia finds it harder to keep calm.
This is not the first time that she is afraid for her husband. He nearly died twice in Moscow and the cause of his poisoning has never been identified.
In 2015, when she first collapsed and fell into a coma, Evgenia learned that had a 5% chance of surviving.
She nursed him back to health, helping him relearn how to function, including holding a spoon. Then he insisted on working on his laptop from the couch, despite being plagued by ailments every half hour.
“The moment she was able to walk, she packed her things and left for Russia. This fight is bigger than her fears.”
For Evgenia, that meant seven years of sleeping by the phone, “afraid to receive this call him or someone else because he can no longer speak.
She stopped persuading her husband not to go to Moscow a long time ago: his only protest was the refusal to help him pack his bags. But before his last visit, after the start of the war, Evgenia first accompanied him to France.
“I wanted the trip to be beautiful,” she recalls, fighting back tears as she recalls long walks through the streets of Paris, talking nonstop. “Deep down I knew what was coming.”
Since Vladimir’s arrest, Evgenia has taken up her cause by speaking out about the war in Ukraine, political repression in Russia and her husband’s case.
On Monday, Evgenia opened Boris Nemtsov Place in London, the result of a long campaign by Vladimir to honor his mentor and friend.
In 2015, the prominent opposition politician was shot dead near the Kremlin in a contract killing for which the perpetrator has not been arrested.
“The idea is that all cars that arrive at the big gate will see Boris Nemtsov’s license plate,” says Evgenia. Her husband hopes that another Russia will one day be proud of this name.
For several years, the politician worked closely with Vladimir to pressure Western governments to sanction senior Russian officials for human rights abuses. Its success infuriated a political elite who loved to travel abroad and funnel funds there.
Once in Moscow, Vladimir told me that he had come to the conclusion that these sanctions were the reason why he and Nemtsov had been attacked.
Replacing her husband is expensive for Evgenia, but it also keeps her on her feet.
“I do what I have to do so it can be returned children and this horrible war is stopped and this murderous regime can be brought to justice. »
Vladimir is also not silent.
His long handwritten letters in prison reveal his beliefs that Russia is not bent on autocracy and that not all of its people are Putin’s brainwashers.
He points to the large number of letters he receives from supporters who openly criticize the invasion of Ukraine and the Kremlin, and from those who still publicly protest, despite the risk. He urged the West not to isolate this part of Russian society which “wants a different future for our country”.
He also warns that the war in Ukraine will not end as long as Vladimir Putin remains in power.
“For Putin, compromise is a sign of weakness and an invitation to further aggression,” he said. “If he is allowed out of the war to save face, in a year or two we will have another”.
Vladimir tells me that he manages imprisonment with a mixture of exercises and prayers, books and letters. As a historian, he is particularly interested in Soviet-era dissidents and read more about them while awaiting trial.
“His favorite toast at the time was: ‘To the success of our desperate cause!'” he wrote. “But as we know, it wasn’t so hopeless after all.”
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