Vladimir Kara-Murza: The family man who has spent two years in prison

Vladimir Kara-Murza is a father to three children: two daughters and a son. He bears the exact same name as his father, who was one of the country’s most prominent journalists and a pioneer of independent post-Soviet television. As a child growing up in Russia the younger Vladimir made up stories constantly and loved to imitate politicians, a creative, energetic character who had his family constantly roaring with laughter. When he was 12 he set up a political party to defend the rights of children. He moved to London as a teenager and, at the age of 15 in 1997, stayed up all night to follow the results of the UK general election. He was a pallbearer at the funeral of the late US senator John McCain. He’s a “cat person” in contrast to his wife, Evgenia, who’s a “dog person”. He has a sweet tooth, especially when it comes to ice cream. He loves to cook.

These are just some facts about a man that the campaigner Bill Browder calls “incredible”, “the type of person that our world needs the most”. But these are not what he is known for. Instead it’s his incarceration in a Russia prison, which yesterday reached the grim milestone of two years, that has made him headline news. It’s his poisoning by Putin not once but twice. It’s also, more positively, his unrelenting pursuit of democracy and human rights, which has seen him being awarded the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize. It’s his role in the 2012 passage of the Magnitsky Act, which freezes the assets and bans the visas of Russian human rights violators.

Two years ago he was sentenced to 25 years for charges linked to his criticism of the war in Ukraine. His sentence is the lengthiest at present of any political prisoner in Russia (side note yesterday was also the two-year anniversary of the detention of Sasha Skochilenko, who was arrested for distributing anti-war leaflets in a grocery store. She is serving a seven-year sentence for that simple act). Fears for Vladimir’s life are large. His health alone is in a terrible place.

Last night at an event organised by Browder in London, spokespeople from the UK government said they’d be taking a more active role in pursuing Vladimir’s release. We hope they are true to their word and their efforts bear fruit. As we wrote yesterday up to this point the UK government’s response has been “woefully inadequate”.

At the end of yesterday’s event his mother, Elena, took to the stage. She bookended her speech with five simple words:

“Please help save my son.”

Vladimir was not in Russia when they launched their full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Just before returning there he had been in London, taking to the stage at Barbican and eating with friends at Cecconi’s, a popular Italian restaurant in Shoreditch. His life was good. He could have stayed and many begged him to do just that. But he felt compelled to return. In his words: “I’m a Russian politician. All Russians should stand up to Putin. But how can I ask others to do that if I’m too afraid to return to my own country? I must be there.”

Vladimir went back to Russia to fight for a greater cause because he felt duty-bound. We now have a duty to fight for him.

Kara-Murza’s detention, two years on: A tale of resilience amid Russian authoritarianism

Today marks two long years since Vladimir Kara-Murza, a journalist, author, filmmaker, opposition politician, husband and father of three was detained by the Putin regime.

Kara-Murza, a British citizen, had been a tireless pro-democracy campaigner and a champion of legislation that has provided for human rights violators and corrupt officials around the world to be subject to asset freezes and visa bans (Magnitsky Acts). In most of Europe, Kara-Murza is rightly lauded for his work in defense of human rights and was awarded the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize in 2022. 

But in Russia Kara-Murza is deemed a threat to Putin and his rule. That legislation he championed for is, after all, named after someone else who dared to speak truth to power: Sergei Magnitsky, who was murdered in a Russian prison after being brutally tortured for 358 days. Last year, Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years in prison. It is the lengthiest sentence currently being served by any political prisoner in Russia.

During his detention, Kara-Murza has been forced to endure deplorable conditions, solitary confinement, and ill treatment. His time in solitary confinement has been repeatedly extended for trivial reasons, such as sitting on the bed to put on shoes. He has been consistently denied access to medical care despite suffering from polyneuropathy, a condition affecting his central nervous system, which was damaged when he was near-fatally poisoned by FSB operatives on two separate occasions in 2015 and 2017. 

Due to his medical condition he should, according to Russia’s own legislation, be discharged from having to serve his sentence behind bars at all. Instead he is detained in a maximum-security prison in Siberia where he is subject to sub-zero temperatures, barely edible food, a constantly lit cell, and deprived of rest once his metal bed frame is promptly locked away at 5.20am. 

When the 25-year sentence was handed down to Kara-Murza last year, Navalny said – from his own prison cell – that the sentence was “revenge for the fact that he did not die” from the previous attempts on his life. Kara-Murza’s life is in real and present danger. 

Yet, the response of the UK government has so far been woefully inadequate. It must take urgent and decisive action, using every means at its disposal to secure his immediate release. With every passing day, the risk of him meeting a similar fate to Magnitsky or Alexei Navalny is increasing. 

Evan Gershkovich: We must be as loud as possible

This Friday, 29 March, marks the one-year anniversary of Russia’s arrest and unlawful detention of my colleague, Evan Gershkovich, of The Wall Street Journal. That’s one year that Evan has been deprived of his basic rights and confined to a cell 23 hours a day, held on a charge of espionage which he, the US government and the Journal vehemently deny. One year that his parents and his sister have been deprived of their son and brother.  And one year since a mass chilling effect descended on the foreign press corps in Russia because of this brazen assault on the freedom of the press.

Evan’s detention is a singular outrage but also part of a much broader pattern. Last year and this year have been brutal for the safety of journalists working to get the facts from dangerous places across the globe, as chronicled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and others.

Even within Russia, Evan is not alone: Alsu Kurmasheva, a Russian-American reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was seized by Russian authorities on a trip to visit her mother and has been in prison since October. Paul Whelan, of course, has been detained there for five years.

After Evan’s arrest, many news outlets withdrew to cover Russia from Berlin, Warsaw and elsewhere given that Vladimir Putin’s regime has made what you and I understand to be fair and independent reporting effectively a crime.

So we are deprived of fact-based news from a country that is central in defining the future for the USA and other democracies. If we don’t stand up and protest against the silencing of the media on such a vital story, when will we decide the time is right to be loud?

We have been making noise for a year now, to ensure we are drawing as much attention as possible to Evan’s predicament and this broader outrage. We did so in part because journalists run at the story. But we also did so because, in the very early days after Evan’s arrest, we received advice from a trusted source that there will be times to be loud and times to be quiet and this was a time to be loud. Put another way, until there is reason to be quiet – which might suggest a sensitive breakthrough is near at hand – be loud.

We also didn’t have a choice. There may be times when quiet diplomacy can be effective to resolve such hostage issues. In our case, the Russian government had publicly accused our innocent colleague of spying, a message we had to counter as forcefully and as quickly as we could.

In that, as in so many other things over the course of the past year, we were greatly aided by outside help.

The White House, the State Department and the US Senate Intelligence Committee immediately made clear Evan – an accredited reporter in Russia – is not a spy. And in the days, weeks and months that followed, we have benefitted hugely from the interest and support of other news organisations, the international community of journalists and well-wishers the world over to keep awareness of Evan’s situation high.

We know that The Wall Street Journal won’t directly negotiate his release – that is the responsibility of governments. But we are convinced keeping Evan in the spotlight will help set the stage for successful negotiations at the right time. We hope that time is very soon.

Within the Journal, we have learned that being loud is a companywide effort. I don’t think there is a department at Dow Jones & Co., the Journal’s parent, that hasn’t in some way been involved.

The company’s leadership, legal team, the newsroom and communications department would be obvious. Less so, maybe, the marketing team, which we rely on to create ads that we and other newspapers have run on milestones such as 100 days of Evan’s incarceration. Or the advertising department, which has used barter ads to push Evan’s cause on social media. Or government affairs, which has launched a campaign of awareness on Capitol Hill in Washington. Or technology and circulation, which have built a page outside of our paywall on WSJ.com so readers can learn about Evan free of charge. Or our Standards team, which ensures that our advocacy work and our news reporting are kept appropriately apart. Or our individual reporters, who have taken it upon themselves to organise runs, swims, read-a-thons and letter-writing campaigns to highlight Evan’s work and interests.

Yet we also realise all this has yet to pay the one dividend that matters: Evan’s safe return.

So on his one-year anniversary we also ask that you take the time to think of Evan, to talk about him, to amplify stories about him with the hashtag #IStandWithEvan, to explore his work at WSJ.com/evan, and to dig in with us so that the light we shine on Evan and the broader cause of press freedom is brighter than ever.

When is a landslide not a landslide?

By international comparison, Putin’s ‘win’ in the recent elections in Russia was practically marginal.

Forget the ruthless despots of yesteryear; Putin’s victory could put him in the running for the title of “Worst Dictator Ever” securing as he did, just 87% of the vote and struggling to convince a whole 13% of Russia’s population that he deserves their vote.

Putin’s efforts to reach the dizzying heights of previous autocratic excellence is not without precedent.

Nicolae Ceaușescu, the Romanian maestro of self-delusion, once claimed a staggering 98.8% approval rating from voters who seemingly found his continued leadership irresistible.

And, of course, the multiple successes of Saddam Hussein, who, not content with anything less than perfection, treated himself to not one, but two elections where he waltzed away with a cool 99% of the vote, leaving the remaining 1% presumably too busy planning their escape routes to bother casting a ballot.

Even by recent standards, Putin’s election efforts fall into the ‘must try harder’ category. Take Paul Kagame – head of state in the unquestionably safe state of Rwanda – secured an impressive 98.8% of the vote in 2017. By coincidence, his two challengers were deemed not to have met the nomination threshold by the Rwandan Electoral Commission.

And even by Russian standards, Putin is an under-achiever. The absolutely above board and beyond reproach referendum in 2014 that took place in Crimea saw the Ukranian peninsula experience a collective outbreak of Russiophilia, with a jaw-dropping 96.77% of voters deciding that annexation was their number one wish.

But of course, when it comes to precarious polls, poor Putin is but an enthusiastic amateur of electoral absurdity when compared to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un whose 2019 flawless victory saw him win 100% of the vote. Imagine that, Putin. A leader so popular that no-one felt the need to vote against you.

So, at Index on Censorship, we offer our commiserations to Putin on an election which will inevitably cause him to struggle to look his fellow dictators in the eye. But he should take heart, for in the grand tapestry of dictatorial hubris,  he may have fallen short of the coveted triple-digit approval rating, but he’s certainly earned his place in the hall of shame. Bravo!

But in all seriousness, dictators yearn for legitimacy but equally cannot resist inflating their egos with absurd election results. Putin’s 87% victory is merely the latest in a long line of autocrats entangled in their own delusions. For them, the allure of unchecked power is intoxicating, and the illusion of overwhelming support is irresistible. So they manipulate, coerce, and fabricate, all in the name of bolstering their image and maintaining their iron grip on power.

Yet, in their desperate pursuit of approval, they only reveal the hollow emptiness of their rule and the farcical nature of their so-called “elections.”

In the grand theatre of autocracy, where dictators vie for the title of “Most Absurd Electoral Farce,” Vladimir Putin may have inadvertently claimed the crown as the reigning champion of underachievement.

His inability to secure a unanimous victory serves as a glaring reminder of the limitations of his power and the resilience of those who dare to defy his iron grip.

While we chuckle at his inflated ego and his desperate grasp for legitimacy, let us not forget the sobering reality faced by millions of Russians who lack the freedom to express dissent without fear of reprisal.

We can poke fun at Putin’s absurdity but we must also reaffirm our commitment to democracy and freedom of expression, values that remain elusive for too many in Putin’s Russia.

And we stand with the 13%.