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.