Interview with Evgenia Kara-Murza, wife of jailed Russian opposition leader

Tuesday 29 November 2022

Evgenia Kara-Murza is the wife of Russian political activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, who is currently imprisoned in Russia on charges of treason. In this interview with James Lewis, IBA Director of Content, she discusses the repressive Putin regime, her husband’s and her own activism, and continuing the fight in the darkest of times.

James Lewis (JL): You speak on behalf of your husband, who's in prison. Perhaps you can just start by telling us a little bit about his remarkable bravery in standing up to the Putin regime.

Evgenia Kara-Murza (EKM): His remarkable bravery is nothing new to me or to people who know him. He's been fighting the Putin regime since Vladimir Putin came to power. He was twice poisoned, in 2015 and 2017, and now he's in prison, facing up to 24 years for denouncing the war in Ukraine, for organising an event in support of political prisoners at Moscow's Sakharov Centre in October 2021, and for making three public speeches.

The first was about the illegitimate character of the recent constitutional reform that basically allowed Vladimir Putin to make himself into a tsar, the second about mass political persecution in Russia and the third about censorship: how the media space in Russia has been purged of any independent outlets and how crucial it was to make sure that the Russian population had access to independent media.

Now that [my husband] is in prison, I have to stand up and continue his work

He's a warrior and a true patriot. I could not be prouder of my husband. He's prepared to risk a lot to continue this fight, to bring down the regime in Russia and to bring change to our country.

JL: You mentioned Sakharov briefly. How important are figures like Andrei Sakharov and Boris Nemtsov as inspirations to you and your husband?

EKM: They are figures that my husband deeply respects and admires. He is not only a historian and a politician, he’s also a filmmaker. His first documentary, ‘They Chose Freedom’, is about Soviet dissidents, including those seven who went out into Red Square in 1968 to protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The second documentary, ‘Nemtsov’ is about Boris Nemtsov.

Vladimir [Kara-Murza] worked with Boris from 18 years of age. And he personally knew many Soviet dissidents. These people have all showed him that the fight is still possible in the direst of circumstances.

JL: What else are people like him, you or other pro-democracy activists doing to oppose Putin?

EKM: He has been involved in international advocacy for the introduction of Magnitsky legislation and Magnitsky- targeted sanctions against the Putin regime since 2010. It was already clear by then that there was no rule of law and no independent justice left in Russia. And so they decided to look for justice elsewhere, because these people – Putin's officials and oligarchs – have been stealing from the Russian population for two decades, and hiding all this stolen loot in Western banking systems while violating the rights of Russian citizens back home. The Magnitsky sanctions are a very powerful instrument in ending this impunity.

In 2015, Boris Nemtsov paid the ultimate price for his advocacy when he was assassinated 100 yards away from the Kremlin wall. Now that my husband is in prison, I realise how important it is for the current Russian regime to silence all the voices that oppose the regime, that denounce the war and denounce the war crimes committed by the Russian army on the territory of Ukraine. And this is why I cannot allow this to happen.

JL: You won't be silenced. You've received the Václav Havel Award [on Vladimir Kara-Murza’s behalf]; you've spoken there. You're going to keep speaking out in every forum you can.

EKM: I believe that publicity is my strongest weapon. Well, actually, it's my only weapon.

I know how important it is for the regime to portray Russian society as a big monolith that stands behind Putin and his policies. This has nothing to do with reality, because over 19,000 people have been arbitrarily detained across the country since 24 February, there have been over 4,000 administrative cases and at least 355 criminal cases, including against my husband, initiated against all those people who chose to go out and protest or denounce the war in Ukraine or spread information about what is actually happening in Ukraine, what is actually being done by the Russian army in Ukraine.

According to Memorial, Russia's most respected human rights group, the number of political prisoners in the Russian Federation has reached [at minimum] 500. I know that these people need a voice, and my husband has been the voice of political prisoners in the Russian Federation for many years. And now that he's in prison and he's become a political prisoner himself, of course I have to stand up and continue his work.

REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Memorial to Boris Nemtsov in the center of Moscow, Bolshoy Moskovretsky Bridge, Russia. February 25, 2018, Russia, Moscow.

JL: How corrupt is the Russian government, in your view?

EKM: It's 100 per cent corrupt. These people have been stealing from Russian taxpayers for over two decades.

We need to realise that the full-blown war of aggression [in Ukraine] is the result of over two decades of impunity that this regime has enjoyed while violating the rights of Russian citizens and carrying out other military campaigns: the war in Chechnya, the invasion of Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, the bombing of Syria. So in Putin's warped mind, if he can annex Crimea, why can't he go and annex the rest of Ukraine? If he can bomb civilians in Syria without any serious repercussions for himself or the regime that he's built, why can't he do the same in Ukraine? It’s pretty logical in his very warped, imperialistic mind.

The regime is very much afraid of its own people

JL: How low would you say Putin’s support is?

EKM: The results of opinion polls that have been showing overwhelming support for Putin and his war have been carried out in a near totalitarian state by state-controlled pollsters. I am absolutely certain that these results of opinion polls cannot be seen as reliable.

In the absence of free media, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of association and all other freedoms that the Russian population has been deprived of, it is really very hard to correctly assess the state of Russian civil society. But I can only say that the numbers of protesters, of those who have been arbitrarily detained, I think, point to millions of people who are against the war but are afraid to speak out. But that certainly does not mean that the majority of the Russian population supports the war.

JL: Do you feel that the Kremlin and Putin are concerned by growing discontent, particularly amongst the younger generation throughout Russia?

EKM: Absolutely. Hundreds of thousands of Russians have been forced to leave the country fearing persecution. This is why the regime is using mass repression, torture and punitive psychiatry to silence those who protest inside the country because the regime is very much afraid of its own people.

JL: I'd be interested in your views on the role of the Russian media, particularly since the invasion of Ukraine.

EKM: Putin knew what he was doing when he came to power. He was a KGB officer, and the only thing a KGB officer knows how to build is a gulag.

Putin began his rule by closing down one independent TV channel after another. By 2003, there were no major independent TV channels available to the majority of the Russian population – who still rely on TV as the main source of information. In bigger cities, you have access to internet, but deeper into the regions, there is no internet.

Since 24 February, the independent media space in Russia has been basically purged

These people have been subject to propaganda since 2003. By 2003, by closing down one independent TV channel after another, Putin created a vacuum, filled it with propaganda, sat back and waited for it to take root. And of course, over 19 years, this message sank in: Russia is this great country surrounded by enemies, everyone out there wants to see Russia on its knees. Everyone out there hates us. That's 19 years of propaganda, of hearing the same message again and again.


Closeup logo of Proekt Media, an independent Russian media specialising in investigative journalism, july 19 2021.

Since 24 February, the independent media space in Russia has been basically purged. The remaining three big media outlets – Dozhd TV that only operated online, the Echo of Moscow radio station and Novaya Gazeta [newspaper], have all been either closed down by the authorities or forced to suspend their activities. Countless numbers of journalists are forced to leave the country – all these journalists need help and support to continue their work, because they are the ones countering the propaganda messages dispersed and disseminated by Putin’s propaganda machine.

All social media platforms have been blocked: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. And over 100,000 internet resources and media resources have been blocked by the Russian authorities. Those resources were spreading information about what was happening in Ukraine. Those people living in bigger cities who have access to internet are trying to get access to independent, objective information. They're installing VPN services to circumvent the blockade there. It is so important for journalists to continue their work because there is a demand for independent, objective information in Russia.

I do believe that providing the Russian population with independent media is one huge factor that will bring closer the downfall of the regime. Another is, of course, Ukraine's victory in this war, and Ukraine's victory on Ukraine's terms. It means that there can be no narrative about Ukraine donating part of its territory to Russia to appease Vladimir Putin – he will not be appeased.

Another is sanctions. Sanctions are extremely important and they're effective. And again, the Russian propaganda wants the West to believe that those economic sanctions are not effective, that they're not crippling Russia's economy. It is not true. The Russian statistics agencies have stopped publishing data pertaining to different industry sectors and this shows that they actually have something to hide. And so, these sanctions should continue and they should become stronger because this will make it costlier for the regime to continue the war.

Another crucial factor that I think would bring forward the downfall of the regime is support and solidarity with that part of Russian civil society that continues opposing the regime both inside the country and outside. They need support and the solidarity of the Western democratic world.

Hundreds of thousands of Russians have been forced to leave the country fearing persecution

JL: Are there specific laws being passed by the Russian parliament that you feel are particularly repressive and problematic?

EKM: Yes. Nine days after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine broke out, the so-called Russian parliament adopted new legislation on dissemination of ‘fake’ news about the use of Russian armed forces in Ukraine. So basically, anyone who says anything against the war or even calls this so-called ‘special operation’ a war, can receive a prison sentence. Also, the legislation against ‘foreign agents’ is being widely used against human rights activists and against journalists. There's also legislation on extremist organisations and undesirable organisations.

JL: Going back to the Magnitsky Act, there are some countries taking very active approaches to what's going on in Russia and with Putin specifically. Are there things that you feel the international community is not doing that they could be doing?

EKM: Thirty-six countries now have Magnitsky legislation. And these sanctions have proven to be very effective because not only do they bring accountability to human rights violators, they also send a very powerful signal to Russian civil society that the global democratic West sees a difference between people and the regime.

I believe those countries that do have the Magnitsky legislation should coordinate their efforts in sanctioning these people. We’ve seen the situation when some people are sanctioned by the United States, but not by the European Union. Some are being sanctioned by the European Union, but not by Canada. There should be synchrony in applying Magnitsky sanctions because this way these people would be prevented from moving their assets from one country to another. And this legislation should be adopted by other countries.

The war against Ukraine began in 2014 when Crimea was annexed. Very strong, powerful sanctions should have been introduced back then. Maybe then we would have been able to avoid the full-scale invasion that brought about the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians and the displacement of millions of Ukrainians. I do believe that what we're seeing today in Ukraine is the result of over two decades of impunity, and I believe that this impunity led to Putin believing that he could get away with pretty much anything. If somehow he is allowed to freeze that war in Ukraine, he will then regroup and in a couple of years attack Moldova or one of the Baltic states or someone else. A bully will continue doing what he is doing until he is stopped and until he's punished for his crimes.

JL: Does the issue of political prisoners need to be at the top of the international agenda?

EKM: I believe that the issue of political repression should be at the top of the agenda, not only political repression in Russia, but in so many other countries, so many other regimes are using political repression against their own populations. In very many cases, leaders in the West are silent for different reasons. Sometimes it's because they are naive enough to believe that if they go ahead and offer a compromise, maybe the regime will somehow change itself – which never happens. And other leaders in the West? Honestly, they just act out of their own interests and they see that money stolen in Russia and used in the West to buy vineyards and yachts and estates props up Western economies as well. This is a sad state of affairs and we should fight that as well because you see, for corruption to be exported, someone out there must be willing to import it.

JL: Thank you very much indeed for your time. It's been a pleasure talking to you.

EKM: Thank you very much.

This is an abridged version of the interview. It can be viewed in full here.