Boris Nemtsov speaks at a rally in Moscow in 2011. Courtesy of Voice of America.

Boris Nemtsov speaks at a rally in Moscow in 2011. Courtesy of Voice of America.

January 31, 2018

Vladimir Kara-Murza Is Not Backing Down

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Someone is trying to kill Vladimir Kara-Murza.

Someone is failing.

The Russian journalist and democratic activist, a fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin, is soft-spoken but full of life as we sit chatting about politics in the atrium of Gates Hall. Kara-Murza is in town for a screening of his documentary Nemtsov, which tells the story of slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, and in an interview with The Sun he explained the story behind the film, and what he hopes to impart on his audience.

“Boris was the best of us… so they killed the strongest,” Kara-Murza says when asked about the brazen 2015 assassination of Nemtsov that occured just steps away from the Kremlin.

Just who “they” are is left unsaid, but it doesn’t take a Kremlinologist to see a pattern emerge from the fates of Putin’s most outspoken opponents.

Before Nemtsov there was Alexander Litivnenko, a defector who wrote about Putin’s rise to power and subsequently died of polonium poison in London, and Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist critical of Putin who was murdered in her driveway, and even Ukrainian president and Putin enemy Viktor Yuschenko, who in 2004 survived dioxin poisoning.

Nemtsov was no stranger to adversity. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, he had served as the only non-Communist elected official in his home of Nizhny Novgorod and made an international name for himself as a deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin. After returning to private life in 1998, he became active in the anti-Putin movement and was arrested, and in one instance jailed, several times in the following years.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 30:  Vladimir Kara-Murza (L), speaks as Russian opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov (R) listens during a news conference on "Corruption and Abuse in Sochi Olympics" January 30, 2014 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Courtesy of Alex Wong/Getty Images

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 30: Vladimir Kara-Murza (L), speaks as Russian opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov (R) listens during a news conference on “Corruption and Abuse in Sochi Olympics” January 30, 2014 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

His death came two days before he was to lead a massive anti-war rally against Russia’s alleged involvement in Ukraine.

If “they” targeted Nemtsov because he was the strongest, then they must also fear Kara-Murza, who has survived two attempts on his life in the past three years.

It is easy to see why “they” are worried. Over the past year, Kara-Murza, who currently serves as the vice president of the pro-democracy NGO Open Russia, has showcased his documentary on Nemtsov across Europe and North America. Before he was poisoned, Kara-Murza screened the film in 11 Russian cities, and as he made his recovery his colleagues and friends continued the tour, eventually visiting 36 cities across the country.

“It was most important for me to show it to the Russian audience,” he explains, “because that’s obviously where the main reach of the Kremlin propaganda is.”

Putin, Kara-Murza says, was quick to consolidate control over the country after coming to power in 1999, and in a few short years effectively shuttered the independent media and neutralized legitimate parliamentary opposition. The institutional supports of democracy crippled as such, it fell to singular men like Boris Nemtsov to carry forward the fight.

Had Nemtsov not been killed, he very well might have been the man to take down Putin. There is more than a hint of sadness in his voice as Kara-Murza outlines the political path his friend would have potentially taken, from the Yaroslavl Oblast regional legislature in which he served at the time of his death, to the parliament in Moscow, to the presidency in 2018. But more than that, Kara-Murza says, “Nemtsov was family for me.”

The journalist laments that without Nemtsov or any other serious opposition candidate participating, the outcome of the upcoming presidential election is clear. “It is not difficult,” he stresses, “to win an election when your opponents are not on the ballot.”

Still, Kara-Murza remains positive about the future of his country. Against all odds, he explains, the generation of young people who have known no leader but the steely-eyed former KGB officer are among the most politically active and outspoken of Russians. He pointed to the protests in recent years that have rocked the Putin regime, including last weekend’s rallies in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

“It’s certainly a very worrying sign for the Kremlin,” he says of the recent protests, “and a very hopeful sign for Russia.” He points to the work his organization, Open Russia, does in the eastern regions of the country, far from the kleptocrats in Moscow — and he remains adamant that one day, Russia will have free and fair elections for a responsible, democratic government.

On the international stage, Kara-Murza sees improvement as well. Already, four nations have passed versions of the Magnitsky Act. The targeted sanctions in that legislation, Kara-Murza explains, are the most effective tools against a ruling class that “doesn’t care about Russia,” only it’s own wealth.

He raises his voice for the first time in our conversation as he decries the “ultimate hypocrisy” of the current regime. The ruling elite, he says, preach the necessity of their own rule and then rob Russians of their rights, savings and well-being.

He stresses that the Russian people are not to blame for the actions of their government, and that any sanctions should be designed so as not to harm the general populace.

By taking Nemtsov to American and European audiences, and in particular universities, Kara-Murza says he hopes to show the next generation of Western leaders that “Russia is not just about Vladimir Putin …. and the corrupt kleptocratic thugs that are currently in charge.”

He pauses, and then calls out Western politicians and pundits for conflating Russia with Putin. “No, it’s not Russia! Name it for what it is. Talk about the Putin regime.”

Boris Nemtsov, he concludes, exemplifies what is “honorable, decent, and principled” about Russia.

Despite all the trials through which he and his movement have gone, Kara-Murza shows no sign of stopping.

“People,” he says, smiling, “are finally starting to pay attention about what’s actually happening in Russia.”


Jacob Rubashkin is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He is the associate editor of The Sun and can be reached at jrubashkin@cornellsun.com.

Andrei Kozyrev is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He is the arts & entertainment editor of The Sun and can be reached at akozyrev@cornellsun.com.