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Kara-Murza's Powerful Words in Pretrial Detention - Courtesy of The Washington Post

Updated: Aug 17, 2023


PRETRIAL DETENTION CENTER NO. 5, MOSCOW — Among the most difficult aspects of imprisonment — after forced separation from family and the daily humiliation of not being able to control your own movements, except for walking back and forth in a tiny prison cell — is the inability to see or speak to people you care about.

So it was a special treat for me when the First General Court of Appeals in Moscow, which on July 31 finalized my 25-year prison sentence for speaking out against Vladimir Putin and his war on Ukraine, decided to open its doors for the announcement of the ruling. I couldn’t speak to anyone from my glass cage surrounded by police guards and court bailiffs, but for the few minutes it took the presiding judge to read out the (predetermined) decision, I could see the faces, smiles, tears and thumbs-ups of my friends, colleagues and supporters, as well as journalists and diplomats who packed the courtroom. This was the first time I had seen most of them (except for the handful who were witnesses at my proceedings) since my arrest in April 2022 and my trial at the Moscow City Court, which was held entirely behind closed doors.

The secrecy was explained by the “classified” status of my case (a self-evident absurdity given that all my “criminal episodes” were my public speeches that are readily accessible online). The real reason — as prosecutor Boris Loktionov candidly stated at the appeals hearing last month — was “to prevent Kara-Murza from using the court as a political platform and publicly calling our president, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, a murderer.” Well, he said it himself.

At the start of this process, I expected my experience to be similar to that of the dissidents of the 1960s and 1970s whose struggles against Soviet totalitarianism I have studied and documented. But Russia’s regress under Putin has taken a much more dramatic pace. From the total secrecy of the proceedings to the three-judge panel that seemed to intentionally echo the “troikas” of the 1930s to the language of the prosecutor, who called me “an enemy that must be punished,” my trial had much more in common with the handling of “enemies of the people” under Joseph Stalin than of dissidents under Leonid Brezhnev. The sentence completed the parallel: Before me, the last time political prisoners in this country had received 25-year terms was at the end of Stalin’s reign.

Even the wording of the verdict seems to be taken directly from that era. In 1937, my grandfather Alexei Kara-Murza — also a journalist and historian — was arrested and sent to the gulag for “expressing hostility towards the leaders of the party and the government.” One of my “crimes” detailed in the sentence was “making hostile statements about the representatives of the state authorities including the President of the Russian Federation.” The rhymes couldn’t be more deliberate. But then again, it is hardly surprising that someone who began his rule by reinstating the Stalin-era national anthem is using Stalin-era methods against his opponents. In Russia, symbols speak louder than words.

The aim of the Kremlin’s campaign of punishing enemies (to borrow the words of my prosecutor) is also the same as it was under Stalin: to instill fear in Russian society and to paralyze its will to challenge the regime. Alongside my friends and colleagues in the courtroom last month were propagandists from state media outlets who made sure to break the news of the ruling as loudly as possible — as they did with Alexei Navalny’s 19-year sentence, which was announced Aug. 4. But beyond Navalny and me, there are hundreds of political prisoners in today’s Russia, now in nearly every region of the country; and the fastest-growing segment among them are opponents of Putin’s war on Ukraine. Repression and fear are the only way the Kremlin is able — for now ― to keep significant antiwar sentiment in Russian society from translating into open protests.

My lawyers tell me about their conversations with cabdrivers in Moscow — usually a good gauge of public opinion in any country. Most of them are against the war. When my lawyer asked one of them why he isn’t doing anything about it, he responded: “Haven’t you heard about the guy who got 25 years for speaking out?”

“I have,” she said with a smile.

Some people in the West are asking why more Russians aren’t protesting against Putin and his brutal war. Perhaps, a more apt observation would be that — given the circumstances and the cost — so many Russians are. According to human rights groups, since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, nearly 20,000 people have faced police detention across Russia for antiwar protests. Not a week goes by without another arrest, indictment or sentencing of antiwar protesters. Artists and journalists, politicians and priests, lawyers and police officers, students and railroad workers: Russians of different backgrounds and vocations have refused to become silent accomplices to Putin’s war, even at the cost of personal freedom.

It is my hope that when people in the free world today think and speak about Russia, they will remember not only the war criminals who are sitting in the Kremlin but also those who are standing up to them. Because we are Russians too.


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