Opinions

OPINION: A Russian activist speaking out against his government – at tremendous risk

A few weeks ago, as I finished viewing the new CNN film about leading Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, my phone buzzed with yet more troubling news. Another human rights activist and Washington Post columnist, Vladimir Kara-Murza, had just been snatched up by Moscow police and summarily tossed in jail.

As Vladimir Putin’s vicious invasion of Ukraine moves into its third deadly month, I knew the news from western Europe would get more depressing. It did quickly in Kara-Murza’s case because for me, it’s now personal. I know Vladimir and knew and worked for his mentor, Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down in the shadow of the Kremlin seven years ago.

After Nemtsov’s assassination, Kara-Murza assumed the deadly mantle of helping lead the resistance to Putin’s increasingly repressive crackdown on any opposition. The former journalist and vice-chairman of Open Russia travels the globe to focus the world’s attention on Putin’s civil rights violations of Russian citizens, reinforced by his toadies in the national parliament.

For his courageous efforts, the 40-year-old Kara-Murza is widely praised in the West. Before Sen. John McCain’s passing, he asked Kara-Murza to serve as an honorary pallbearer, along with former Vice President Joe Biden and a dozen others at McCain’s 2018 memorial service.

Russia’s response has been to repeatedly jail Kara-Murza. When he didn’t go away, he narrowly survived two near-fatal poisonings, in 2015 and 2017. Those poisoning attempts were not unlike that suffered by Navalny in 2020, when Russian agents exposed him to a nerve agent known as Novichok. He survived and now is imprisoned in a Russian gulag.

On April 11, 2022 in a CNN interview, Kara-Murza said Putin’s government is “not just corrupt, it’s not just kleptocratic, it’s not just authoritarian, it is a regime of murderers.” That evening, he was confronted at his Moscow apartment by five men claiming to be police officers. When he asked to see their ID, they refused and immediately detained him for disobedience.

After a few days in jail — where he remains as of this writing — the Russian government opened a criminal case against Kara-Murza for spreading “false information.” He could face 10 years in prison.

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I first met Vladimir in 2012 as a staffer to then-Sen. Mark Begich. One of the Russian issues we worked was that of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer and whistleblower who was arrested in 2008 for exposing government corruption. He was held in a Moscow jail a year without trial and tortured to death. The U.S. Congress passed legislation named for Magnitsky that imposed sanctions on Russian officials implicated in civil rights abuses.

Putin was so angry when President Barack Obama signed the bill that he barred Americans from adopting Russian children, a regular practice.

During that time, one of the periodic Russian visitors to Begich’s Washington, D.C., office was Boris Nemtsov, a reformist regional governor for whom I volunteered as media advisor in Nizhny Novgorod 15 years earlier. Kara-Murza and Nemtsov worked tirelessly to pass the Magnitsky Act, including participating in sessions with congressional staff which I hosted.

In a thank-you note to Begich, Nemtsov wrote: “... it was especially important (and uplifting) for me to hear your clear expression of moral support and solidarity while I was being held in prison.”

Less than three years later, in early 2015, Nemtsov and his girlfriend were walking just below St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square when up to eight gunshots rang out. The 55-year-old was hit four times and died almost instantly.

I happened to be at a Moscow conference about a month later and am forever grateful I was able to join thousands of well-wishers paying my respects to Nemtsov on the Moskvoretsky Bridge where he was murdered.

Kara-Murza immediately picked up Nemtsov’s torch. In 2018, he infuriated Putin again when he persuaded the Washington, D.C., City Council to name a street and plaza directly in front of the Russian Embassy after Nemtsov.

Kara-Murza has continued to work courageously to educate average Russians about Western democracies, open elections and provide them an alternative to Russia’s government-controlled media. His task is increasing tougher as Putin’s paranoia grows with his failing invasion of Ukraine.

Just since February, Putin has proposed and the Russian parliament has passed laws blocking access by average Russians to social media and foreign news outlets, up to 15 years in prison for spreading “false information” about the assault on Ukraine and making it a crime to call the invasion a “war.” Kara-Murza himself has been added to a list of “foreign agents,” which means he is subject to stringent financial reporting requirements.

When I completed my 2017 book on Alaska-Russia relations, “Melting the Ice Curtain,” Kara-Murza contributed a cover blurb. He wrote: “... Ramseur’s book recalls a more hopeful time when Russia was striving for democratic reforms, and when U.S.-Russia relations were defined by cooperation and goodwill. It is also a valuable reminder that nothing is predetermined and that we should never cease to work for a better tomorrow.”

Every day it amazes and inspires me that Vladimir and other Russian activists can muster the courage and commitment to help fulfill that dream.

David Ramseur is a former Alaska journalist who has traveled to Russia about 15 times since 1988.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

David Ramseur

David Ramseur is a former aide to two Alaska governors and Sen. Mark Begich, and the author of “Melting the Ice Curtain: The Extraordinary Story of Citizen Diplomacy on the Russia-Alaska Frontier.”

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