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Vladimir Kara-Murza: Our Conscience and the Living With Freedom
Only the Radical Defeat of Russia Will Open Its Future Again
Vladimir Kara-Murza, June 9, 2017. Picture: Jindrich Nosek
The sentencing of Vladimir Kara-Murza to a quarter of a century of imprisonment by a Moscow court under the orders of the regime, in accordance with the indictment of Putin’s prosecutor, is one more proof, if any were needed, of the descent of the Russian state into the most totalitarianism. The criminal against humanity Putin wants to destroy Ukraine and annihilate the Ukrainian people, but he wants to suppress all those in Russia who represent dignity and courage, which he will never have.
Vladimir is a magnificent friend, a person for whom I have unlimited admiration and esteem. He is also the most exceptional and resolute opponent of the regime. Already in 2014, with his friend Boris Nemtsov murdered on February 27, 2015, he opposed the Russian war against Ukraine and denounced its crimes. He still condemned it with the strongest possible words after February 24, 2022, when it became an all-out war and a war of extermination. Today, it is this friend that Putin wants to assassinate.
I will remember for the rest of my life that March 24, 2022, in Berlin, when we were talking to each other at a conference organized by the Zentrum Liberale Moderne. That evening we said goodbye and I knew that he would return to Russia. That evening I never found the night so dark. I had to resist my own thoughts. Even before, in Prague and Berlin in October 2021, like so many others, I had tried to dissuade him. But his determination was unshakable. He considered that his place as a political opponent and intellectual was at the side of the Russian people, whom he loved so much that he wanted a future of freedom and justice for them. This choice, of which he measured the risks, he who had survived two attempts of poisoning by the FSB, we must all not only respect, but also pay tribute to. He knew, better than we do in this West that is so often cowardly and spineless, what the “risks of public life” are, to use Hannah Arendt’s words.
Vladimir is the conscience—our conscience.
In his lectures, Vladimir always spoke of hope, but a hope that was not a kind of eschatological belief, but one that was inextricably linked to action. As late as April 10, 2023, when the prosecutor, already sanctioned by the Magnitsky laws for which Vladimir had worked tirelessly, had delivered his indictment, he uttered these unforgettable words. They must haunt us and be among the great texts that will one day be read in Russian schools and must be read now by the schoolchildren of our democracies:
“A day will come when the darkness that covers our country will dissipate. When black will be called black and white will be called white; when, at the official level, it will be recognized that two times two is always four; when a war will be called a war, and a usurper a usurper; and when those who have ignited and started this war, rather than those who have tried to stop it, will be recognized as criminals.
That day will come as inevitably as spring follows the coldest winter. Our society will then open its eyes and be horrified by the terrible crimes that have been committed in its name. It is from this awareness, from this reflection, that the long, difficult but vital road to the recovery and restoration of Russia, to its return to the community of civilized countries, will begin.”
And on April 17, the day of his conviction, he proclaimed in court: “Russia will be free. Tell it to everyone”. He embodies this freedom better than any other, and it is tied to the truth. For truth is his primary struggle, the one that ultimately holds all the others.
Truth guides his steps
He took the liberty of expressing this truth while others in the West were silent and dared to shake hands with the man who has been one of the worst criminals of the 21st century for 23 years: Vladimir Putin. Just before leaving for Moscow, he had told the truth by calling his regime a “regime of criminals” during an interview with CNN. He had pointed out the hate crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. And he had logically asked that the sanctions of the West against Putin and his followers be equal to their crimes, deploring this way of trembling that the democracies of the West had.
Only a man like him can ensure a future for Russia. Only a man like him can prevent that, even after the end of Putin’s regime, a new Russian leader will repeat the mistakes of the past. Only a man like him is able to deliver Russia from its stubbornness in the most lethal ideologies, which are the dreams of nationalism and grandeur—nightmares for the people. Because the Russian future is inseparable from his struggle, I had dedicated to Vladimir one of my papers here on what the Russian future could look like. Writing about Russia cannot be done without his inspiration.
As a historian and a politician—he once told me that he considered himself above all as such—Vladimir was aware of the fatal mistakes made in the 1990s. In a remarkable editorial in the Washington Post, he wrote: “For Russia itself, the lesson of 30 years ago is equally clear. Preoccupied by the urgent needs of political liberalization and economic reforms, the country’s democratic leaders of the 1990s neglected—through inability or unwillingness—a fundamental requirement of successful post-totalitarian transformation: a proper reckoning with the past. Unlike other countries in Eastern Europe, Russia never went through a full process of decommunization and lustration, opening the archives, disbanding the old security services, publicizing the crimes of the former regime and making it impossible for their perpetrators ever to return to positions of power. ‘We don’t need witch hunts’ was a popular argument offered at the time. The most farsighted of Russian democrats—including Bukovsky and lawmaker Galina Starovoitova—warned that the witches would soon return and start a hunt of their own. They turned out to be exactly right. One day, in some form, Russia will get another chance at democratic transition, and it is imperative that this mistake not be repeated.” The leaders of the democracies that will one day have to accompany Russia in its reform process must not give in on this point, just as they must not compromise on the punishment of the crimes of war, against humanity and genocide committed in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere.
A society of free people
I mentioned the total absence of nationalism in Vladimir. We often quote the words of Romain Gary, a French writer and Resistance fighter born in Vilnius: “Patriotism is love of one’s own. Nationalism is hatred of others.” It applies perfectly to Vladimir: while Putin plunges other nations and his own people into an abyss of destruction, Vladimir intends to restore the Russian people to dignity, which requires awareness of the crimes committed in his name. I have often discussed here the question of the individual guilt of criminals, but also the collective guilt of a whole people—that of the German people after the fall of Nazism and tomorrow that of the Russian people after the collapse of Putinism. There is no free people without this awareness of crimes, an awareness that cannot remain superficial and bookish, but must penetrate the mind and enter the innermost being of every person with a conscience. What 73 years of Sovietism and 24 years of Putinism have done is precisely to erase any possibility of a conscience. It was in fact a power politics.
The atomization of Nazi and Stalinist societies was followed by the anomia of Putin’s society. Russian society has become a lawless society, except for the one arbitrarily imposed by the authorities, and a society where a license to kill has been widely granted. It is a society where regimentation from the earliest age replaces the social bond and where early militarization propagates the cult of death. It is a society entirely turned towards the hatred of the enemy, whether this one is internal—from the LGBT person, more and more the Jew as the chief rabbi of Moscow in exile noted or the dissident, a new figure of “the enemy of the people”—or Ukrainian, since the Ukrainian person as such does not have the right to exist unless he melts into the amorphous mass of a so-called “Great Russia”.
Vladimir intends to restore the people as a society, a society based, as any society is in the true sense, on the conscience and freedom of its members. It is also a society that recognizes the other as an equal, not as an inferior to be dominated. Vladimir has never considered, unlike other nationalists, that Russia has any ontological superiority over Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus or any other state of the former Soviet empire. If he demands that the Russian people come to the awareness of crimes, it is also because he considers that there is no Russian superiority, or even Russian exceptionalism. Russia must only become a normal country which, in the immediate future, must pay for its crimes. The future of the Russian people, if there ever is one, will be based on the humility that befits free nations.
Vladimir Kara-Murza and Nicolas Tenzer, Warsaw, October 5, 2021
Hope with intelligence
Vladimir had one regret, which he expressed clearly in court on April 10, that he had not managed to convince enough people inside, but probably even more outside, of what Putin’s regime was up to: “I blame myself for only one thing: during my years of political activity, I have not managed to convince enough of my compatriots and enough politicians from democratic countries of the danger that the current Kremlin regime represents for Russia and for the world.” Again, in a Washington Post article written shortly after Joe Biden’s election, he repeated the words that so many of us had uttered: “Domestic repression is always followed by foreign aggression.” He added: “Appeasement is not only morally wrong but practically ineffective.” This was also the message that, almost seven years ago, I carried at the request of my Russian dissident friends. While some of the regime’s Western affiliates were pleading for the lifting of sanctions, I had to repeat what the dissidents were saying: “Don't give in! Do not yield!".
This is also what you wrote, Vladimir, in another essay for the Washington Post in August 2021, where you denounced the fear of some in the United States that the sanctions would rule out any discussion and lead to the collapse of Russia that they feared more than anything else. I sometimes fear that we have not yet emerged from this mixture of spinelessness and ignorance.
Yes, Vladimir had failed to convince and, having myself so often alerted, in parallel to him, for more than fifteen years, on the nature of this regime, I often share the same mixture of rage and feeling of guilt before what is a common failure. Why did we not succeed in convincing? And sometimes I also think that, despite the West’s still too partial halt to the Russian war against Ukraine, we have not yet won this battle.
So Vladimir is, in the middle of the night and in that cage from which he spoke and to which he alluded, moved by hope, an indestructible hope. This hope was familiar to me, so to speak. It was the one my mother spoke of, telling me what she felt deep inside, like a frail, vacillating light; in the coldness of the Ravensbruck concentration camp from which she should never have returned.
It was the hope of those who resisted Nazism and Stalinism; it is the hope of the Ukrainian fighters who are fighting for our freedom; it is the hope of the Syrians who continue to defy Assad and the Burmese who resist the junta; it is the hope of the Cubans, Venezuelans and Nicaraguans who resist oppression; it is the resistance of the Belarusians who sabotage the trains that bring the Russian death machines, as in a remake of the Battle of the Railroad that the French railroad workers fought against the German occupiers; it is the resistance of freedom fighters all over the world whose bare hands, too often, resist the assault rifles of the militias, the tanks of Tiananmen Square, the torture instruments of the jailers. It is the tragic hope of those who died and knew why; it is the glorious hope of those who saw the victory. It was the hope of Mom, who was liberated on April 30, 1945, the day she turned 25, while weighing 30 kilos, suffering from typhus and tuberculosis, in a state of near unconsciousness, but with the strength to live, and who knew, long afterwards, that it was the day Hitler died.
In Russia, too, hope will blossom again. This was the message that you carried, dear Vladimir, into the bowels of Putin’s power in the message I quoted. I saw in it an allusion to the Moorsoldatenlied, the song of the Resistance, which, according to its English lyrics, says that winter will not last forever and which, in French, states that spring will bloom again.
Vladimir’s hope, as I said, is tied to action. This action is his and that of all those, in small, fragile numbers, who still keep the flame of Resistance alive, pay tribute to the Ukrainians who fell despite all the bans and continue, day after day, to defy the authorities. They have hope, yes, but also despair. Because the fight against oppression also has its moments of discouragement. Fear is overcome, but it does not disappear. Hope is built in the midst of despair. And the duty that enjoins us is also stronger than hope—and it dominates it. I imagine, dear Vladimir, that you know this too. Because the conscience you embody is based on the injunction of a duty. As Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov reminded us in a superb and moving piece, your father also resisted Putin and your grandfather had been in Stalinist prisons.
Several times we talked about it, and I know that I often showed a growing skepticism. You know as well as I do that the evil is deep and rooted not in the alleged DNA of the Russian people, but in the mechanics of the Putin regime’s oppression. I also remember that before the total invasion of Ukraine I used to tell my Ukrainian friends that the Russian people were not lost. Sometimes, now, I am starting to have some doubts. It is not a question of blaming an imaginary Russia or a fantasized Russian people, but of trying to gauge, in the midst of uncertainty, what Stalin, the Soviet leaders, and then, above all, Putin have done to the Russian people that might be irreversible.
The victory of Ukraine—your victory and that of hope
But this hope that you tie to the action, dear Vladimir, is today a hope that must succeed in embodying also others than the Russian people, by their action. One of them is doing so in the most sublime way. It is, in fact, the Ukrainians who, through their struggle, their valor and their sacrifice, carry the future of Russia. They are the ones who are working the most for the Russian people today. They are the ones who are, in fact, the custodians of its struggle for freedom. If one day Russia becomes free, it is to the Ukrainians that it will owe it first. One day, dear Vladimir, you and all of us will celebrate Ukraine’s victory—and Ukrainians will celebrate you as the one who showed the way to freedom.
I would like to repeat the words that Vladimir’s wife, Evgenia Kara-Murza, who has his fortitude, elegance and generosity, wrote in an admirable interview with the French magazine L’Express: “We must weaken the regime as much as possible. This requires first of all unconditional support for Ukraine, which is fighting for itself but also for the democratic values of the whole world. Ukraine must receive all the support it requires and emerge victorious from this war unconditionally, without giving up a single square inch of territory to Vladimir Putin. The West should under no circumstances accept such a concession to ‘end this war’ or ‘appease’ Putin. Because satisfying dictators never leads to anything. Putin will attack again.”
True Russian democrats and liberals share the Ukrainians’ desire to radically defeat Russia. They know that this is the only condition for their freedom.
To be free today for a Russian is to be Ukrainian.
But the action that brings hope must naturally come first from the democracies. They are the ones who have the means. They are the ones who can—they could have already, I have often written—ensure the total victory of Ukraine and the no less absolute defeat of Russia. Listening to some Western officials, some of their advisors and some commentators supposedly full of diplomatic intelligence, I think that they themselves have blocked all hope. They no longer have any hope of a truly better world, no hope of defeating dictatorships, no hope, finally, in the possible goodness of human beings. They end up embodying cynicism, an attitude of deep despair transformed into a faked realism. Above all, by entering this world, they have abandoned all intelligence. Because, dear Vladimir, your hope is also linked to your prodigious intelligence. Anyone who refuses to act on the pretext that everything has already been written has, for the time being, definitively abandoned it.
To be without intelligence is, in the end, to take one’s own limitations as the absolute rule and to make them the destiny of the world. It is to take one’s own pettiness as the norm. It is to be afraid of what one cannot conceive. On the other hand, the least educated resistance fighter, perhaps barely able to read, was intelligent, because it was greatness to overcome his or her fear in the name of hope. What you show us, Vladimir, in a tireless and superb way, is that we have no right to let fear guide us, nor to reduce the world to the flaws of our intelligence. You not only teach us to think big, you help us to grow. I understand your hope for the transformation of the Russian people: you offer them the hope of being better one day, while Putin belittles them.
For do these Western leaders, whose strategic indigence has so often worried us both, have only your courage, your intelligence, your fortitude and your will? With all their weapons and their security services, will they have the same power that you had, the one to really worry the man who represents the major danger for the planet? You have already overcome where they have already failed. In a last gasp, will they finally prove themselves worthy of the fight that you embody?
May tomorrow, this conscience that you incarnate be given to them a little.
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