Navalny: Dissent is dangerous in Russia, but activists refuse to give up

February 25, 2024
Putin killed Alexei, says Navalny's widow
Putin killed Alexei, says Navalny's widow

MOSCOW — Following the death of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, another political prisoner is trying to keep the hope of change alive — even from behind bars.

"Freedom costs dearly," the opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza once wrote to me from a Russian prison cell.

He was quoting his political mentor, Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered in 2015 in Moscow — right beside the Kremlin.

Now Russian President Vladimir Putin's biggest rival, Alexei Navalny, is dead.

The price of political opposition has never been higher in modern Russia or the goal of change so remote.

Such is the fear of reprisal that Navalny's death did not spark mass, angry protests. Several hundred people were detained just for laying flowers in his memory.

But Kara-Murza refuses to abandon either his fight or his hope.

This week he urged opposition supporters to "work even harder" to achieve what Navalny and Nemtsov had fought for: the chance to live in a free country.

He made his own choice, long ago. "The price of speaking out is high," the activist wrote to me, soon after his arrest in 2022.

"But the price of silence is unacceptable."

Alexei Navalny, who was 47, and Vladimir Kara-Murza, 42, are very different men.

Navalny was a social-media phenomenon, a charismatic speaker with some of the egotism of a natural-born leader.

Kara-Murza is a softly spoken intellectual — more back-room lobbyist than crowd-gatherer. He's not a household name in Russia even now.

But both men shared the same drive and a conviction that Putin's Russia was not eternal and political freedom was possible.

Whilst Navalny produced video exposés of corruption at the highest level of power, Kara-Murza lobbied Western governments for sanctions to target officials' assets and cash stashed abroad.

Both have paid dearly.

In 2015, five years before Navalny was attacked with a nerve agent, Kara-Murza collapsed and fell into a coma.

Two years later, it happened again. Tests in the US confirmed he had been poisoned.

But he never stopped speaking his mind, which included denouncing Putin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Last year, Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years for treason — although the charge sheet listed nothing but peaceful opposition activity.

When Alexei Navalny chose to fly back to Russia in 2021 after an attempt to kill him, some thought him foolhardy.

Opposition figures who've chosen exile over imprisonment argue that sacrifice with no prospect of change is futile.

Navalny thought differently.

"If your beliefs are worth something, you have to be prepared to stand up for them. And if necessary, make some sacrifices," he wrote shortly before he died on 16 February.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, like Navalny, has a wife and children. He also has residency in the US and a British passport. But he never hesitated about returning to Russia.

"I didn't think I had the right to continue my political activity, to call other people to action, if I was sitting safely somewhere else," Kara-Murza wrote to me in 2022, already in prison.

For both men, it was an act of conscience.

Now one is dead and the other is locked up far from his family who've only been allowed one phone call in six months.

"I didn't speak to him myself because I didn't want to take time away from the kids," Evgenia Kara-Murza described that call.

The activist's wife allowed the three children five minutes each. "I was standing there with a timer," she said.

This week, Navalny's widow recorded a video statement urging his allies not to give up.

"I want to live in a free Russia, I want to build a free Russia," said Yulia Navalnaya, vowing to continue her husband's work.

Evgenia Kara-Murza was stunned by her bravery. "She's doing her absolute best to go through hell with her head held high and she is amazing."

But Kara-Murza's wife has taken on a demanding role of her own.

Since his arrest in April 2022, she's been traveling the world, lobbying Western officials to help her husband and other political prisoners, and denouncing Russia's war on Ukraine.

The invasion is more proof, as she puts it, of Putin's "murderous regime".

When we spoke, Evgenia was about to fly back to the US to see their children. She was then heading for London to call on UK ministers to step-up their efforts for Vladimir, a joint British-Russian citizen.

"I want them to be more forceful in trying to get him out, and demanding proper medical attention," she said.

"But making one government care about its citizen is hard these days."

Kara-Murza's persecution has continued in prison, as it did for Navalny.

The activist has been held in solitary confinement for months and allowed no personal belongings, even photographs of his children.

In January, he was moved to a new prison with tougher conditions, deprived even of his books.

His health, damaged by the poisoning, is deteriorating. Pressure for Kara-Murza's release has intensified since Navalny's death.

"The nerve damage is spreading to his right side now. It's a serious condition that could lead to paralysis," Evgenia Kara-Murza said.

This week, she got a rare sighting of her husband on video link from prison to a Moscow court. He was trying to get the Investigative Committee to open a criminal case into his poisoning.

Kara-Murza was in a black uniform that hung loose on his frame, a radical change from the Tweed jackets that were once his trademark.

But his resolve seemed firmer than ever as he urged Russians not to slump into despair.

"We don't have that right," he addressed the few supporters and reporters allowed into court, and he insisted that Russia would be free.

"No-one can stop the future."

Evgenia Kara-Murza watched that video clip from court "a thousand times".

"I think he's doing the right thing — and a great thing," she told me.

"People feel heartbroken and demoralized and those uplifting words from people who've refused to give in to pressure and intimidation are truly important."

"I'm very proud of Vladimir for staying true to himself, despite this hell."

Evgenia shares her husband's faith in the future, as well as his strength. Even now, with so many activists in prison or exile.

"What's crucially important is remaining a human being and trying to do whatever you can," she argues.

"Not giving up."

She points to the end of the USSR and the mass protests then that have always inspired her husband.

"There was nothing — until an opportunity for massive collective action appeared in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Then people went out on the streets," she said.

"We need to do everything possible to be ready for the moment when the regime shows cracks."

"For when we get that chance." — BBC

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