- Sarah Regenford
- Correspondent in Eastern Europe
When Vladimir Kara-Murza announced his return to Moscow earlier this year, his wife Evgenia knew about the risk but didn’t try to stop it.
Russia had invaded Ukraine. Thousands of protesters had been arrested and it was a crime to call the invasion a war. Nevertheless, the activist insisted on returning to Russia.
Vladimir is an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and an outspoken critic of the atrocities committed by his country’s army.
He is imprisoned and charged with high treason. Evgenia has not been allowed to speak to him since April.
However, in a series of letters he sent me from Detention Center No. 5, Vladimir said that he had no regrets because “the price of silence is unacceptable.”
Standing against Putin was dangerous even before the invasion, but crackdowns on dissenters have intensified since then. Almost all prominent critics have been arrested or left the country.
Vladimir was twice the victim of one mysterious poisoningand now the treatment towards him is particularly harsh.
Although the allegations against him stem solely from his opposition to the war and Putin, his lawyer estimates he could spend 24 years behind bars.
“We all understand the risk of opposition activities in Russia. But I could not remain silent in the face of what is happening, because silence is a form of complicity,” he explains in a letter sent from his cell.
He felt that he could not stay abroad either. “I didn’t think I had the right to continue my political activity, to call other people to action when I was safe elsewhere.”
“I could kill him”
Evgenia found out about her husband’s arrest through a call from her lawyer, who had been tracing the activist’s phone, as he always did when his client and friend was in town.
On April 11, the phone stopped at a Moscow police station.
Finally, Vladimir was allowed to call his wife, who lives in the United States with their children, for security. He barely had time to say: “Don’t worry!”.
Evgenia smiles at the absurdity of this instruction.
Both were children during perestroika and grew up during Russia’s democratic awakening after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Vladimir studied history at Cambridge while also embarking on a career in Russian politics as an adviser to the young reformer Boris Nemtsov.
This is their longest breakup since their Valentine’s Day 2004 wedding.
The activist says the hardest part is not seeing his family. “Every day I think about her every minute and I can’t imagine what they’re going through,” he says.
“I love and hate this man for his incredible integrity”Evgenia told me on a recent trip to London.
“I had to be there with these people who took to the streets and were arrested,” referring to the many Russians who were imprisoned for opposing the war.
“He wanted to show that one shouldn’t be afraid of this evil and I respect and admire him deeply for that. And he could kill him!”
Vladimir was initially arrested for disobeying a police officer, but as soon as he was in custody, serious charges began to rain down on him.
The activist was initially accused of: “spreading “false information” about the military and the “top leadership” of Russia.
Since the beginning of the war, rights group OVD-Info has recorded more than 100 indictments under the so-called “fake news” law: a local councillor, Alexey Gorinov, was sentenced to seven years in prison in July, and activist Ilya Yashin is due to go on trial soon after he had referred to the killing of civilians in Bucha.
Vladimir’s case is based on a speech he gave in Arizona. He claimed Russia would oblige War crimes in Ukraine with cluster bombs in residential areas and “the bombing of schools and maternity clinics”.
It’s all been independently documented, but according to the indictment I’ve seen, Russian investigators believe their statements are false because the Defense Ministry “does not allow the use of prohibited means…to wage war” and insists that civilians in Ukraine ” is not a goal”.
The facts on the ground are ignored.
Another allegation stems from an event for political prisoners, where the activist referred to what Russia’s investigators are calling “allegedly repressive policies.”
He was then charged with treason last month.
To this accusation, the activist replied in his last letter: “The Kremlin wants to portray Putin’s opponents as traitors. The real traitors are those who destroy the well-being, reputation and future of our country for the sake of their personal power, not those who speak out against it.”
The charge of treason is based on three speeches abroad, including one in which Vladimir said political opponents were being persecuted in Russia.
Investigators say he spoke on behalf of the US-based Free Russia Foundation, which is banned in Russia, where any “advice” or “assistance” to a foreign organization deemed a threat to national security can be classified as treason .
“Treason by public speaking? That’s just absurd prosecution for freedom of expression. According to opinion. Not for a real crime,” argues Vadim Prokhorov, Vladimir’s lawyer, over the phone from Moscow.
Prokhorov says that at that time the activist had no ties to the foundation.
“This is a political case. They are trying to stigmatize the perfectly normal and civilized Russian opposition.”
Vladimir himself notes that the last person accused of treason for engaging in political opposition was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1974. “I can only say that I am honored to be in such a company.”
“This fight is bigger than their fears”
Evgenia finds it harder to keep calm.
It’s not the first time she’s worried about her husband. He nearly died twice in Moscow, and the cause of his poisoning has never been identified.
When she first collapsed and went into a coma in 2015, Evgenia was told that had a 5% chance of survival.
She nursed him back to health and helped him function again, including holding a spoon. He then insisted on working on his laptop from the couch, despite complaints assailing him every half hour.
“When she could walk, she packed her things and went to Russia. This fight is bigger than their fears.”
For Evgenia, that means seven years of sleeping on the phone, “I’m afraid of receiving this call him or someone else because he can no longer speak.
She hasn’t stopped her husband from going to Moscow for a long time. Her only protest was a refusal to help him pack his bags. But before his last visit, after the start of the war, Evgenia first accompanied him to France.
“I wanted the trip to be nice,” she recalls, holding back tears as she recalls long walks through the streets of Paris while she talked non-stop. “Deep down I knew what was to come.”
Since Vladimir’s arrest, Evgenia has taken on her cause: speaking out about the war in Ukraine, political repression in Russia and her husband’s fall.
On Monday, Evgenia opened Boris Nemtsov Place in London, the result of a long-running campaign by Vladimir to honor his mentor and friend.
In 2015, the prominent opposition politician was shot dead near the Kremlin in a contract killing for which the perpetrator was not caught.
“The idea is that all cars arriving at the big gate will see Boris Nemtsov’s number plate,” explains Evgenia. Her husband hopes that another Russia will one day be proud of this name.
For several years, the politician worked closely with Vladimir to pressure Western governments to sanction top Russian officials for human rights abuses. Its success enraged a political elite, who enjoyed traveling and channeling funds abroad.
In Moscow, Vladimir told me that he had come to the conclusion that these sanctions were the reason why both he and Nemtsov were attacked.
Replacing her husband costs Evgenia a lot of money, but it also keeps her on her feet.
“I’ll do what I have to do to make it returnable Children and this terrible war will end and this murderous regime can be brought to justice.”
Vladimir is not silent either.
His long, handwritten letters in prison reveal his belief that Russia is not doomed to autocracy and that not all of its residents are brainwashed Putin supporters.
He points to the many letters from supporters who openly criticize the invasion of Ukraine and the Kremlin, and from those who, despite the risk, are still protesting publicly. He urged the West not to isolate that part of Russian society that “wants a different future for our country.”
He also warns that the war in Ukraine will not stop as long as Vladimir Putin stays in power.
“For Putin, a compromise is a sign of weakness and an invitation to further aggression,” he says. “If he gets out of the war to save face, we’ll have another in a year or two”.
Vladimir tells me that he copes with imprisonment with a mixture of practice and prayer, books and letters. As a historian, he has a particular interest in Soviet-era dissidents and has been reading more about them while awaiting trial.
“His favorite toast at the time was, ‘To the success of our desperate cause!'” he writes. “But as we know, it wasn’t that desperate after all.”
Now you can receive notifications from BBC Mundo. Download and activate the new version of our app so you don’t miss our best content.