A defiant Vladimir Kara-Murza said his “self-esteem went up” after a judge on Monday announced his sentence for speaking out against the Russian government and its invasion of Ukraine: 25 years of incarceration in a penal colony, the lengthiest sentence handed down to a high-profile critic of President Vladimir Putin.
“I realized that I did everything right; 25 years is the highest score that I could get for what I did, what I believed in as a citizen, as a patriot, as a politician,” Kara-Murza reportedly told his attorney, Maria Eismont. “So, I did everything right.”
On April 10, the 41-year-old human rights activist and opposition figure was convicted of “high treason” and leading an “undesirable organization,” most likely Open Russia, a civil society group with ties to a Russian oil baron and the West. The charges are political and stem from public speeches against Putin’s war in Ukraine. Western governments condemned the sentence and conviction of Kara-Murza, a dual Russian-British citizen and Washington Post contributor who has family living in the United States.
Amnesty International calls the former politician and journalist a “prisoner of conscience” and joined a chorus of observers likening the sentence to the infamous purges under Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship of the Soviet Union. In a statement to the court later published online, Kara-Murza said the trial provided an “occasion for reflection” as a historian.
“I’ve been surprised by the extent to which my trial, in its secrecy and its contempt for legal norms, has surpassed even the ‘trials’ of Soviet dissidents in the 1960s and ‘70s,” Kara-Murza told the court. “And that’s not even to mention the harshness of the sentence requested by the prosecution or the talk of ‘enemies of the state.’ In this respect, we’ve gone beyond the 1970s — all the way back to the 1930s.”
Aside from criticizing the war in Ukraine, which is criminalized in Russia, Kara-Murza has advocated for international sanctions that personally target Russian officials accused of human rights abuses. Sergei Podoprigorov, the judge presiding over the case, was sanctioned by the U.S. under a 2016 law championed by Kara-Murza, but the judge refused to recuse himself when defense attorneys raised the issue in court.
Ruslan Shaveddinov, a spokesman for the Anti-Corruption Foundation led by jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, noted that both Kara-Murza and opposition activist Boris Nemtsov “lobbied for personal sanctions against Putin’s inner circle” in Congress and European capitals.
“Nemtsov was killed. Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years in prison,” Shaveddinov said in a translated statement. “Putin’s friends are afraid of sanctions and are willing to do anything to keep their palaces and yachts. We need more sanctions. Immediately.”
Nemstov was assassinated in 2015 under extremely suspicious circumstances, and Navalny’s health is reportedly deteriorating in a jail where he is serving a sentence on charges also dismissed by supporters and Western governments as political repression of Putin’s rival. Kara-Murza, who already survived two poisonings suspected to be the work of Kremlin agents, told the court that he knew the verdict was preordained and prosecutors were asking for the maximum sentence.
“For a person who has not committed any crimes, acquittal would be the only fair verdict. But I do not ask this court for anything,” Kara-Murza said in his statement. “I know the verdict. I knew it a year ago when I saw people in black uniforms and black masks running after my car in the rearview mirror.”
Suppression of dissent is the norm for governments at war. During the illegal U.S.-led invasion and war in Iraq, for example, antiwar voices were sidelined by a corporate media that was fed lies and misinformation by the George W. Bush administration. Federal law enforcement surveilled and infiltrated broad swaths of the antiwar movement, with infiltrators notorious for attempting to goad activists into committing crimes.
In Ukraine, political parties perceived as pro-Russian were banned at the outset of the war. Ukrainian pacificists and conscientious objectors have complained about coercive military conscription practices and crackdowns on dissent, although the country has remained largely united in resistance despite being brutalized and punished by Russia.
However, the scale of repression inside Russia is extreme, reflecting Putin’s autocratic control and his military’s embarrassing failure to subdue and capture Kyiv, which dragged beleaguered Russian forces into a devastating war of attrition with enormous casualties on both sides. As the Russian invasion floundered, the Kremlin embarked on what Human Rights Watch calls an “all-out drive to eradicate public dissent in Russia.”
Nearly 20,000 people were arrested or detained during antiwar protests in Russia, according to the human rights group OVD-Info. At least 528 people are charged with crimes associated with antiwar activism and many remain political prisoners. Last month, a Russian father was sentenced to two years in prison for social media posts after his daughter drew an antiwar picture in school.
Tens of thousands of Russians or more have fled the country to avoid military conscription and the broader crackdown on critics of Putin’s regime. Still, antiwar protests and agitation have persisted, including by clandestine acts of property destruction at military recruiting offices and supply lines feeding the war effort.
Kara-Murza, on the other hand, is a major face of the Kremlin opposition who took a very public risk by returning to Russia from abroad in order to oppose the war. In his statement to the court that was released by fellow activists, Kara-Murza said he looks forward to the day when “those who kindled and unleashed this war, rather than those who tried to stop it, will be recognized as criminals.”
“Not only do I not repent … any of this, I am proud of it,” he said. “I am proud that Boris Nemtsov brought me into politics. And I hope that he is not ashamed of me.”