Evgenia Kara-Murza: Violence and fear keeping Russians from protesting
Wife of imprisoned Russian opposition politician, activist and journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, Evgenia Kara-Murza, tells ERR in an interview (speaking in English) that Russians are not turning out to protest because Vladimir Putin has managed to create an air of fear by using violence against dissidents over the last 20 years.
Evgenia Kara-Murza told ERR that her husband is facing 24 years in prison for speaking out against the war crimes, advocating for a Nuremberg-style tribunal against Russia's aggression in Ukraine, and opposing mass political repression in Russia.
He is accused of treason based on his speeches, among others, at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee award ceremony for Russian historian and political prisoner Yuri Dmitriev, and the United States Congress.
Evgenia Kara-Murza said that Russia's political repression at home and its aggression abroad go hand in hand. At least since 2003, when the last free (but not fair) elections were held, Russians have not had access to independent TV news. This means that elections have been stolen for at least the past 19 years, she said.
What is happening in Russia right now?
Kara-Murza said the situation is difficult to assess because of the lack of freedom of speech, free and fair elections, freedom of assembly and freedom of association or any other freedoms. In a democratic society with a free press, there would be legal ways to protest the criminal actions of the government, but Russia has not had these instruments for decades.
"The last wave of protests in 2021 happened in almost 300 cities. There was simply no independent press to cover it," she said.
"When the police arrest protesters, they use extreme violence, including sexual violence, and torture on a regular basis. Punitive psychiatry, which was widely used against Soviet dissidents, is now used against dissidents in today's Russia. When these things happen, the police and authorities make them public in order to deter others from following suit."
Despite such extreme penalties as Stalin-era prison sentences of 10 to 15 years for making an anti-war post online or for holding a "No War" sign on the street, people still go out to protest in Russia and that shows there is a lot of dissent in the country, she said.
Kara-Murza talked about what it means to be a dissident in Russia today: someone who opposes the entire vertical system of power, which includes all Putin's officials and oligarchs, who have been enriching themselves for 20 years of his rule, hiding that money in the Wests, squishing dissent in the country and carrying out military campaigns against their neighbors.
"This war that we are witnessing today is the result of the two decades of the impunity that Vladimir Putin has enjoyed, while committing these crimes," she said.
Kara-Murza dismissed charges over Russian society's inherent imperialism: "Talking about many people as this big monolithic mass is just wrong on so many levels. I think when an entire people is being attributed certain qualities and is then portrayed as somehow inferior, based on these qualities, is not only wrong, but we know to what catastrophic results such narratives led to in the past. I don't think there is place for such narratives in the 21st century."
"There is no people in the world that is somehow not fit for democracy," she said.
Kara-Murza went on to say that the only way she sees for Russian Federation to survive and become a democracy is to abolish the vertical power structure and establish "a natural federation where regions have their own budgets, free and fair elections, when they get to choose their parliaments and governors, as well as the ways in which the region develops and organizes trade."
"The Russian Federation has never been a federation, that's the problem," she added.
Why is not Russian society protesting in masses?
In response to this recurring question she said, "Consider what you would be prepared to give up. Would you be prepared to risk facing punitive psychiatry? How about rape? How about being deprived of parental rights, because you are considered unable to raise good Russian patriots? What would you be prepared to go through?"
Moreover, she added, the mass protest were possible in the 1990s because the regime had already been weakened, which is a far cry from the situation in Russia today: "Putin's regime is building 'gulags' all over the country. They are persecuting people for standing in the street with a blank sheet of paper. One official police report said that they were standing in the street with invisible anti-war slogans."
To bring about the change, according to her, Ukraine has to win this war on Ukraine's terms, which means that every single Russian soldier, has to leave Ukraine territory, including the illegally occupied zone, she said. "All of those responsible for the crime of aggression against Ukraine, and for committing war crimes on the territory of Ukraine, have to stand trial; this has to be done."
She emphasized that yet another key factor that would weaken the regime is the support and solidarity with that part of the Russian population that understands what is happening and is trying to fight both inside the country, where thousands are still being arrested, and those hundred of thousands of Russians who were forced to leave persecutions, and they continued their work.
Recognition of the past
The Russian people, she continued, have to go through a very difficult and very painful recognition of the past, something that should have been done in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union — not only over the last two decades now, but over the entire 70-year Soviet period.
"We cannot turn the page and establish a democratic government without this process," she said.
While the International Court of Justice would investigate war crimes and Russia's aggression in Ukraine, large-scale investigations (so-called lustrations) would have to be carried out in Russia. "These public trials would have to be carried out to help people to understand what had been done, very often in their names, what crimes have been committed, in which they have been complacent by being silent."
Vladimir Putin has made our country into an aggressor state, she said at the end of the interview, breaking into tears, "The Russian army is committing war crimes on the territory of Ukraine, killing kids, raping kids, raping women, committing absolutely atrocious crimes. I don't know, it will take decades and I don't think that my generation will see any kind of reconciliation. And that's understandable. I have no words; it's understandable."
"I am a Russian too, and I have never once shared those imperialistic views of Vladimir Putin. My husband is a Russian and he almost died twice for fighting for a different Russia. /.../ I have my colleagues, my friends in prisons in Russia or forced to flee — they are Russians too. And we fight this regime, despite all odds."
"If you ask me how I can be proud of my country: I am proud of these people," she said in reply to a question how Russians should feel now about their motherland, or what is there still to like about Russia after this war is over.
Russian people who stand by Ukraine, she said, and against the Putin regime, facing torture, repression and penal psychiatry in Russia need to be heard. "If Russia has a future, it is in the hands of these people; I believe that their struggle needs to be seen, needs to be recognized."
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Editor: Mirjam Mäekivi, Kristina Kersa