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My Friend Vladimir Kara-Murza Is the Political Prisoner Putin Fears Most

20 minute read
Browder is the founder and CEO of Hermitage Capital Management and was the largest foreign investor in Russia until 2005. He is a leading campaigner to expose Russia's corruption and human rights abuses. His new book is Freezing Order: A True Story of Money Laundering, Murder, and Surviving Vladimir Putin's Wrath

When Russia invaded Ukraine last year, everyone was shocked and scared. But for me, it was deeply personal. I’ve known Putin’s murderous intent for the last two decades, and I knew how terrible this was going to be.

I had been the largest foreign investor in Russia until 2005, when I was expelled from the country and declared a threat to national security. This had been in retaliation for exposing corruption at the companies in which my fund had invested. In 2007, my offices in Moscow were raided by the Russian police, who seized all of our documents. I hired a young Russian lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky to investigate, and he discovered that the documents had been used in a complex $230 million tax rebate fraud. Sergei testified against the officers involved and was subsequently arrested, tortured for 358 days, and ultimately killed by eight riot guards while he was in Russian police custody. He was 37 years old.

Putin was directly involved in the cover-up of Sergei’s murder, and we have since discovered that Putin himself was a financial beneficiary of the fraud. For years, I’ve been screaming from the rooftops that Putin is a gangster and a cold-blooded killer. Sadly, few listened. Now, with his invasion of Ukraine, everyone is listening, and I often get invited to speak about Russia in public forums.

On March 28, 2022, a month after the war began, I was asked to give a speech at the Museum of London at a fundraiser for Ukrainian refugees. As I prepared that afternoon, I got a text from my good friend, Vladimir Kara-Murza. He was in London with his wife, Evgenia, and suggested we have dinner that night.

Vladimir is a 41-year-old dual Russian-British national and vocal anti-Putin activist who had been instrumental in helping get justice for Sergei Magnitsky. Our biggest accomplishment was the passage of a piece of legislation called the Magnitsky Act, which freezes the assets and bans the visas of Russian human rights violators. Since 2012, the Magnitsky Act has been enacted in the United States, Canada, the U.K., and 32 other countries. Vladimir and I traveled the world together for a decade, testifying in front of numerous parliaments and the U.S. Congress, advocating for the Magnitsky Act.

Putin was so upset by this new law that he made repealing it his single largest foreign policy priority. Putin is a man who has committed many human rights abuses in order to steal money. He and his cronies have accumulated enormous fortunes, and they keep those fortunes in the West. For them, but especially for Putin, the Magnitsky Act is an existential threat.

Putin hated Vladimir so much that he ordered his security services to poison Vladimir in 2015 in Russia. Vladimir suffered multiple organ failure, went into a coma, and had a stroke—but miraculously survived. So Putin tried again in 2017. Vladimir narrowly survived this attempt as well. In spite of the grave risks, Vladimir carried on standing up to Putin in every way.

That evening in London, I had a thought. It was last minute, but would Vladimir be willing to join me before our dinner at the Museum of London to share his perspective on Putin and what was going on in Ukraine?

He absolutely would.

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My wife, Elena, and I made our way to the Barbican Centre, a brutalist 1960s concrete complex located just west of London’s financial district. We navigated the confusing stairwells and corridors to reach the Museum of London, where we met Vladimir and Evgenia. After everyone settled in, I gave my speech, and when I was finished, introduced Vladimir.

He bounded up to the stage and talked about the pride he felt for the thousands of protesters in Russia who had been arrested for opposing Putin’s war. Some were arrested for the smallest of reasons: for wearing blue and yellow, or even standing on the street holding up a blank poster.

Toward the end, he said, “It is painful beyond words to see the destruction, the cluster bombing of schools and hospitals and maternity wards that the Putin regime is doing. [To witness] the war crimes, the crimes against humanity.”

The original intention was for Vladimir to speak for just a few minutes, but the audience was transfixed and he was on a roll. He ended up speaking for over twenty. Everyone in that room was moved by his bravery—but they were speechless when he confirmed that later that week, he intended to return to Moscow to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Russian anti-war protesters.

I was speechless, too. As the four of us jumped in a black taxi to make our way to dinner, I couldn’t get Sergei Magnitsky out of my head. Before his arrest, I’d begged him to leave Russia. He refused, believing the law would protect him. But it hadn’t, and he had ended up dead. I couldn’t handle another one of my friends being arrested and killed in Russia. I needed to find a way to talk Vladimir out of returning to Moscow.

Vladimir Kara-Murza with his family before his return to RussiaFamily of Vladimir Kara-Murza

As we arrived at Cecconi’s, an Italian restaurant in Shoreditch, I struggled with what to say. We sat and ordered. As our burrata and zucchini fritti arrived, I said, “Vladimir, there’s no way you can go back to Moscow. They’ve tried to kill you twice. They’ll try again—at best they’ll arrest you. And if they do, we have no leverage to get you out. Putin has gone so far off the rails that he doesn’t care what anyone thinks.”

A weary expression passed over Vladimir’s face. I’m sure every friend had said the same thing after learning about his plans to go back to Russia.

“Bill,” he said, “I’m a Russian politician. All Russians should stand up to Putin. But how can I ask others to do that if I’m too afraid to return to my own country? I must be there.”

I then tried to appeal to his sense of duty. “Politicians, media, and the public need to hear what you have to say, right now and in the future. If you’re in prison, they won’t be able to hear you.”

Vladimir shook his head. “Bill, sometimes symbols are more important.” He then told the story from 1968 when seven Soviet dissidents took to Red Square to protest the USSR’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. They were swiftly arrested, put on trial, and given long and punitive sentences—but since then they have become indelible symbols of resistance to the history of Soviet repression. To Vladimir and his colleagues in the Russian opposition, they are heroes.

I wasn’t convinced. “Don’t you think you’re being selfish?” I asked. I was willing to offend him if that’s what it would take. “’If you’re arrested, me and all of your friends will have to spend the next decade trying to get you out of a Russian prison. I don’t really want to do that, Vladimir.” Elena dug her nails into my leg under the table. “And I’m sure Evgenia doesn’t want that either.”

Read More: A Letter to the World from Inside a Russian Prison

I looked to Evgenia, hoping for support. Throughout Vladimir’s recovery, she had done everything for him. She taught him how to eat, talk, and walk all over again. One never knows what goes on between spouses, and I was hoping she would say something.

But instead, Evgenia just looked at me. She’d known what she was signing up for when she married Vladimir, and she supported his decision.

Vladimir is such a composed and gracious man that he wasn’t offended. “Bill,” he said calmly, “I don’t want you to spend your time getting me out of prison, either, but I’m talking about something far bigger than you or me.” And that was that.

Our entrees arrived. I was at a loss. As I watched Vladimir tuck into his veal Milanese, I couldn’t help but think this was one of the last good meals he’d be having for a long time.

Nevertheless, I tried to finish on a high note. My second book, Freezing Order, was due to be published in a few weeks in the U.S. Both Vladimir and Evgenia were big characters at the heart of the story. “It would mean a lot to me if you would come to the DC book launch and give a speech,” I said.

“I would be honored, Bill.”

As we parted that evening, I hoped that my dark fears about what might happen to him were overly pessimistic. Perhaps there was so much going on in Russia that the authorities there would leave him alone.

The next morning, Vladimir sent me a text thanking Elena and me for dinner. His good humor intact, he finished by saying, “Let’s do this again soon—hopefully sooner than 10 years! 😂”

That day, Vladimir and Evgenia took the Eurostar to Paris where Vladimir was giving a speech on political prisoners at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. They rented a tiny apartment in the 16th arrondissement for a few nights. On the morning of April 5, Vladimir got up early and packed while Evgenia slept. He woke her to give her a kiss and then left. A couple hours later, she got up. She was alone. She packed her own things, and left quietly for a flight back to Washington and their three children.

Vladimir landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International airport later that day. From the moment he hit the ground, I started watching the clock. All I wanted was for April 13 to arrive, the day that he would return to Evgenia in Washington.

To my surprise, Vladimir was able to go about his business unimpeded, meeting with political activists, journalists, and friends. Like every time he visited Moscow, he laid flowers on the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge next to the Kremlin. This is where the charismatic Russian opposition leader and Vladimir’s friend and mentor, Boris Nemtsov, had been gunned down by Putin’s assassins in 2015.

On April 10, I boarded a flight for New York for the launch of Freezing Order, a book that, at its heart, is all about Russian money laundering. The timing could not have been more tragically relevant. The war was now seven weeks old, and every media organization in the U.S. wanted to interview me about Russia. I did the rounds, going to CNN, Fox, ABC, MSNBC, and anyone else who would listen. I wasn’t pulling any punches, calling Putin the war criminal he is, but I was safe in the U.S.

On the other side of the world, Vladimir was doing the same thing with the same media outlets from his apartment in Moscow.

On April 10, he appeared on MSNBC with Ali Velshi. Vladimir explained the new Russian law that criminalized using the word “war” to describe Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Anyone who broke this law now faced up to 15 years in prison. Of course, during the interview, he referred to the invasion as a “war” multiple times.

When Ali Velshi asked Vladimir if he was afraid for his own safety, he repeated a version of what he’d said at dinner that night in London. “We all know the price, we all know the cost,” Vladimir said, “but there are millions of people in Russia who categorically oppose the Putin regime and everything it’s doing.”

I watched this interview, and hoped that the FSB, Russia’s security service, was so busy with the war in Ukraine that they somehow missed this appearance.

Vladimir only had three more days before he was due to leave Russia.

The following day, Vladimir gave an interview to CNN. His language was even more strident: “This regime is not just corrupt, it’s not just kleptocratic, it’s not just authoritarian. It’s a regime of murderers.”

Clearly worried, the CNN correspondent asked, “Aren’t you concerned that you will be targeted again, and potentially this time it will take, you will die?”

Defiantly, Vladimir answered, “I’m speaking to you from Moscow now. I’m a Russian politician, it’s my home country. The biggest gift we could give to the Kremlin is to give up and run.”

After this interview, Vladimir ran some errands before visiting a friend­­—the 89-year old dissident avant-garde artist Boris Zhutovsky, at his studio in Tverskoy-Yamskoy mews.

Vladimir left Boris’ studio that evening in high spirits. As Vladimir approached his apartment building, five officers in black uniforms from the Second Special Regiment of Moscow’s Main Internal Affairs Directorate rushed Vladimir, pushed him into a van, took away his phone, and drove him to the Khamovniki police station. The pretext for his arrest was that he had “changed the trajectory of his movement,” “offered active resistance,” and was “disobeying police orders.”

I immediately called Evgenia. She tried to put on a brave face. Even though we both knew how serious this was, she said that at the moment it was only an administrative offense. Before the war, the Russian authorities routinely grabbed protesters and members of the opposition, held them for 15 days, and then let them go. It had happened to Vladimir. Hopefully, this would be the case again.

From this moment, a new clock started ticking.

I headed to DC on April 14, where the book launch had morphed into an event about Vladimir. Evgenia spoke in his place, and as soon as she started, it became apparent that she had the same charisma and moral authority as her husband. In addition to giving her own heartfelt thoughts, she read a letter that he had written for this event from jail. His Russian lawyer, Vadim Prokhorov, had smuggled it out. By the time she was finished, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

As I feared, ten days after his arrest, the Russian authorities went beyond the administrative offense we were hoping for and charged Vladimir with “spreading false information” about the Russian military—i.e., calling the war a war. The “evidence” was a speech Vladimir had given to the Arizona state legislature in mid-March which was posted on YouTube. The prosecutor was asking for ten years.

Then, in July, the Russian authorities threw more charges at him, accusing Vladimir of cooperating with an “undesirable” foreign NGO, the Free Russia Foundation. This was punishable by a further six years.

Read More: Ukraine Is Our Past and Our Future

His friends and I were appalled. We scrambled for anything we could do to exert pressure on the Russian government. The first thing we thought of was the Magnitsky Act. Since Vladimir was one of the fathers of the law, it would be poetic justice if the Magnitsky Act were used to sanction the Russian officials who were now persecuting him. Together with Evgenia, we began a campaign to impose Magnitsky sanctions.

But then, in October, the Russian government went even further. They accused Vladimir of treason. The “evidence” here was three public speeches Vladimir had given denouncing the lack of political freedoms in Russia: one at the Sakharov Award ceremony at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee in Oslo, another to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and a third to the U.S. Helsinki Commission, just two weeks before his arrest. The prosecutor was now asking for 25 years in prison.

This degree of political persecution has been unheard of since the time of Stalin.

That November, Evgenia and I met in Ottawa to advocate for Vladimir at the Canadian Parliament. Former Canadian MP Irwin Cotler—who, in addition to his public service in Canada, had been Nelson Mandela’s lawyer—took us around the Canadian capital to meet the foreign minister and all the major political groups.

Between meetings, Evgenia told me that the detention center where Vladimir was being held was headed by a man named Dmitry Komnov. This was the same official who headed the detention center where Sergei Magnitsky had been tortured and denied medical care before his murder.

Komnov was already sanctioned for what he’d done to Sergei, so he couldn’t be sanctioned again. But that didn’t stop the Canadians from acting: during that trip, Foreign Minister Eva Joly announced that Canada would introduce Magnitsky sanctions in Vladimir’s case. A week later, nine officials involved in Vladimir’s persecution were sanctioned. They included the judge who approved Vladimir’s arrest, and the investigator responsible for the “treason” charge against Vladimir.

Then, on March 3, 2023, the US government imposed Magnitsky sanctions on six Russian officials involved in Vladimir’s false arrest and persecution.

On March 13, Evgenia and I met in Strasbourg, France to advocate for Vladimir at the European Parliament. One of our biggest allies, Lithuanian MEP Petras Austrevicius, organized a number of his colleagues to meet Evgenia and me at a French restaurant near the cathedral in the old town. Evgenia walked in, looking pale and distraught. I took her aside. “What’s going on?”

“Vladimir just got out of four days in solitary confinement.”

“What? What for?”

“Just to torture him.”

She told me that the cell was three meters by one-and-a-half meters, and that the bed was folded into the wall from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. The only place for him to sit was a short backless stool. The room crawled with finger-sized cockroaches.

She said, “He can’t feel his feet anymore, Bill.”

Vladimir suffered from severe nerve damage from his two poisonings. We still don’t know what he’d been poisoned with, but I have to assume it was the banned chemical nerve agent, Novichok. When Vladimir was going through his rehabilitation, the one thing he did to regain feeling in his feet was to walk on sharp shells on a beach in Virginia for hours. It was the pain that brought sensation back.

Unfortunately, we left Strasbourg empty-handed. Even though the European Parliament overwhelmingly passed a motion calling for the EU to impose sanctions on the people involved—508 in favor, 14 opposed—the EU has done nothing.

A week earlier, on March 6, Vladimir attended a pretrial hearing in Moscow. The authorities allowed the press into the courtroom, and the images of Vladimir were haunting. He looked gaunt, malnourished, and sick, but they proceeded anyway. After the hearing, his lawyer said that Vladimir had lost 40 pounds since his arrest. This was the same amount of weight that Sergei Magnitsky had lost during his detention.

At the hearing, Judge Podoprigorov, the same man who had authorized Sergei’s arrest, and was sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act, extended Vladimir’s detention for six months. He refused to hear any appeals about Vladimir’s deteriorating health.

He then announced Vladimir’s trial would be held behind closed doors. This was an obvious tactic to prevent Vladimir from seeing relatives and friends for the first time in nearly a year. (Vladimir has been denied all personal communications while in custody.) It would also cut him off from public support, journalists, and Western diplomats who had planned to attend the hearings.

On March 13, the trial against Vladimir began. He sat alone in a glass cage, holding a copy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Oak and the Calf, a book that had been banned under the Soviets. This was a clear symbol of defiance in the face of his oppressors.

Vladimir Kara Murza in Russian detention readingKornilova Daria @dnk112

As promised, there was no press, no human rights activists, no consular officials. Like in the Soviet times, there was a troika of three judges, which included the sanctioned judge, Sergey Podoprigorov.

The fix was obviously in.

On April 17, 2023, Vladimir was found guilty of treason and sentenced to 25 years in a Russian prison. This is the longest current term for any political prisoner in Russia, and is longer than the maximum sentences for rape that results in death (20 years); kidnapping (12 years); terrorism (15 years); and aggravated assault and robbery (15 years).

Before his sentencing, Vladimir read a statement to the court. Most defendants plead their innocence, but since Vladimir had committed no crime, he did no such thing. Vladimir stood by every public statement he had made for which he was being prosecuted. He proudly and fully condemned the war and the Putin regime.

Even though he was facing 25 years in prison, he finished by saying, “The day will come when the darkness over 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 still four; when a war will be called a war, and a usurper a usurper; and when those who kindled and unleashed this war, rather than those who tried to stop it, will be recognized as criminals … Even today, even in the darkness surrounding us, even sitting in this cage, I love my country and believe in our people. I believe that we can walk this path.”

The last time I saw Vladimir, at dinner that night in London, I’d told him I didn’t want to spend the next 10 years fighting to get him out of prison. But since April 12, 2022, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing and that’s what I will continue to do. Not only is he crucial to me as a friend and colleague, but it’s also vitally important to the West that he survives and is free. We’ve done an amazing job supporting the Ukrainians, but we also need to help Russians who are brave enough to stand up to Vladimir Putin. If Russia is ever going to be free, it will be led by Vladimir and people like him.

On the day of his sentencing, I gave an interview to the BBC. At the end, the interviewer asked that if I could speak to Vladimir, what would I say?

I replied, “Sit tight. We’re coming to get you.”

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