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Russia’s Leading Dissident Is Serving 25 Years in Prison. Now, His Wife Is Taking Up the Fight

11 minute read

On the same stage where her husband, the prominent Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza, was honored for his courage years earlier, Evgenia Kara-Murza took the floor. She was addressing the 15th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy in Geneva, Switzerland, on Wednesday to speak about her husband—the political prisoner Russian President Vladimir Putin fears most—and others fighting against authoritarian regimes around the world. Had Evgenia’s husband not been sentenced to 25 years in a penal colony a month earlier for his vocal opposition to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, perhaps he would have been there with her. It is the longest sentence handed down to a Putin critic to date.

Since Vladimir’s detention last year, Evgenia has taken up the mantle of his activism, traveling around the world to speak out against his detention and the crimes of Putin’s authoritarian regime. Despite her high-profile role, Evgenia insists that, unlike her husband, she is no politician. “I have no such ambition whatsoever,” she says. “I never wanted to be a public speaker. I never wanted to be a public figure. I was happy working from home, being there for the kids when they came from school.”

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

TIME caught up with Evgenia on the sidelines of the summit to discuss her and her husband’s activism, the toll it has taken on their family, and whether she can envisage a future in a free, democratic Russia.

TIME: Since your husband’s detention in April 2022, you’ve been traveling around the world calling for Vladimir’s freedom. You’ve also vocally criticized the Russian government and its ongoing war in Ukraine. Have you taken up the mantle of his activism?

Evgenia Kara-Murza: Not fully, because Vladimir is a politician. First and foremost, he’s a politician and I believe that one brilliant politician is enough for our family. He has a very clear vision of what Russia can offer to the world as a democratic country, of how to build democracy in Russia.

But I took up his work speaking on behalf of political prisoners, calling for sanctions. And as a Russian citizen, I’m devastated by the war and I will do everything—I will talk about it and talk about it again. I will call on politicians not to allow Vladimir Putin to get away with it, not to allow him any victory in this war. Not to force or coerce Ukraine to donate part of its territory to the Russian Federation to appease, yet again, a dictator who can never be appeased. Appeasement doesn’t work. Vladimir Putin is a bully. He behaves like a bully. He’s always behaved like a bully. And in the past, he’s tried his hand at these same crimes that he’s now committing on a large scale.

What we’re witnessing today was inevitable; it was an absolutely inevitable thing. All those years of impunity have led to this; all those years of Vladimir Putin believing that he could commit a crime and get away with it and commit another one and get away with it. I believe that in these circumstances—when the war is raging, when tens of thousands of people are being killed in Ukraine, when tens of thousands of people are arbitrarily detained in Russia—Vladimir’s work cannot stop. He has been speaking on behalf of political prisoners in Russia for many years before becoming a political prisoner himself. So I have to continue making sure that these voices are heard, that their stories are known, that the world understands that not the entire Russian population stands behind Vladimir Putin and his vision.

I believe that these voices need to be heard, and I continue as best I can. I don’t have the skillset. I don’t have the knowledge. The first public speech that I ever made, I made last year when Vladimir was arrested.

You say you don’t have the skills, but as your friend, the Putin critic Bill Browder, recently wrote in TIME, you speak with the same charisma and moral authority as your husband. That comes across here in Geneva, as well.

I think it’s my fury and adrenaline speaking. I’ve been living on adrenaline for over a year now. I sometimes stop and wonder how long can a person live on pure, concentrated adrenaline? I don’t know. After Vladimir’s poisonings [in 2015 and 2017 in Moscow, in purported retaliation for his anti-Kremlin activism], I lasted a year after each. When he was poised in 2015, I went to Moscow. I was there while he was in a coma, while he was being treated. Then we came back to the United States for rehabilitation. And I literally used to carry him around in my arms because he could not walk without help. He could not use a spoon. He was talking gibberish because he had a stroke while in a coma in Moscow.

I had to hold it all together. We have three kids. The oldest was nine; we had a six-year-old, a three-year-old. I had to hold it all together, and Vladimir. I think it took a year for everything to fall back into some kind of normalcy. And when I felt that everyone was okay and Vladimir was walking and talking and doing his thing, the thing that he does best, that was when I collapsed. So I think I have a delayed reaction and this has saved me before. But now it’s been over a year, so I sometimes wonder: How much time have I got?

I think you don’t know what [strength] you have until you’re faced with a situation where you don’t really have a choice other than to stand up and do something about it. And I was raised to stand up and do something. I was not raised to just sit quietly and wait for things to happen on their own. That has never been my approach to any kind of crisis. I try to think of what I can do under the circumstances, with whatever I have at hand.

It sounds like you and your husband have a really strong partnership.

I believe this is what marriage is about. Whenever Vladimir was in a difficult situation, I was there for him. And whenever I fell apart, he was always there for me, to pick up the pieces and put them together. So it has always been a partnership, and I believe that it will continue being a partnership because this is the only way I understand a marriage. Otherwise, why would you live with a person? You share everything and you’re there for each other. That’s the only way to me.

You’ve spoken a lot about the retaliation that your husband has faced from the Kremlin for his activism. Have you received a similar response? Do they also see you as a threat?

I think that the Kremlin has their hands full and they don’t really notice me running around the world and screaming. It’s mostly the statements, the efforts, the help, and the solidarity of the world with Vladimir that annoys them and that makes them maybe think twice about doing something to him. I don’t believe it’s my activity, per se. I just talk. But Vladimir has made friends all over the world all these years and they all stand in solidarity with him. They always welcome me with open arms because they know and love and respect Vladimir, and so it’s easy for me to come and speak because I’m always welcome being Vladimir’s wife.

I do receive a lot of hatred on social media. And honestly, because I’m an introverted person, because I don’t like publicity, I have never been a big fan of social media. I only use it because I have to right now to spread information. But I try not to read comments. I need the remnants of my sanity to do the work.

Where do you find those bits of sanity or peace?

My kids. They are the United States. We’ve always believed that in order for Vladimir to do his work as he saw fit, the kids needed to be safe. They were born in the States. They are bilingual: they can read and write and speak both English and Russian fluently. Russian has always been a big part of their culture and they’ve been to Russia many times. But over the years, it became apparent that it would not be safe for them there. I think [they’re] my place of strength. Going home even for a few days a month. I don’t get to spend more at home than just a few days at a time. But when I come home … that’s my place of strength.

What do your kids think of your and Vladimir’s activism?

I think they are proud, but also absolutely terrified. You see, these kids have been growing up like this. Vladimir was poisoned when the oldest one was nine. He was poisoned for the second time when she was 11. She’s now 17. Our youngest, the third one, is 11 and his father was just sentenced to 25 years [in a penal colony] in Russia. So our kids have been growing up like this, unfortunately, living in two parallel realities. One reality is where they have a home, a loving family, where they have their friends and schools and their extracurricular activities, their passions, their hobbies. And another one is where the Russian regime is consistently trying to kill their father. And their father, being a genuine Russian patriot, refuses to give up his fight and keeps on and on and on. I can only imagine how excruciatingly painful it is for them.

I will do anything to bring the father back and to make sure that our family is reunited again. I do want to show them that in order to make something happen, you have to fight—you have to go to war, in a way. And I think that Vladimir, somehow amazingly, manages to teach them a lesson as well, even from behind bars. A lesson about always fighting, never giving up without a fight, and always being prepared to stand up for what you believe in and to know that there are risks involved.

Do you see a future where you and your family will be able to return to Russia?

If Vladimir survives and the regime in Russia collapses, I know 100% that Vladimir will want to be a part of a new and democratic system in our country. I know that he will be one of those willing to undertake the impossible task of rebuilding a country from scratch and making it into a democracy. Because I’m still very much in love with my husband, I think [laughs] I will have to tag along.

I don’t know what our kids will choose to do. We want them to have all the opportunities in the world, all the possibilities. I’m very happy that they’re growing up in the United States. I’m very happy that they are bilingual. Their understanding of the world is definitely more profound. We want them to choose their own path, and we have always tried to create opportunities for that.

Obviously, we will never try to force our kids to move back to Russia with us. We want them to have this possibility, and in order for them to have this possibility, Vladimir has been fighting for a different Russia that would be safe to go to for our kids as well as many, many people. I will stand by him.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Write to Yasmeen Serhan at yasmeen.serhan@time.com