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Putin’s Reign of Terror

The outrageous prison sentence for Vladimir Kara-Murza and the wider crackdown on dissent in Russia.
April 21, 2023
Putin’s Reign of Terror
TOPSHOT - Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza is escorted for a hearing at the Basmanny court in Moscow on October 10, 2022. - Vladimir Kara-Murza was jailed in April for denouncing the Kremlin's Ukraine offensive and has been charged last week with high treason - the charges which could keep him behind bars for two decades. (Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA / AFP) (Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images)

The mind-boggling 25-year sentence handed down in a Moscow court on Monday to activist and journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, one of the leading figures in the Russian opposition, is a horrifying landmark in the escalation of political repression in Russia over the past year. The grim news prompted me to rewatch Kara-Murza’s remarks at the September 2017 Oslo Freedom Forum in New York, where I had the privilege to meet this modern hero.


Kara-Murza’s remarks on that occasion were eloquent and inspiring, but they would in time also prove startlingly prophetic, and not only because his words about his murdered comrade-in-arms Boris Nemtsov—“He chose to stay, and he chose to fight, and in the end he gave his life to that fight”—are uncannily echoed in his own fate today. Everything Kara-Murza said about Putin’s Russia in 2017 is true in 2023, but much more so: “corruption, authoritarianism, and aggression,” “hysterical propaganda,” “fake unanimity.” Likewise, his reference to the time when “Vladimir Putin launched his war on Ukraine” now evokes not just the hostilities started in the spring of 2014—the annexation of Crimea and the engineering of “separatist insurgencies” in Eastern Ukraine—but actual, full-fledged war.

In 2017, despite the regime’s brutality, Kara-Murza sounded remarkably optimistic about the future of freedom in Russia. Today, his sentence is only one of the signs of a deepening darkness. One of his lawyers, Vadim Prokhorov, has fled Russia after being tipped off about a pending arrest on unspecified charges.

And just two days after Kara-Murza’s sentencing, the prosecution in another Moscow court asked for a nine-year sentence for Sergei Klokov, a former police captain who became, in March 2022, the first person charged under the then-new law against “spreading false information” about the war. The charges stemmed from Klokov’s telephone conversations with friends, some of which were apparently reported by the “friends” in question—fellow police officers—and some recorded after his telephone was tapped without a warrant. The supposedly false information Klokov was accused of spreading included statements that Russian troops were suffering heavy losses in Ukraine, that Russia was bombing cities, killing children, and destroying maternity hospitals, that there was no fascist regime in Ukraine, and that Russia had no right to invade. All these claims, the prosecutor asserted with a straight face, were recycled from Ukrainian propaganda. At this point, the only question is whether the judge will take a few months off the prosecutor’s requested sentence in a pro forma show of independence, or simply rubber-stamp it as in the Kara-Murza case.

The brutality against dissent is reaching new, only recently unthinkable lows. One particularly appalling case in the town of Yefremov in the Tula region was triggered by a 12-year-old’s anti-war drawing in an art class that showed missiles flying toward a woman and a child, a Ukrainian flag with the words “Glory to Ukraine” and a Russian flag with the words “No to Putin and to war.” A school official reported the drawing to the police. An investigation revealed that the girl’s father, Alexei Moskalyov (who was raising her alone), had previously made social media posts critical of the war; he was charged with “discrediting the armed forces” while the girl, Masha, was placed in a state orphanage. Moskalyov, who fled on the eve of his trial, was given a two-year sentence in absentia; unfortunately, he only made it as far as Belarus, where he was arrested. (Moskalyov was reportedly extradited to Russia last week, but his current whereabouts are unknown, and neither Russian nor Belarussian lawyers have been allowed to contact him.) The authorities made moves to terminate Moskalyov’s parental rights and permanently place Masha in the orphanage; while this threat was averted when Masha’s estranged mother Olga Sitchikihina agreed to take custody of her daughter, this is hardly a happy ending—given that the father is still facing time in a penal colony and that the mother promised to “knock the politics, anti-propaganda and drawings out of her.” Just how literal she was about the “knocking” is unclear, and it’s difficult to give much credence to a local official’s assertion that Masha and her mother currently have “a good relationship.”

Other cases of Russians charged with “discrediting the armed forces” range from the tragic to the farcical. An example of the latter: A 70-year-old Moscow woman, Olga Slegina, has just been fined 40,000 rubles (nearly $500, more than twice the amount of average monthly retirement benefits in Russia) for describing Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky as a good-looking man with a great sense of humor; the remark, made in the cafeteria of a health resort in response to a waitress who had disparaged Zelensky, was promptly reported to the police.

Yet one defendant accused of such an offense did get his case dismissed earlier this month. That was Yuri Yevich, a doctor who faced charges in a court in the Kaluga region after a lecture he gave to members of Rosgvardiya, the National Guard of the Russian Federation, was deemed too negative in its blunt assessment of Russian failures in Ukraine. But Yevich is a zealous supporter of the war who criticizes it for being poorly run, not for being criminal—and, as a “patriot,” he quickly drew support from high-level officials, including the governor of the region.

But wait, there’s yet another twist: Yevich is not just a war hawk but an actual, admitted war criminal. The Donbas-born doctor joined the pro-Russian “insurgency” in March 2014 and used his medical specialty to oversee the torture of Ukrainian captives, including military pilot Roman Svitan. Svitan, who was eventually freed in a prisoner exchange and who describes Yevich as a new “Dr. Mengele,” told the European edition of Novaya Gazeta that Yevich was an active participant in the torture sessions, in which his role was to assess how much pain the prisoner could stand and to revive him when he passed out. But don’t take Svitan’s word for it: Yevich confirms as much in his own 2016 memoir titled In the Trenches of Donbas: Novorossiya’s Way of the Cross, in which he refers to Svitan as a “rare piece of Ukrofaggot scum” with an usually high resistance to pain.

Twenty-five years for Kara-Murza. Two years for a single dad whose daughter made an anti-war drawing. Carte blanche for the Russian Mengele. It doesn’t get much darker than that.

But the ruthless persecution of dissent is just one of the ways in which Russia is sliding into totalitarianism. Last Friday, Putin signed a hastily passed bill that makes it much more difficult for Russian men to avoid conscription. Under this law, draft notices will not only be delivered by mail but appear in people’s accounts on a widely used state-run electronic portal for government services; more important, a digital registry of draft notices will be set up, and a notice that is either sent by mail or posted in the state portal account will be considered effective seven days after it is entered in the registry—whether or not it has been seen by the intended recipient. Men who fail to show up at the draft board office will be considered delinquent and not only forbidden to leave the country but subjected to a wide range of other penalties, including driver’s license revocation and a ban on buying or selling property.

A number of dissident Russian commentators have referred to this law as instituting “military serfdom.” The term may be especially apt given a recent report in the independent Russian media outlet Astra News that some conscripts sent to Ukraine have been “sold like cattle” to the notorious Wagner Private Military Company: The men have told their families (before their phones were taken away) that they had been delivered to a Wagner outpost and relentlessly bullied into signing contracts with the PMC.

In a report on the independent news channel TV-Rain, host Mikhail Fishman called attention to a moment during the discussion of the electronic draft notices law in the state Duma which aptly sums up the state of official political discourse in Russia today. When some deputies from the Communist Party—by another darkly ironic twist, the only opposition (however tame) in the not-yet-outlawed sector of Russian politics—spoke up against the hasty vote and suggested a separate vote on each of the clauses in the new law, the response from Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin was ominous.

“If that’s how you act in this hall, you need to ask yourself why you were elected a member of the State Duma,” Volodin told one of the troublemakers. “Was it to sabotage its decisions? . . . Why don’t you write an application [as a volunteer] and stand shoulder to shoulder with our boys?” The implication was clear: object too much, and we’ll label you a saboteur and maybe even send you to the frontlines. The law passed unanimously with one abstention.

In his 2017 remarks, Kara-Murza was still hopeful that the Russian people would soon take charge of their own destiny and stop the juggernaut of the Putin regime. Today, with the opposition crushed or driven abroad, that possibility seems not just remote but chimerical. One may applaud the desperate bravery of those who still stand up to the regime, such as the young woman arrested outside the Masha Moskalyova custody hearing for protesting with a placard that said, “Putin eats children.” One may sometimes admire their unbowed inventiveness, as when hackers got digital billboards in Yekaterinburg and two other large cities to display, for about 15 minutes, actual quotations from Russian conscripts about their use as cannon fodder. But while these signs of life are inspiring, Russian dissenters increasingly stake their hopes on military defeat in Ukraine as the only realistic pathway to change—and find satisfaction in any evidence indicating that the regime is scared, such as the cancelation of May 9 Victory Day parades in a number of cities “for security reasons.”

But there is also a positive way in which Kara-Murza’s words from more than five years ago resonate in 2023.

At the time, his remarks included a trenchant appeal to the West: “The only thing we ask from you is that you stop supporting Mr. Putin by treating him as a respectable partner on the world stage and by allowing his cronies to use your countries as havens for their looted wealth.” Confiscating or freezing the looted wealth is still a complicated task.

However, if one thing is clear, it’s that Putin’s respectability on the world stage is lost.

He is now, after all, the first sitting world leader who is also a wanted man under a warrant from the International Criminal Court. Germany’s Minister of Justice says Putin will be arrested and delivered to the Hague if he arrives on German soil. The warrant also complicates the issue of Putin’s attendance at the upcoming BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) summit in Durban, South Africa in August; these days, he even needs assurances from friendly Armenia, the former Soviet republic, that he can visit without fear of extradition.

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow a month ago was followed by moves from China downplaying the two countries’ declaration of friendship as mere “rhetoric.” And shortly afterward, a viral video showed Putin greeting foreign ambassadors presenting their credentials at the Kremlin—and announcing three times that the event was over, in an obvious cue for applause that never came. It was hard to think of a more effective display of low-key but dramatic shunning.

Kara-Murza may be in a Russian prison; but Putin is, in a very real sense, a prisoner of his own war and his own dictatorship.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.