Vladimir Kara-Murza: Address to Arizona’s Congressmen

Vladimir Kara-Murza, Russian politician, author, historian, and longtime colleague of opposition leader Boris Nemstov, delivering his speech in Congress

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the very kind introduction. Mr Majority Leader, Mr Minority Leader, members of the House, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends, it is an honour to be here, in the Arizona state legislature. I’m very grateful to be here as well because I wasn’t sure, as I was getting out of Moscow last week if I would even be able to come in because most of the airspace around Russia is now closed, as you know, as a response from Western democracies to the war of aggression – and this is a legal term from the Nuremberg Statutes which I’m using deliberately for the war of aggression that Vladimir Putin’s regime has unleashed against the nation of Ukraine, but there are still a few routes left out of Russia. It took me two days to get to the US and I’m very grateful to be here and very grateful to be in this weather as well after Moscow. So thank you so much, thank you so much for the hospitality.

And it has a special meaning for me to be here in Arizona because I had the honour of knowing and working on so many issues together with the late Senator John McCain who was one of the people who saw Vladimir Putin and who understood Vladimir Putin from the very beginning. Back in 2000, as Putin was only coming to power and as so many people in the West engaged in wishful thinking that this man would be a reformer, that this man would be a democrat, Senator McCain in the South Carolina primary presidential debate against George W. Bush when referring to Mr Putin, said that he’s going to be one of those people who will make the trains run on time. And that is, of course, a direct reference to the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini in Italy. And of course, he turned out to be absolutely right. It was very frustrating for us in Russia, for those of us who believe in democracy in Russia, to see Putin’s rise to power initially in the context of welcoming and enabling, and frankly, appeasement, to use a term from another historical era but I think one that’s very appropriate to use towards the regime of Vladimir Putin.

I can say for one I realised just who Mr Putin was and just in which direction he would lead our country and the world, in December of 1999. I even remember a specific date, it might sound strange but there’s a reason for that, December 20th 1999, the day still marked in Russia today, astonishingly, as the Chekist day, the day to commemorate the founding of the Cheka, later known as the KGB, the Bolshevik Secret Police, in 1917. On that day in 1999 Vladimir Putin, then still Prime Minister of Russia, went to Lubyanka Square in Moscow, the site of the old KGB headquarters, to officially unveil a memorial plaque to Yuri Andropov. Yuri Andropov, of course, was somebody who symbolised and epitomised the worst of the worst of the post-Stalin political repression in the Soviet Union. He was somebody who was among the organisers of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, he was somebody who had for years prioritised targeting and persecuting political dissidents in the Soviet Union. One of the things he did was institute a horrendous practice of punitive psychiatry, when dissidents, people opposed to the communist regime, would be forcibly confined to psychiatric institutions and declared mentally insane and kept there in torturous conditions for years and years. And so it was to that man that Vladimir Putin unveiled a memorial plaque back in December of 1999. To me and to so many of my friends and colleagues in Russia, there were no more questions about who this man was and what he would do. And just to sort of make it absolutely clear, if anybody still had any questions, during the first year of his rule Mr Putin reinstated the Stalin-era national anthem of the Soviet Union as the national anthem of the Russian Federation. Russia is a country of symbols, and choosing a symbol like that is an unmistakable message of what direction you’re going to take. And so very quickly, the symbols turned into actions, and very quickly Vladimir Putin began to go after independent media, began go after opposition parties, began to rig elections, imprison opponents, then murder opponents, and very quickly within the space of literally a few years transformed Russia from an imperfect democracy that we had back in the 1990s to the perfect authoritarian state that he has built today.

And all this time, once again, he was welcomed in Western capitals, had his hand shaken and the red carpet rolled for his planes when he would arrive. One American President after another would look into his eyes and get a sense of his soul or declare a reset with him, or offer all kinds of steps of enabling and appeasement. And not just in a sort of on the words level only, but in a very practical sense that for years and years and years Western countries allowed the oligarchs and the kleptocrats around Putin to use your countries, to use Western countries, Western banks, Western financial systems as havens for the money that these oligarchs and kleptocrats have been stealing from the people of Russia. The whole modus operandi of the Putin regime is that the people around him – let’s not forget it’s not just an autocratic regime, it’s a kleptocratic one as well, from the classic Greek definition of the word, “ruled by the thieves”, – and those thieves who rule Russia today, they want to steal in Russia and then spend and stash away that stolen money in the West, where they have their yachts, their villas, their bank accounts, or very often their families, and so on and so forth. And for years and years Western countries would allow that to happen.

So in fact, the way I first met Senator John McCain was when we worked with him and others, including on the Democrat side the lead person on this was Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, and he together with Senator McCain introduced back in 2010 a bill in the American Congress called the Magnitsky Act which put forward a very simple principle that those people who are engaged in human rights abuses and corruption in Russia, and in fact any other authoritarian state around the world, would no longer be able to get visas or assets or use the financial and banking system of the United States. In other words, that those people would not be able to use the spoils of their loot and of their thievery in American banks. And this act became law. Building on the American example, there are similar pieces of legislation now across the Western world, in fact, in all major Western jurisdictions.

And for years and years and years people like Boris Nemtsov, the late leader of the Russian opposition, who was the most prominent, the most powerful and most effective voice against the corruption and the abuses and the crimes committed by the Putin regime and who seven years ago in February of 2015 was murdered, literally gunned down in front of the Kremlin walls in Moscow… For years Boris Nemtsov would call on Western countries to stop this enabling and to impose those high-level personal sanctions against Putin’s cronies and oligarchs, but so many in the Western world chose to look the other way. And I’m not only a politician but I’m also a historian by education, and one thing we definitely know from history is how the appeasement of dictators ends. It always ends the same way. I so wish we had been wrong on this, but today the whole world sees what the Putin regime is doing to Ukraine: the cluster bombs on residential areas, the bombings of maternity wards and hospitals and schools, the war crimes… These are war crimes that are being committed by the dictatorial regime in the Kremlin against a nation in the middle of Europe, and this is unfortunately where all the years of the Putin’s rule have led us.

But as much as it’s difficult for any of us to be a little bit optimistic and even a little bit hopeful about the future, I also want to speak about the other side of Russia to you, because very often people in the West only see the official side. They see Putin, they see the repression, they see the aggressive actions, they see the war that is now happening. And the other side is very often lost, and the other side of course is that there are millions of people in my country who fundamentally reject and fundamentally disagree with everything that the Putin regime stands for and represents, from the kleptocracy and the theory to the abuses and the repressions and the crimes against humanity that are being committed. For the past three weeks, since the war against Ukraine has been started, thousands of Russians have been going onto the streets literally every single day to protest against what is happening, to protest against this crime that is being done supposedly in our name. And according to the latest count by human rights groups, more than 15 000 arrests were made across Russia since February the 24th, the day of the aggression, against those people who have tried to demonstrate against the war. I say “tried” because all public demonstrations in Russia are forbidden. To such an extent that for example several days ago, at the end of last week in fact, a Russian Orthodox priest was arrested after he left his church after speaking out against the war in his sermon, after Sunday service in his church in the Kostroma region. He reminded people of the sixth commandment, “thou shalt not kill”. For this, he was arrested and taken to the police station and charged and fined under the new administrative offence of “discrediting the Armed Services of the Russian Federation”. So if you recite a Biblical commandment, you’re discrediting the Armed Forces. This is the Orwellian reality that Vladimir Putin’s regime has created in our country. But despite this, and despite the great dangers and risks that are faced by anybody who dares to oppose the Putin regime, and I’ve seen a share of that myself, as have so many other friends and colleagues, thousands of people across Russia are willing to take that risk and to pay that price to stand out and to speak out for a better, a different and more hopeful Russia.

And again, putting on my hat as a historian, we do know how appeasement of such regimes ends and we see this today, but we also know that these regimes end, as well. And we have seen this a few times in the history of our own country. I’m old enough… just about, as a child, but I do remember that very vividly, the events of August 1991, the collapse of the Soviet system. When it began, as you know, as a hardline coup d’etat staged by the top leadership of the communist party and the KGB in an attempt to end Perestroika and glasnost and all these attempts at reforms, and sort of to go back to the bad old ways… and the people who were behind that coup had absolutely everything at their disposal, or at least it seemed so. They had the whole government machine, the party apparatus, all the television networks, radio stations and newspapers, they had the police and the army, the KGB, the horrendous Soviet repressive machine, and of course they had the tanks, which they sent into the streets of Moscow, and I remember those tanks, watching those tanks in the streets of my city. Russian citizens, Muscovites who rejected that coup were not armed with anything except their dignity and their determination to defend their own freedom. And so they went onto the streets in the thousands and tens of thousands and eventually hundreds of thousands and literally stood in front of the tanks, and then the tanks stopped and turned away. This was my first conscious political memory, I was 10 years of age at the time and this lesson will live with me for as long as I’m here. That when enough people in society are willing to stand up to put an end to the repression, to stand up for their dignity, to stand up for their rights, to stand up for their freedom, all that seeming strength of dictatorships becomes powerless.

Back in the early 1980s, when the Soviet regime seemed to enter a very very dark phase, there were increased domestic repressions, there were heightened tensions internationally, you remember the Boeing that was shot down by the Soviet military, all the sort of ratcheting up a war of rhetoric between Soviet leaders and President Reagan, the complete crushing of the dissident movement in the Soviet union… all the dissident groups were disbanded, the Samizdat publications were ceased, all the leading dissidents were either in prison and labour camp or in exile, it seemed that all hope was lost. And it was then that Soviet dissidents coined that famous phrase that they like to repeat, that “night is darkest before the dawn”. And people would laugh at them and say, what are you talking about? And actually, it turned out that they were right because just a few years after that the Soviet regime collapsed.

These are very dark times in Russia today, these are times when we have hundreds of political prisoners, and that number is only going to grow now as people are arrested for taking part in anti-war demonstrations, all the major opposition organisations have been crushed and destroyed, all the remaining independent media outlets have been liquidated by the authorities since the start of the war in Ukraine in the past three weeks. And every day we hear of new arrests and new detentions and new repressions against our friends. But we know, and we remember that lesson, that night is darkest before the dawn. We know the dawn will come, we know that there are many people in Russia who share our views and our values and who want Russia to be, in the words of opposition leader Alexei Navalny whose trial ended today with the demand from the prosecution that he is sentenced for 13 years in prison for speaking out against the Putin regime, he was once asked: “What is your goal for Russia, what do you want to happen? Let’s say you come to power, what do you want to do?” And maybe the journalist was expecting a long and drawn out response, you know, various proposals and programs and whatever, and Alexei Navalny responded with a very simple sentence, he said: “We want Russia to be a normal European country”. So we do know that there will come a day when Russia does become a normal European country. I think it will be in the interests not just of those of us who are in Russia, but also for all of you in the international community to have a government in Moscow that would both respect the rights and freedoms of its own people and that would behave as a responsible citizen on the international stage. We know that that day will come, and everything that we do in the Russian opposition movement has as its goal to try to bring that day a little closer. I thank you very much for the honour of speaking before you today, and I thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

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