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Kara-Murza's wife says dream of a democratic Russia lives on

April 10, 2024

Evgenia Kara-Murza told DW her husband, Vladimir Kara-Murza, was put in a Siberian penal colony for trying to expose the truth about the level of oppression in Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Evgenia Kara-Murza seen in 2023
Evgenia Kara-Murza said oppression in Russia will continue for as long as Vladimir Putin is in powerImage: DW

Evgenia Kara-Murza, the wife of Vladimir Kara-Murza, does not plan to let her husband — or any of those like him jailed for criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle — easily be forgotten.

While that is part of her job as an advocacy director at the Free Russia Foundation civil organization, Kara-Murza also sees it as the best way to preserve a vision of a future, democratic, Russia.  

The 43-year-old linguistics graduate explained to DW that her husband — a joint UK-Russian citizen — was forced to endure grim prison conditions with little in the way of human contact.

For the past six months, her husband has been held in solitary confinement in a disciplinary cell in a "special regime prison colony" like the Polar Wolf colony where many believe Kara-Murza's fellow dissident Alexei Navalny was murdered.

Such institutions — Kara-Murza is detained at the IK-7 colony near the Siberian city of Omsk — are the harshest in the Russian penitentiary system. 

The practice of solitary confinement has become common for Kremlin opponents and is widely viewed as a tool to heap additional pressure on them.

Vladimir Kara-Murza's life in a Russian penal colony 

"His bed is fixed to the wall from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day," said Evgenia Kara-Murza.

"He only has one backless stool which is the only piece of furniture in that cell. The only things he's allowed to keep in his cell are a mug, a toothbrush, a bar of soap, two towels, and two books."

She added that he gets an hour and a half of reading or writing a day when letters and pen and paper are brought to him.

He is allowed outside for 90-minute daily walks in a small courtyard, where he again does not see anyone and has absolutely no human contact except for with his lawyer a couple of times a week, she said.

Vladimir Kara-Murza being escorted by police at a Moscow court
Vladimir Kara-Murza was arrested in October 2022Image: Sergei Bobylev/dpa/TASS/picture alliance

Evgenia Kara-Murza said Navalny's death, allegedly at the behest of the Kremlin, did not increase her anxiety that her husband might be murdered.

The 42-year-old suffers from a serious health problem —  polyneuropathy, which can lead to paralysis — which his wife and lawyers say are the result of two poisoning attempts orchestrated by Russia's FSB security service, the last of which was in 2017. 

She's feared for her husband's life 'for many years'

"The violent, brazen murder of Alexei Navalny, I'm afraid, did not add to my fears because I've been afraid for my husband's life for many years," Kara-Murza said. 

An independent investigation by German news magazine Der Spiegel, and the media outlets Bellingcat and The Insider, identified the FSB operatives who had followed Kara-Murza before both attacks. 

The first attack happened in 2015, only three months after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov on the Bolshevik Bridge in Moscow.

"And since then, of course, I've known every single day of my life, my husband's life is in grave danger," she added. 

Sentenced to 25 years for opposing war in Ukraine 

Cambridge graduate Kara-Murza had spent years campaigning for Western sanctions against the Kremlin.

However, the level of repression has dramatically worsened since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Last year, he was sentenced to 25 years on charges of treason for opposing the war in Ukraine. 

Evgenia Kara-Murza — who lives in the US with the couple's three children — said she was determined to tell the story of political prisoners, despite the threats posed even to Kremlin opponents living in exile.

Several of my colleagues — amazing strong fighters — have already been targeted over the past couple of years outside of Russia. It does not mean that it will stop us."

"We understand what we stand against, and I understand that the best way I can help my husband is by continuing his work," said Kara-Murza, adding that her husband had been a powerful voice on behalf of political prisoners in the Russian Federation for many years. 

Russian opposition activist jailed for 25 years

Since 2010, she explained, he has been fighting for the introduction of the Magnitsky legislation around the world that imposes personal, targeted sanctions, against human rights violators around the world. I believe that this work has to continue, especially now," she said.

For as long as Vladimir Putin is allowed to stay in power, warmongering will continue and repression in the country will continue.

"The only guarantee of peace and stability on this continent is a democratic Russia. And, in order for that to happen, the regime in the Kremlin must fall."

Meanwhile, she said, it was vital to protect political prisoners, and all those who had left Russia, because they didn't want to be complicit in the war. 

"We need to make sure that all these people survive to be there when the regime collapses and they can actually build a democracy in our country."

Level of oppression in Putin's Russia 'truly frightening'

In Putin's Russia, Kara-Murza explained, all those believed to pose a threat to the regime are portrayed as spies, criminals, traitors, or foreign agents. Others are labeled as extremists, terrorists, or insane people. 

It is for this reason, she explains, that the regime has brought back an entire arsenal of Soviet-style repressive techniques that include punitive psychiatry, and physical and sexual violence as well as Stalin-era prison terms.

"Five years for dissent, for speaking the truth, for rejecting the official narrative forced on the people," Kara-Murza said. "The level of oppression in the country is truly frightening."

Navalny joins long line of Putin critics who died early

According to Memorial, Russia's most respected human rights organization and co-laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize, the number of political prisoners in Russia now approaches 700 people.

"And those are very conservative estimates, as Memorial itself says," Kara-Murza explained.

"It says that the actual number of political cases in the country is twice or three times as high. And, according to a recent media investigation, there have been more politically motivated trials during Vladimir Putin's fourth term alone, than under Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev combined."

Telling the stories of those being held in prison for their political beliefs and actions allows the world to see how they are being treated, and any attempts to harm them would at least be made apparent. 

"I believe, just like my husband, that the thing the dictators are most afraid of is the truth and publicity. So speaking about that, talking about these people who end up behind bars, naming their names, and telling their stories is hugely important."

"It provides them with some measure of safety behind bars, but it also allows the world to see. And I believe that these stories deserve to be heard," she said.

"These stories of bravery, of courage, of human integrity deserve to be known because what Vladimir Putin is trying to do is to destroy that alternative, that democratic alternative to his regime. And these people are the faces of that democratic Russia that we all want to see."

Putin critic Kara-Murza's wife urges prisoner swaps

Edited by: Wesley Rahn 

Richard Connor Reporting on stories from around the world, with a particular focus on Europe — especially Germany.