Human rights activist, wife of jailed Russian prisoner of conscience and opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, Evgenia Kara-Murza, addresses the 15th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for her remarks.
Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,
I am deeply honoured and deeply humbled to be standing on this stage today where my husband Vladimir Kara-Murza stood in 2018 when he received his Geneva Summit Courage Award. Just like Vladimir five years ago, I get to share this stage with the most awe-inspiring, fearless, indomitable human rights fighters of the world.
But every single one of them, no matter how brave, principled and strong, is also a human being, and there is nothing more precious than a human life. “The cost of freedom is high,” used to say Boris Nemtsov, the leader of the Russian opposition, my husband’s mentor and friend, who was assassinated under the Kremlin walls in 2015.
I think about it a lot these days. About the fragility of human life and the incredible strength of human spirit.
Indeed, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.”
I thought about it when I watched Belarusian women take to the streets in 2020, dressed in white and carrying flowers, in a beautiful act of female solidarity to call on Alexander Lukashenko to quit.
I think about it when I see Iranian girls dance and sing in defiant protest against their oppressors.
I think about it when I see the Ukrainian people unbent and unbroken despite all the pain and misery of endless loss caused by the war of aggression launched by the Russian state.
I think about it every time I frantically search the news, the media for news about Masha Moskalyova, a Russian girl whose father Alexei was thrown in prison because his daughter drew an anti-war picture at school and the Russian authorities deemed her father unable of raising a strong Russian patriot. In her letter from the orphanage to her father in prison, Masha wrote: “You are the best dad in the world. There is no one better than you. Please don’t give up. You are a hero. My hero.”
I think about every single one of those thousands and thousands of Russian citizens who stood up to the cruel and all-powerful state repressive machine armed only with the truth and human dignity, knowing quite well that they could face punitive psychiatry like journalist Maria Ponomarenko, or sexual violence like poet Artyom Kamardin, or endless torture of solitary confinement like Alexey Navalny, or a Stalin-era prison term of up to 15 years for a simple “No” to the war, like municipal deputy Alexei Gorinov, artist Alexandra Skochilenko, activist Natalia Filonova, political scientist Yevgueny Bestuzhev, lawyer Dmitry Talantov, politician Ilya Yashin, award-winning theater director Zhenya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk, and dozens and dozens of others. I could read these names and tell you their stories for hours.
When last year the Moscow regional court stripped environmental activist Arshak Makichyan of his Russian citizenship for opposing the war in Ukraine, he said:
“The Russian State stripped me of my one and only citizenship. Many would say that I should be glad because I am officially no longer a part of the state that rapes and kills women and children in Ukraine, occupies 20% of Georgia and tortures its own citizens. But the Russian State is not the entire Russia, and I cannot stop being part of the country that I love.”
Being the wife of a true Russian patriot, I know exactly what he means.
In April of last year, my husband, my best friend, my soulmate, joined the ever-growing list of political prisoners in the Russian Federation. A man to whom decisions come easy because his values are clear. A warrior, a patriot. A man who refuses to keep silent in the face of atrocities no matter the risks. A man who has for years been giving his voice to hundreds and hundreds of political prisoners in the Russian Federation before becoming one himself. A man who was designated as a foreign agent by the Russian authorities – and as a political prisoner by Russia’s most respected human rights organization Memorial; who became the laureate of the 2022 Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize – and was sentenced to a quarter of a century of strict regime by the Russian state.
In his last statement to the so-called court Vladimir said: “I’m in jail for my political views. For speaking out against the war in Ukraine. For many years of struggle against Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship. For facilitating the adoption of personal international sanctions under the Magnitsky Act against human rights violators. Not only do I not repent of any of this, I am proud of it. I subscribe to every word that I have spoken and every word of which I have been accused by this court.”
But this fierce warrior is also the father to our three kids, and that makes it a very personal story, the story of our family. Just like the war in Ukraine that really began in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea, this nightmare entered our home in 2015 when Vladimir was poisoned for the first time. The attack plunged him in a coma. He had a multiple organ failure and suffered a stroke but survived against all odds. Our oldest daughter was 9 at the time, her siblings were 6 and 3, and they watched their father relearn how to carry out the simplest tasks like buttoning his shirt, walking, or using a spoon. When the oldest one turned 11, the story repeated itself. Again, a coma and a multiple organ failure as the result of a second assassination attack. Later, thanks to a brilliant investigation by Bellingcat, The Insider and Der Spiegel, we learned that both attacks had been carried out by a team of FSB officers, a team of assassins in the service of the Russian State, the same team that had been following Boris Nemtsov before his murder and that poisoned Alexei Navalny with Novichok. Today, our son is 11 and his sisters are 14 and 17, and their father was just sentenced to 25 years of strict regime in a Kafkaesque trial in Moscow.
They say that you should lead your kids by example. There is no point in talking to them, no point in making elaborate speeches with many arguments. They simply won’t hear. At a certain point you become background noise. But they do see. They watch you closely; they see the way you behave as a partner, as a parent, as a member of a community, as a citizen of your country, as a citizen of the world. They watch and they learn. So, every time I see fear and sadness, but also fury and defiance in their eyes in the face of atrocities committed by the Russian State, I keep thinking: This is my kids’ father leading them by example, teaching them to stand up for themselves and those they love, to face bullies with courage, to never give up without a fight and to be prepared to risk a lot to defend their principles. Teaching them to stay true to themselves no matter what. As a parent, I know that this life lesson, although incredibly painful, is also vitally important.
Asking for a 25-year prison sentence for my husband, prosecutor Loktionov made a very revealing statement. He said, “This is our enemy who must be punished.”
In a way he told the truth. Indeed, Vladimir rejects everything the Putin regime stands for. The lies, the tyranny, the terror. And the fact is, all throughout history, dictators have underestimated the strength of human spirit that, I believe, serves as the foundation of that courage that President Roosevelt described as not the absence of fear but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear. That courage that has time and again proved stronger than violence and military might.
Thank you very much.
15th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, U.N. Opening, Tuesday, May 16, 2023