Champions for Change with Melissa Mahtani, Yang Jianli, Evan Mawarire, Vladimir Kara-Murza

Full Transcript

Moderator: Welcome to our panel on Champions for Change. I’m joined by three incredibly courageous individuals here: Evan Mawarire, pastor and democracy activist from Zimbabwe, Yang Jianli, a dissident from China; and Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition politician from Russia. So I’m going to dive straight in here, and, Vladimir, I want to start with you. Alexei Navalny captured the world’s attention earlier this year when he narrowly escaped a poisoning, which he blames on the Putin regime. This is nothing new. You yourself were poisoned not once but twice. And yet you continue to not only speak out, but you’re based in Moscow. Where does this kind of courage and conviction come from?

Vladimir Kara-Murza: Well, first of all, it’s not courage. It’s stubbornness. I always sort of try to emphasize the difference. I suppose that’s a job requirement for what we do. But it was a question of principle for me both times, after both poisonings. As soon as I was physically able to walk — because I had to learn to walk again, especially after the first time — the coma lasted several weeks. As soon as I was able to, I went straight back on a plane after medical rehab abroad and went straight back to Russia both times. Alexei Navalny did the same, as you know, as soon as he was more or less recovered because when it comes to Russia and previously the Soviet Union — and I’m only speaking about my own country … situations may be different depending on which country you’re talking about — but, in Russia, the biggest gift that opponents of the regime could give the Kremlin would be to leave. This is what they want from us, and they’ve wanted this from political opponents going back decades. Back in the 1970s when Yuri Andropov, one of the most symbolic figures of Soviet era repression, chairman of the Soviet KGB, when he was in charge of this policy, he came to the conclusion — very clear conclusion — that the most effective way for the Kremlin to silence dissidents, political opponents was not by silencing them or exiling them in Siberia or putting them up in psychiatric hospitals — all of which was done as well — but was to send them out abroad. And this was done in sort of a conveyor fashion beginning with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously in 1974, then Vladimir Bukovsky, then Alexander Ginzburg, Yuri Orlov, and all sort of the prominent figures in the dissident movement because they realized that once a political opponent is outside his or her own country, they very quickly lose not only the sort of everyday sense of reality, which I suppose is less relevant now with the modern technology that we have but most importantly — and, again, I’m speaking about specifically Russia here — they lose the moral clout, the moral authority to continue because once you’re outside, a lot of people would consider that you no longer have the moral right to continue doing what you’re doing. And so I was doing a radio show recently called Echo of Moscow right here in Moscow, and I got asked the question of what was the most difficult and the easiest decision I ever made in my life. And I don’t remember what I said about the most difficult one, I think something about the choice of profession or something like that. But I said it’s really easy for me to answer what was the easiest decision I made in my life. It wasn’t even a decision. I knew that as soon as I was physically able to, after both poisonings, I would go back. When Alexei Navalny woke up from his coma in Berlin last September, the first thing he said was that he would go back as soon as he’s able to. I got inundated by calls from Western journalists asking me to comment on this “sensation,” as they put it, to which I said that not only don’t I see any kind of sensation, I don’t see any issues here. Of course he’s going to go back. He’s a Russian politician. His place is in Russia and nowhere else. And in terms of the poisonings, I think it’s sometimes worth just taking a step back. We’re so used to this; this is the reality we exist in. But if we just take a step back and say to ourselves that in the 21st century in a European country, there is a professional squad of assassins in the employment of the state whose task it is to physically eliminate opponents of Vladimir Putin. This is what happened to many people: political opponents, anti-corruption activists, independent journalists. Not everybody was as fortunate as Alexei Navalny or I to survive this. When I was lying in a coma in a Moscow hospital after the poisoning, both times doctors told my wife that had a 5% chance to live. Other people didn’t even have that. And, as an immediate investigation led by Bellingcat international media consortium showed, first into the case of Alexei Navalny — this was in December of last year — and then into my two cases — earlier this year in February — they’ve actually identified specific officers of the Russian Federal Security Service (the FSB) who work in this chemical weapons unit and whose job it is to go around the country, follow political opponents of Putin, and put chemical weapons in their underwear. This is how they poison people. And in the case of Alexei Navalny and myself, these were the same FSB agents who were involved both times.

Moderator: Hearing you explain that there was no choice, “it was the easiest choice I made” — just to go back — it’s one thing to hear you say that and to see you right here and see that you’re safe. And you’re saying something that’s logical. But really try and explain: When you were in that hospital bed, when you woke up, there must have been fear, pain, anger at what had just happened to you. How did all of that suddenly translate into this determination to go back and fight, knowing that there is this squad of assassins, as you just said, who would no doubt come after you again?

Vladimir Kara-Murza: Well, the pain was actually before, and the fear was before. I have to say that it is excruciatingly painful and terrifying to be dying because this is exactly what you feel. The way this begins is that it becomes difficult to breathe. You’re making this movement that all of us human beings make every few seconds to take in the air, and you feel as if no air is coming in. And then your heart starts racing. And then you start vomiting. And then you feel your blood pressure just drop to nothing. And it’s a terrifying experience. I think that’s part of the reason they like this method so much, the Soviet and now Russian security services. The second reason is plausible deniability for them because every time another political opponent gets poisoned, the Kremlin propaganda sort of starts rolling the wheels and throwing out these alternative “explanations” that “Oh, they were just sick” or “They had low blood sugar” or “They suffer from some kind of disease” or “They had an allergic reaction.” This is what they do every time. You know, in February of 2015, when Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down by five bullets in the back literally in front of the Kremlin wall — and this was done by an incumbent Russian interior ministry officer — everybody understood who gave the order and how this was done, that there was no plausible deniability. And there couldn’t have been any plausible deniability in that case. Well, in the case of poisonings, this is how they tried to do it to try to get away with it. Of course now less so since Bellingcat identified specific Russian state police officers were doing this, but, before that, that was certainly one reason. The other reason is just the sadistic aspect. It is painful. It is terrifying. And if you are fortunate enough to survive this — as I was, as Alexei Navalny was — it then takes months and months and a lot of effort and a lot of perseverance to get back to some sort of normal. I mean, I’ve had to learn to walk again literally — after the first time — because when you’re in a coma for such a long period, your body just loses all strength completely. So there was no single moment when I remember emerging from this; it took sort of several weeks. And then for the first few weeks I couldn’t talk properly. But, again, decision is probably even the wrong word to use. I mean, this is what I do. I’m a Russian opposition politician, and if this is what I choose to do in life, then my place is in Russia, and it cannot be any other way. I sometimes get asked what precautionary measures I take, to which I say: There’s not that many things that I could do. Before the Bellingcat investigation came out and we found out that the way they poison you is they put chemical weapons on your underwear, I thought — I suppose from reading classical literature — that this is done through food and drink, and I would always respond, “Well, I can’t not eat or drink, right?” That’s obviously not something you can do. And now I can add to this that I can’t not wear clothes. And even if you hire thirty bodyguards who are going to walk all the time around the house, how is that gonna stop something like this from happening? The only tangible measure of precaution that we can take — and I did — is to have one’s family in a safe place. My wife and my children are not in Russia. They’re outside for reasons that I don’t need to explain to you. But, for ourselves, for those of us who are the public faces of the democratic opposition, I think it would be the biggest gift to Mr. Putin if we left, and we’re not going to do that.

Moderator: Evan, you’ve expressed very similar sentiments. You were imprisoned. You were tortured by Mugabe’s regime at the time. And then you actually described escaping Zimbabwe as something out of a Jason Bourne movie. You finally got free, and yet, you again decided to go back for some of the same reasons we’ve heard. Just explain why again that you’re such a champion for change that you were willing to go back not knowing what was going to happen to you.

Evan Mawarire: I think the realization that no one is going to do this for us was one of those driving forces. As people we’ve always wanted change, but we wanted someone else to do it for us. We’ve always wanted our country to be different, but we want someone else to suffer for us. And when I started the campaign that eventually grew into a citizens’ movement from 2016 all the way through to the removal of Robert Mugabe and beyond that into the new presidency as well, the realization was that we’ve relied on politicians, we’ve relied on organizations, we’ve relied on calling out to regional bodies or international bodies to come and help us, but we’ve never relied on ourselves. We’ve never stood up and said, “We, the people of Zimbabwe, demand a better country, and we’re going to put our faces to our voices and to our demands for it.” And so that’s why I went back. After having escaped Robert Mugabe, and my family was in a safe place, for me the next thought became: What about the work that we have begun? What happens to that? And, to back up what Vladimir has just said, dictators crave to be feared. That’s the one thing that they want. They want to know that you’re afraid to the point that you run and never come back. And so part of it for me was to start modeling a different kind of citizen that says, “We don’t run from them. We go back to face them. We show them that we have what it takes to think for ourselves and to want a better nation.” I wanted to model a different type of citizen that went back to Zimbabwe. And of course I landed back in Zimbabwe. I remember it was February 1st, 2017. I had been six months in exile, and I landed back in Zimbabwe on that day and was arrested immediately at the airport and thrown into Chikurubi maximum security prison. I thought I would die, you know, when that happened — the torture that we went through, the disgrace, the shame of being hauled before the courts and sometimes being thrown into solitary confinement. But I think there was a sense of being satisfied that I had come back to Zimbabwe and that we had been able to instill a sense of courage in many of the people who were afraid before to stand up, to say: It’s possible to commit yourself to a cause and drive it as far as you can.

Moderator: How do you balance that with having a family? You both said that your families were in safe places, but you just said when you were in prison, you thought you would die. Emotionally, how do you balance going into a situation like that, knowing that your family may not get the chance to have you around or you potentially are in imminent danger?

Evan Mawarire: It’s difficult to balance it, Melissa. And there’s no easy way to deal with that. When I left my family to go back, when I made the decision and I said to my wife, “I really need to go back,” she battled to try and understand, “Why would you do that?” but eventually understood and said, “Look, I can see how much this consumes you. So do go back.” It doesn’t mean that it was easy to kiss them goodbye. It doesn’t mean that it was easy to hug my children and say goodbye to them and then take off and go to Zimbabwe. Every moment of going back is difficult because you’re trying to think that I may never see them again, and they may never see me again. And sometimes people only see what you go through as the highlighted person who’s going through it. But they don’t see the anguish and the anxiety that your family is going through because they’re thinking that he may get hurt really bad or we may never see him again. So there is no easy balance for that except to say that the legacy you leave behind is for your family to be able to say, “We had a dad that stood for something” or “I had a husband that did something to protect his family but did something for his nation and for humanity.” And I think for me, it is something that I want to be able to leave not for just my children but for other people to say, “Live your life not just for the benefit of you and your family but for the benefit of mankind — of other people.” You have to have a life that is worthy of being lived, and there is no better way of living a life worthy than living it for other people.

Moderator: It really is incredibly courageous and admirable hearing and knowing about your struggles. There are many people who would survive a poisoning attempt and move to a remote island and just try and live a peaceful life or the same thing. But, you know, it takes a lot more than courage to just go back and that conviction. Jianli, I want to bring you into this conversation. You survived what many people would say is one of the worst atrocities the world has ever seen when a government fired on its own people, the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. You were in that square. You watched your friends, your colleagues actually get killed. And you’ve said that this changed your life. Tell me about that experience.

Yang Jianli: Yes, I went through the massacre in front of my eyes. The Chinese tanks ran over students. Eleven students died right away there. There’s screaming and then silence. And we tried to collect the bodies after the tank passed away and carry them to the hospital. Such an atrocity just took place in front of my eyes. And I said to myself: What country is this? Why did I happen to be here? In that moment, I was determined to do everything possible in the rest of my life to change the country, to make the country our country, a place where these kinds of things at least would not happen again. And of course we demanded for freedom and desired for freedom. That’s my determination at that moment.

Moderator: It’s interesting because you didn’t plan on becoming an activist or being involved in the opposition. You were actually part of the Communist Party beforehand. So, after Tiananmen, you had left, and then you decided to come back to China. But just explain how, when you escaped Tiananmen Square, and you actually got on that plane, that journey turned you into an activist.

Yang Jianli: In the 1980s, when China just embarked on the reform and opening-up era after the Cultural Revolution — a ten-year disaster — at that time, the Communist Party needed new blood to become the cadres of the party. And also they learned a lesson from the Cultural Revolution. They need intellectuals to join the party to make the government work, to make the economy work. So they made a special effort to recruit young intellectuals like myself. At that time, I was studying mathematics for my master’s degree in Beijing. The party chief, Mr. Hu Yaobang, was very open-minded. He himself called on intellectuals like myself to join the party to change the party from within. And he made us believe as well that it would be more effective to do things from within the party. And so I joined the party with high hopes and an open mind. But, very soon, I came to regret my decision. I found that it’s the other way around. It’s not we, the reformed-minded intellectuals, who change the party; it is the party that changes us. And I found my daily job was watching reporting on my fellow students and teachers. Despite the fact that I was regularly promoted to the middle ranks of the party, I decided I had to quit. So the best way to quit the party is to leave the country. At that time, the policy was relatively open, so a lot of young students can come to the United States by themselves, meaning you just send in your application, get accepted, and come here. So that’s how I left China. And once I set my foot upon the soil of the United States of America, I quit my party membership. And, and at the same time, I sort of lost hope about my country because I tried. I tried to change the party, change China as a party member in the party cadre, but it didn’t work, so I focused my attention on my studies. I studied mathematics for a PhD degree at UC Berkeley. But, in the spring of 1989, the student movement broke out in Tiananmen Square. That gave me hope. I saw hope, and I wanted to do something about it. That is how I chose to go back to China to join the movement. And, as I said earlier, I witnessed the massacre. That changed my life. That made me become a full-time, lifetime devoted activist. Three days after the massacre, I managed to get to the international airport at Beijing, and the police actually did not perform their duty — as a way to protest. Actually they were also protesting the massacre. So there was a kiosk in the airport. The police just let us go. So that’s the sign that the government had not really asserted itself. So I got on the plane, and the flight would stop in Shanghai for one hour to take more passengers there. I was at the end of the line to get rechecked, and I thought that some incident would happen to me —

Moderator: You thought you would get arrested in Shanghai.

Yang Jianli: — That I would get arrested or things like that. But, when we all got on the plane again and the plane took off, every passenger just applauded. So they felt lucky. They could leave China. Except for me, I was crying; I was in tears. And I produced out the black bag and wore it on my left arm to remember those who just fell in Tiananmen Square. So that flight just took me back to San Francisco International Airport. When I walked off the plane, I saw dozens of reporters — even more than a hundred reporters — at the airport waiting for anybody who came from Beijing who could tell them what happened at Tiananmen Square. And they saw me wearing the black band. And I waved to them. I said, “I can tell you what happened.” So these reporters just swarmed to me. Then I told them what had happened in Tiananmen Square.

Moderator: Wow, so that event changed your life, and that journey literally changed your life and turned you into an activist.

Yang Jianli: Yes.

Moderator: It’s so interesting because, Evan, you didn’t plan on becoming an activist either. In fact, you posted a video on Twitter, which then actually launched #ThisFlag movement. But you said that you almost posted this video out of just pure frustration.

Evan Mawarire: I identify so much with Jianli when he talks about the accidental activist. There comes a moment where you love your nation so much that you can no longer accept what is being done to it. And I was just a powerless young pastor for a church — a very small church actually — and would have been better off saying nothing, would have been better off keeping quiet. But I got to a point where I could see that the collapse of our country, which had been allowed to happen — the corruption, the injustice, the desecration of our constitution — was just not stopping. And these men and women that were running the country, Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF (his party) were not stopping at anything. I remember sitting in my small office the day that I actually recorded the video, and I thought to myself: These men and women robbed my grandfather. They robbed my father in terms of their future. They’ve robbed me in terms of my future. And now they’re about to rob my children. And this is where I draw the line. So when I put up the four-minute video in which I spoke about Zimbabwe, and I spoke about what the colors of our flag mean, and then I spoke about the fact that that flag essentially had become a lie because none of the things that the flag represents were true of an independent Zimbabwe. And at the time in 2016 when I put up that video, Zimbabwe had been independent from British colonial rule for 37 years. But here we are sitting with an economy that had collapsed. At one point in 2008, when our economy collapsed, we had a $100 trillion note. Just think about that: a $100 trillion note as part of our currency. And that was barely enough to buy a loaf of bread. And here we were again in 2016 going through a second collapse. And I remember thinking, “No, enough is enough. I cannot allow this to happen whilst I am there.” And my post actually said, “I’m not a politician. I’m not an activist. I’m just an ordinary citizen, but I think I must cross the line and say something. So I ranted. And I think for me, just to be able to lay out a frustration that says, “Look, we’re just powerless citizens. You’re killing us.” And, of course, that exploded, and people responded to it, and that led to multiple protests that we saw. One of the times when I was arrested and put in prison, thousands of people spontaneously gathered at the courts demanding my release. And that’s when I realized that this was bigger than me, that this was a moment in our nation’s history where I had to put my hand up for it, but somehow the struggle had picked me to be at the forefront of it.

Moderator: And social media really helped your cause. You posted this video on Twitter and on Facebook. And it really speaks to the times because that video was able to be shared, and it galvanized so many people. How, in general, has social media helped your cause?

Evan Mawarire: The Zimbabwean government had thrived and still does thrive on propaganda. They control all the media in Zimbabwe in terms of media institutions. They are the ones who give out licenses for television and radio. And, in fact, up until now, you would know that Zimbabwe only has one television station that’s based inside Zimbabwe, and that’s the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, which is owned by the state. It’s the same thing for radio. They gave out some radio licenses to people who were connected to the party and nobody else. So, essentially, there was no route or avenue that anyone could speak out on their truth or speak out on the way that they were challenging the government. For years, that was the case. So the onset of social media changed the game because what it did is that it allowed each of us as citizens in Zimbabwe or as individuals to be able to tell our own truth, to show our own reality without any filters. And that’s how that took off. I think a lot of people hadn’t realized in Zimbabwe that we could use social media for that, or those who had realized it self-censored so much because Robert Mugabe had used fear for years to say, “If you dare challenge me, this is what’s going to happen to you: You will disappear. You’ll be arrested. You can be murdered and abducted.” A year earlier to the day that I posted the video, a young man by the name Itai Dzamara — and I mention him all the time because he was a brave young man when nobody else had the guts to do this. He was a journalist; he stood in the town square at the time in Zimbabwe, and he held a banner that said, “Failed Robert Mugabe Must Go.” I cannot tell you the level of bravery and courage that it takes to do something like that in Zimbabwe. But, a few weeks later I believe it was after that, Itai Dzamara was abducted from a barbershop in his neighborhood, and up to today, nobody knows where he is or what happened to him since 2015. So this is how dangerous it was and how much the government controlled the optics of citizens challenging the government or speaking truth to power. So Facebook and Twitter and the social channels gave us a platform that we controlled, one that didn’t rely on the 24-hour cycle of the national news or the national newspaper. We could tell our stories over and over and over again. We could update those stories. We could cross-pollinate. We could gather virtually. We could exchange ideas. We could build a movement. And our government did not know what to do with us. And these are young people, by the way, who are also tech savvy and that know their way around social media very quickly. So that allowed us to be able to grow very quickly. It allowed us to also be in touch with the outside world — with Zimbabweans abroad, with people abroad with an interest in what was happening in Zimbabwe. And we were able to quickly tell what was happening to us. So that was a very big gift for us and continues to be a big gift. Of course, there are moments where the government has gone in, and they have shut down the internet in a bid to control what we will be saying and what we will be doing. This happened in July of 2016, when we did the first shutdown of the country. It happened again in 2019 under the new president, when we did a shutdown with the country, and then eventually we were arrested again. But already the horse had bolted, so to speak. And, up to today in 2021, this concept of using social media in Zimbabwe to speak truth to power is being widely used by journalists, by activists, by mothers, by teenagers, students. And we’re finding that it has helped to expand the space in which citizens can speak truth to power.

Moderator: Great, and a very effective tool. Vladimir, unlike these two, you always had some sort of semblance that you would be getting into politics or into the opposition because you grew up in the 1990s in a very brief period of democracy in Russia. And you were just 18 when you started working with Boris Nemtsov. In those times, there was no social media that we’ve just heard about, like from Evan. So, how did you guys, as opposition, mobilize people and share ideas?

Vladimir Kara-Murza: I always consider myself very fortunate that I do remember that brief period of freedom in our country — the ten years in the 1990s when we had independent television, democratic elections, a pluralistic parliament. It’s something that is totally unthinkable in Russia under Putin today. And somebody who is even a few years younger than me wouldn’t remember any of this because Mr. Putin’s rule is now extending into its third decade. But, for me, my first conscious political memory was the democratic revolution in August of 1991, when one of the most oppressive totalitarian systems in the history of humanity — the Soviet communist regime — went down in three days. That hardline coup d’état was attempted sort of as an effort to cement control and to end all these experiments with reform and to go back to the bad old ways. And the people who were behind that coup had control of absolutely everything (or at least they seemed to) — the government machine, the party apparatus, the propaganda, the so-called “power ministry,” the police, the KGB (the overwhelming machine of repression that was the Soviet KGB), and, of course, the tanks, which they sent into the streets of Moscow just as the Chinese communist leadership sent tanks into the streets of Beijing two years earlier. But, in Moscow — and that was all the difference in the world — when hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets of Moscow in August 1991and literally stood in front of those tanks, those tanks stopped and turned away. And then we did have those brief ten years of political freedom. And it was inevitable in a way that my generation was so politicized because this is what we remember. This is what was happening in front of our eyes. Even as a child, when a revolution is happening in front of your eyes, you tend to draw lessons from it. And we did. And then, by the end of the decade, when I did begin to work with Boris Nemtsov — and it was the honor of my life to have worked with him for more than 15 years, from the late 1990s until that wretched evening on the bridge in front of the Kremlin, when he was gunned down in February of 2015 — back then, we still had real elections. We still had a real parliament. And so anybody who was interested in politics or who wanted to pursue a political path would do it in a “normal way,” the way that people in Western countries are used to doing it. And I worked with Boris Nemtsov still in the Russian parliament when he was leader of the opposition, and then I ran for election myself in 2003 for the Russian parliament in one of the constituencies in the south of Moscow. And this was a turning point election. That year was a whole turning point for the Putin regime. You know, there was no single day when Russia was transformed from a democracy to an authoritarian regime. Sometimes — or very often, in fact — in history, we know this is done through a coup d’état or for some sort of one time act. Putin did this incrementally, following Mussolini’s advice — that famous phrase of Mussolini: “You need to plug the chicken feather by feather to lessen the squawking.” — as Mussolini described his own consolidation of power in fascist Italy in the early 1920s. This is the way Putin did this, one by one. He first went after independent media and shut down national television channels that were beyond the control of the state. And it was in fact in 2003 when the last privately-held independent nationwide television network in Russia was switched off by the government. This was in June of 2003. In October of 2003, a lot of Putin’s most prominent critics, an oil tycoon by the name of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was arrested in a dramatic early dawn raid on his private plane in Siberia, brought back to Moscow, and paraded on television cameras literally sitting in a cage in a courtroom — the richest man in Russia sitting in a cage in a message to the rest of the country’s business community that, if you behave like him, you’re going to end up like this. And that message was certainly heeded. And then, fast forwarding to December of 2003, a turning point election, the first election since the end of Soviet rule in Russia that was assessed by international observers as not fair. I remember that very well from the inside, as I was a candidate. They said — and I think this is something that will go down in future history books when people talk about the consolidation of Putin’s power — the Council of Europe observers called that election free but not fair. It was free in the sense that we, as opponents of the government, could still get access to the ballot — something that we cannot do today. (Today, any real opponent is disqualified long before election day.) So we could still be on the ballot, but the result was already predetermined, and it was known ahead of time, and there was no way for us to win. And so, after that, very quickly, the Putin regime consolidated itself into what we’re seeing in Russia today, a system that is a hard line personalistic dictatorship where there are hundreds of political prisoners; where elections or a meaningless ritual with predetermined results; where all major media outlets are directly controlled by the state; where opponents of the regime are not only harassed, imprisoned, or exiled but very often murdered, as Putin’s leading opponent, Boris Nemtsov, was. And so, as the sort of system turned itself into this, many of the people who maybe wanted to pursue sort of a normal, usual political path — as I was — all people, as Evan was just saying, that maybe didn’t even think of themselves as pursuing sort of that way in life, felt that they had no other choice and that, as this was happening in front of our eyes, this regime was not only robbing the people of Russia of their wealth and this mammoth corruption that the Putin regime was characterized by — I mean, Putin is, by all accounts, the richest man in the world today — but also, much more importantly, robbing the people of Russia of their prospects and of the future. A lot of us felt that we had to do something. And so what Evan was just saying was really close to my heart; it’s this idea that, if you’re silent, you’re complicit. You cannot just stand idly by and watch. A few years ago — actually, quite a while ago — while I was still working as a television journalist, I was making a documentary film about the Soviet dissident movement, those brave individuals that found it in themselves to stand up against one of the most repressive, horrendous, totalitarian machines in history, the Soviet communist regime. And so I went to interview some of the people who were the leaders of that movement to ask about their motivation. And I was interested in this not only as a historian — which I am by education — but also, already by that time, it was clear that the Putin regime was going down the same direction. And I will never forget one of those interviews that I did. It was with Natalya Gorbanevskaya. She was a poet, and she was one of the seven people who, in August of 1968, came out onto Red Square in Moscow to protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. And I went to see her. She was living in Paris. She’s passed away since. And I asked her, “Why did she do it?” Because she knew what was coming. Everybody who was at that demonstration was either in prison, sent into eternal exile, or, worst of all — which happened to her — was confined to a psychiatric institution because, under the Soviet regime, dissidents were declared mentally insane because “Who else could oppose the Soviet regime?” in their logic and were kept there in torturous conditions, subjected to so-called treatment by psychotropic substances. This is what happened to her. And I asked her, “Why did you do this?” She had two young children, one of whom was with her in a pram at the demonstration. I said, “You knew what was going to happen. Why did you feel the need to go to that demonstration?” And she said to me, “Going to that demonstration was a selfish act.” And I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “I wanted to have a clean conscience.” I’m not sure I understood to the full extent what she meant by then. I certainly do now after the years and years of the Putin regime. And, I have to say, it’s a powerful motivation. This sort of goes back to your first question. Why are we doing this? Because we want to have a clean conscience. Because we felt — and I know I’m probably speaking for a lot of friends and colleagues in many authoritarian regimes, not just in Russia — that if we just stood idly by and watched what these people were doing to our countries, then we would also be complicit, and that is something we are not prepared to be.

Evan Mawarire: Can I just say this, Melissa? Because what Vladimir is saying, for me, is an answer that I’ve actually given many times when people have said, “What about your children? Why would you do that?” And often I’ve said, and this is in line with this conscience that you can’t live with it, “I am more afraid of my daughters twenty years from now asking me, ‘Why did you do nothing when this happened?’” And I think that’s part of why we do what we do is that we owe it to the coming generation to set a certain level or to set a certain platform that they can stand on and do what they need to do. Every generation has a duty. We must commit ourselves to that duty. We cannot fail it.

Vladimir Kara-Murza: Whatever I’m saying resonates so much. You know, the way the Soviet dissident movement began in the 1950s was that, after Stalin had died, there was a sort of process of internal reform in the Communist Party, and many of the crimes of Stalinism were made public in 1956 and the 20th Congress of the Communist Party under Nikita Khrushchev and the millions of political prisoners in the Gulag and the extrajudicial executions. And the way the Soviet dissident movement began was, when young people, when they heard all of this, they came to their parents, and they asked them, “What were you doing when all of this was going on, when people were being arrested in the middle of the night and taken away to be shot for nothing? What did you do, Daddy or Mommy, at that time?” And so exactly what Evan is saying: A lot of people ask, “Well, how’d you do this? You have children.” Yes, I do have three children, and I want, in however many years it takes, for people in Russia to fully realize the truth of the Putin regime. I do not want one of my kids to come up to me and say, “Daddy, where were you when all this was going on? What were you doing?”

Moderator: It’s extremely powerful and also hearing how sometimes, as you said, the circumstances just overtake you, and it’s all you can do, even if you start off trying to work in the opposition anyway or if you have something completely different, and you’re not even part of it. So we’ve talked a little bit about the why. I just now want to focus on the how of being a changemaker. So going back to your work with Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir, you worked with him, and that in fact took you to address Congress and the EU and actually lobby for the Magnitsky Act. Now, talking about very specific things, you guys actually managed to pass this. Tell us a little bit about what that is and how you managed to get it passed.

Vladimir Kara-Murza: Of course, at the outset, it needs to be said that change can only come domestically. Only Russians can change the situation in Russia. Only Russians can affect political change in Russia. This cannot and this should not be done from the outside. That’s sort of one of the favorite lines and lies of the Kremlin propaganda, that people like myself, those who are in opposition to Putin, somehow want the foreigners in the West to intervene. This is nonsense. This is a lie. It can and should only and will, I may add, one day only be done by the Russian people themselves. The only thing we do actually want and ask of our friends and partners in the democratic community is to stand true to their own values because, for years, we’ve had this astonishing situation when the West — when Western democracies — have been essentially complicit in the continuing functioning of the kleptocratic and authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin in Russia not only because they have accepted Putin as one of their own and given him these photo ops and international summits and given a red carpet treatment and high-level visits and so on but also, much more practically, because Western countries have accepted these kleptocrats, these oligarchs who sort of oil the wheels of this kleptocratic machine, of this authoritarian system that Putin has created by allowing them to stash away the loot — the money that they’re stealing from the people of Russia — in Western banks, in Western countries, in Western real estate markets. That’s the astonishing hypocrisy of the Putin regime. We have the people at the very top of the system, the people who abuse and undermine the most basic norms of democratic society at home in Russia who then want to enjoy the benefits and the privileges of democratic society in the West because that is where they have their second homes, their families, their wives, their mistresses, their bank accounts — that’s where they spend their holidays and so on.

Moderator: And that’s not just in Russia. That’s in many other countries.

Vladimir Kara-Murza: Absolutely, this goes for a lot of different countries. They want to steal from their own people and then stash away that stolen loot in Western countries. And, for years, the West has been complicit in this. It’s being said, talking specifically about Russia, that the biggest export from the Putin regime to the West is not oil or gas; it is corruption. That is an absolutely true sentiment, except, of course, that is a two-way street because, for someone to be able to export corruption, someone else somewhere needs to be willing to import it, and we have seen no shortage of this. And so the Magnitsky Act, when the idea came to be in 2010 — led by the late Senator John McCain and Senator Ben Cardin, a Republican and a Democrat — the idea was to put a stop to this hypocrisy by laying down a very clear principle: that those individuals who are complicit in human rights abuses in their own countries will no longer be able to get visas or assets or use the financial banking systems, in this case, of the United States of America. I became involved in this work in 2010. It was Boris Nemtsov who got me involved in this; he himself played an absolutely instrumental role in convincing the American Congress to pass this legislation. The US administration at the time — the Obama administration — was set dead against it. They had a reset going on with Putin; they wanted nothing to do with this law. And it took Boris Nemtsov’s conviction and courage and experience to convince them to actually do this. Senator McCain is on the record saying there would not have been a Magnitsky Act in the United States without Boris Nemtsov. That is a strong statement. And I’m proud of the small role that I played in that work to make sure that this legislation was passed. And it was passed in the US in 2012. We have since continued this work in other countries. I’m proud to say that, today, similar mechanisms exist across the Western democratic community — in Canada, in the United Kingdom, in the entirety of European Union as of December of 2020. And it’s always difficult to get it done because there are so many vested interests on the Western side who want to continue this import of kleptocracy and corruption. But, you know, once you take these arguments out into the public, this is how we always win because there is no public argument for allowing murders and torturers and criminals into Western democratic countries and accepting their dirty, stolen money. The work continues. It’s an uphill battle.

Moderator: But that’s a huge achievement, having actual legislation now. Again, it’s one thing to talk about why, but when you give a solution, and you’re like, “Here, we’re giving you the tools to actually hold these people accountable,” that must be very satisfying to know that your work led to that.

Vladimir Kara-Murza: It is important. I wish, of course, on one level, that we never had a necessity for that law because … this is a palliative, right? If you torture or murder, punishment should not be a frozen bank account; it should be something much more serious. But, since we have no real justice system in Russia, as is also the case in many other of these authoritarian states, this at least provides some form of accountability — however small, however feeble. It’s better than nothing. And so, yes, in the situation that we find ourselves in, I am proud of not only my small contribution but, above all, of the amazing work of these principled Western political leaders — including American legislators of both political parties — who have made this possible. And Boris Nemtsov has called the Magnitsky Act the most pro-Russian law ever passed in any foreign country because it targets individuals who abuse the rights of Russian citizens and who steal the money of Russian taxpayers. The brilliance of this law and of this mechanism is that it imposes sanctions not on entire countries or on entire peoples, as used to be the case in previous historical eras. It goes after the individuals who actually deserve it. These are targeted sanctions not against countries but for those countries who are being abused and who are being robbed blind by these dirty bad actors.

Moderator: It’s very interesting to listen to all of you and hear about the different methods that you’ve all used. So the public advocacy that we’ve just been talking about. And Jianli, you were talking about how your protest started with something as simple as a black band that you wore that other people saw and then that gave you an outlet to speak. And for you, it was Twitter. It was social media. What do you think now are some of the most effective tools you have in your toolbox to try and affect change? Let me start with you, Jianli.

Yang Jianli: Quite unfortunately, they’re very late on leverage; we have none. And the Magnitsky Act actually is a paradigm change. It provides a very important role for human rights workers around the world. Other than that, I think it takes determination. It takes a strategic and moral orientation for the policymakers in democracies. They have to understand: If we don’t change China, if we let China under Xi Jinping continue, what does that mean to the whole world? They have to understand this. This is not only for the sake of the people of China, which is so. But China now poses a threat to the interests, security, and democratic life of democracies around the world. We have to do something about it. I think everything begins with this realization and understanding. Then the rest is how we come up with the right policy toward China and Russia and other dictatorships around the world. Of course, the work we have been doing is valuable. We must continue. What I do is I help the civil movement in China with support from the international community. And also we help the international community shed light — spotlight — on the human rights situation in China. So this work is very important, but it’s not enough. And it takes the people, the citizens in the democracies to understand the nature of the work we do and why it is so important for their own lives and also our work on their politicians and policymakers to make change. So I think this is the most important thing we have to advocate today.

Moderator: And, Evan, what have you found to be some of the most effective tools now?

Evan Mawarire: Well, I think it’s important for people to realize that the most important tool in all of this that’s really common to all of us here is, first of all, our personal voices. That’s what began what we all do today is that we came up, and we put our voices out there to speak. And, going forward, I find that the best way to multiply the tools or to use that voice better is to leverage maybe the international attention that we’ve been able to attract to continue to look back into Zimbabwe, to continue to highlight what’s happening in Zimbabwe, to leverage our voices that have become international for solidarity with other organizations or other calls for justice — international calls for justice — to mainstream what’s happening in our nations internationally. But I think also the ability to give birth, in a sense, to more people like ourselves in our own nations is possibly one of the best ways to make use of the tools that we have because — I want to concur with Vladimir again on this — the only people that can bring change to a nation or a region are the people from that nation or from that region. I remember when we came up with a phrase that said, “We are the people that we have been waiting for.” At that point, that’s when we began to realize that it’s going to take us to call attention or to push for the demands of the kind of change that we want. It’s going to take us to stand up and to do it because nobody finds for Zimbabwe better, with more passion, and with more determination and commitment than a Zimbabwean does.

Yang Jianli: I want to follow up with that. The most important asset for us, for our cause, is the people back in our countries, and we have to find a way to support them — especially those who are in prison. We have to help them to save them, to help them free from the prison, help the family members. So if we don’t engage the people inside China when we talk about engagement with China, for example, it does not mean only engage the government. Actually, more importantly, it is to engage with the people. And we have to make the people to sacrifice less and less, not more and more. And if we help the family members of prisoners in any ways we can — in all the ways we can — so the activists and dissidents back in China will feel the risk and the price they have to take will become less and less. And when you’ve come to the point where the ordinary people can take the risk and the price, then that’s the moment of change because ordinary people can do the work done by heroes. So I think that’s very, very important to engage the people, engage those activists and dissidents in our nations, in our countries.

Moderator: I love that line: Ordinary people can do the work of the hero.

Yang Jianli: Yes, that’s the moment of change.

Moderator: It is, and it’s a great line, and it’s something that everybody should remember. I have a question now that I want to put to all of you. So I want to get your take individually and, Evan, I’ll start with you. How do you feel now when you look at your country, when you look at Zimbabwe?

Evan Mawarire: Zimbabwe has a way of giving you both excitement and disappointment at the same time. And I say that because the excitement for me comes from seeing the potential that our nation has, the potential that our young people have. That nation can and will become something amazing, something that young Zimbabweans will not want to leave but somewhere where they want to stay or where they want to come back to as home. The disappointment is in the fact and the realization that our liberators, who went to war to liberate the nation from colonialism, those that survived — at least not all of them but those that are in governance today — have become our oppressors. One of the statements I’ve made before, which is heartbreaking, is to say this: Zimbabwe and those that governed it are like a mother hen that eats its own eggs. And that is the disappointing and heartbreaking sense that I get about Zimbabwe today, that it continues to eat the future of its own children, its own young people. When Robert Mugabe was overthrown in 2017, everyone — literally everyone — thought, “This is the moment of turnaround. This is where Zimbabwe starts to walk into the destiny that she has always been defined as.” And yet, unbelievably, Zimbabwe has become worse today than it was under Robert Mugabe. And that’s not a very easy thing to admit. More people have been shot on the street by the military in broad daylight than we have ever known. More people have been abused and jailed in the last three years of this man’s rule than we’re under Robert Mugabe per capita. So that is the heartbreaking side of Zimbabwe. But it can never take away this sense of hope that, if I could stand up and challenge the Mugabe regime and challenge the Mnangagwa regime, there is a young man and a young woman somewhere too that will spark something that will bring the kind of change for Zimbabwe that Zimbabwe needs.

Moderator: Based on how you feel about Zimbabwe now and looking back at your career and the change that you’ve bought and your movement: With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you would do differently?

Evan Mawarire: There are some things that I think we would do differently. And it’s always important to look back and realize the journey you’ve walked to claim your successes but also own your failures. I think that we could have been a more solid front in Zimbabwe during the time that we did the protests and that we organized. Even now, I think that we can offer each other a lot more solidarity. I think we can come together and be a more united front against the regime than we have been in the past. And I think the work of the regime is that it always works to divide us. But also I think it’s the trauma that we have been through as Zimbabweans for so many years. There is the lack of trust amongst us. We want the same thing, but it’s difficult for us to trust each other when we are on the front line. And there are good reasons for that because people have been hurt, people have ended up losing their lives because they worked with the wrong people. So I think, you know, when I look back, we could have had more trust. We could have worked together on many projects. We could have succeeded on certain protests if we had put our differences or our lack of trust aside and worked together. But I’m excited that we’re getting better at this with different iterations of movements that are coming up now and different iterations of protests that we are putting together right now.

Moderator: Trust is a really good point, especially in regimes like this. So, Jianli, to you now. How do you feel when you look at the situation in China right now?

Yang Jianli: China in the past ten years has become worse from being bad. This is the worst time in the past of three decades in terms of human rights. Human rights violations in China under Xi Jinping are at an all-time high. And this is a situation I did not think that would be, even when I was in solitary confinement for many, many, many months. I thought of what the future of China would be ten years from now. I couldn’t imagine it would be like this today. And China makes headlines every day. I don’t have to tell everybody what China is doing, prosecuting Christians, brutalizing Muslims, concentration camps, genocide, absorbing Hong Kong, intimidating Taiwan, imprisoning human rights defenders, and you name it. The list goes on and on. And, at the same time that China is taking a very aggressive stand against the whole world, remember: In March in the Alaska meeting of top diplomats of China and the US, the top diplomat of China gave six minutes of remarks that shocked the whole world. What he actually said can be summarized in two points. Number one: American democracy is no longer shining. Number two: In terms of comprehensive national power, the US is in no position to lecture us; we are equal. The US can no longer play all high and mighty. That’s the message we should hear from Mr. Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat. I consider it a Sputnik moment, not only America but also the free world. So China is a threat, a threat not only — when we talk about threats — not only about South Sea confrontation, military confrontation, and things like that but also to the very democratic way of life. The Chinese in the past few decades infiltrated America and other democratic societies to the degree, you know, I don’t think we should let it continue. So I have been advocating that democracies should come together to form a firm alliance — not a superficial one — to take collective action confronting China. If you will, we can call it Cold War 2.0. Whether you like it or not, that moment has arrived.

Moderator: And looking back on your career and the things that you’ve done to bring about change, is there anything you would do differently?

Yang Jianli: If I could do it all over again, I would have stayed — I mean, remained — in China more than I did. So I would want to stay inside China more than I’m doing now.

Moderator: Again, this is all easy to say with the benefit of hindsight because of the circumstances at the time when you described to us earlier how you just escaped from Tiananmen Square. But that’s interesting to hear.

Yang Jianli: But I did try to go back once, and I ended up in prison. And, at that time, I was debating. After I was released from prison, I was debating whether I should stay or not. But because of family, again, we as dissidents have the strong sense of guilt toward our families. Because of us, they are forced to live turbulent lives with tremendous suffering, which may not be their own choice. So it’s a big cost for us. So then I decided to come back to the US and continue to work here. Of course, we can do a lot here. But, if I would have to do it all over again, I would have to find a way to stay in China instead of leaving.

Moderator: I really appreciate the honesty that all of you are sharing here because I think there are many people who will be watching this who are in similar situations or who are having to make choices, and something that may be right for you might not be right for somebody else, and each person’s situation is different. But I think it is interesting for them to hear this candidly from all of you. And, Vladimir, I want to put the same questions to you. How do you feel when you look at Russia today?

Vladimir Kura-Murza: Just like Evan, I’d give two different answers to the same question because it depends on what you mean by Russia. If you mean the official side — the Putin regime, the Kremlin — well, the image is horrendous. It is getting worse literally by the day. We have hundreds of prisoners. We have prominent opposition leaders either murdered or incarcerated. We have a society that is growing more and more repressed by its own government. I mean, you can get a several years prison term for a tweet now — literally. This is how things are. This is where we’ve gone under Vladimir Putin. If you try to peacefully exercise your right to freedom of assembly, which, on paper, is supposed to be guaranteed to us not only by our own constitution but also by the European Convention of Human Rights because Russia is a member state of the Council of Europe, the response you’ll get from the authorities would be beatings, arrests, detention, sacking from your job, expulsion from universities, and so on and so forth. This is the reality of an ever-growing repressive authoritarian system that exists in Russia. And the other side of this coin, as it invariably is in modern Russian history, is the growing external aggressiveness of the Putin regime as well. This is sort of the inevitable interconnection in Russia. When you have a government that represses its own people, that denies and violates the rights of its own people and breaks its own laws, why would it respect the norms of international law or the interests of other countries? In a way, those Western leaders who have for years, in the early part of Putin’s rule, turned a blind eye on growing domestic repression in Russia, media censorship in Russia, election fraud in Russia have one day woken up to the first state-to-state territorial annexation in Europe since the end of the Second World War, which is what Vladimir Putin did in Crimea in 2014. Those things are interrelated, and we’re continuing to see the same trend. That is the official side; that is the side people most often hear about in international media. And that is, by the way, what people often associate with “Russia” because so many people in the West make the mistake of equating a nation with an authoritarian regime that misrules that nation. And this goes not only for Russia. This goes for so many other countries.

Moderator: Definitely.

Vladimir Kura-Murza: And so not just we in Russian opposition, but I know so many colleagues in democratic and dissident movements all over the world often make this point on the international stage, addressing it to those Western policymakers and journalists and experts. Don’t pull that equation mark. Don’t confuse a regime with a country; they are different things. And so the second part of the answer to your question, Melissa, the situation in Russia today: I’m very hopeful, and I’m very optimistic about the situation in Russia today if, by Russia, you mean Russian society and, especially, the younger generation. I travel a lot around the regions of Russia as part of my work. I’m out of Moscow, but I go all over the place, and the biggest positive impression and the biggest source of hope and optimism for me is the young generation — those people, in fact, paradoxically, who have grown up not knowing any other political reality except Vladimir Putin’s because he’s been in power for so long. And you would think that would be the brainwashed generation, the generation that would sort of blindly fall in line with the propaganda machine. But they are not. And I think the biggest reason for this are these things (Vladimir holds up his smartphone), especially when I travel around sort of the furthest regions of Russia. Before, back in the old days — and maybe this is a little bit of a Moscow snobbery speaking in me — you were always able to tell the difference whether you’re speaking to an audience in Moscow or St. Petersburg, the two capital cities, or if you’re speaking to a provincial audience because you would know sort of by where the conversation goes, by what questions people are asking. That is still true of the older generation. That is no longer true if you’re speaking about people age 30 or below because they no longer watch Putin’s propaganda television channels; they use these (Vladimir holds up his smartphone again). They read the same Twitter feeds, they use the same social media, they watch the same YouTube videos as not only their peers in Moscow and St. Petersburg but their peers in other European countries. And this is really the new and the modern generation. And if you look up the nationwide protests that, for example, took place earlier this year in January after the arrest of Alexei Navalny, tens of thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of people are going out onto the streets of Russia all the way from the Baltic to the Pacific. The vast majority of these protesters were young people; it was the young generation. And that is the generation of the future. They are the future of Russia; Vladimir Putin is not. And so, when I look at these people, when I interact with these people, when I speak with these people, this really fills me with hope that, one day, Russia will become, to use the words of Alexei Navalny in one of his interviews last year, a “normal European country.” This is the height of our ambition. And I know that day will arrive upon us. And everything that we do, everything that we continue to work for has, as its goal, to try to bring that day a little closer.

Yang Jianli: The picture in China is much, much more dismal. And we all know, in the past ten years, Xi Jinping’s regime has being able to build a digital dictatorship in China. Actually, they have built a multidimensional information population control system. Literally, every citizen’s movement and speech is being watched by “big brother” in China.

Moderator: China is one of those places where — technology may have democratized the world, giving everybody access to the same information — but China is one of the places where you’re seeing that being restricted more so than anywhere else.

Yang Jianli: Exactly, the young people in China, most of them are not able to get to the sites that are not allowed by the Chinese government.

Vladimir Kura-Murza: The Great Firewall of China, right?

Yang Jianli: The Great Firewall of China. I think, if we can do only one thing to help China, to help the people of China, is to help tear down the Great Firewall of China.

Moderator: Jianli, as we bring this to a close, I do want to ask each of you: What can citizens anywhere they are — wherever in the world, whatever profession they’re in, whether they’re rich or poor — how can they stand in solidarity with each of you and for your specific countries? So, Jianli, you were just saying they should be drawing attention to break down the Great Firewall of China. And how can they do that?

Yang Jianli: It takes the combined effort from governmental players and nongovernmental players. For governments, they have to come out with a policy, to have a very clear goal to tear down the Great Firewall — the modern-day Berlin Wall that separates the people of China from the rest of the world. They have to have the policy. And that comes with resources from the government. And also it takes a coordinated effort of the technology people and the financial people and the government together to do it. Of course it involves activists like myself to do it. And other things the citizens in democracies can do is to work on their policymakers to tell them the truth. I think the truth is the most important thing. And, oftentimes, the politicians around the world — democracies included — pretend not to see the things that are happening in China, Russia, Zimbabwe, and they look the other way. So the citizens have a duty to get them to confront the truth. Come up with the right policies. That we can do.

Moderator: And, Evan, how can people stand in solidarity with you in Zimbabwe?

Evan Mawarire: Well, that word solidarity is really the key to it. We often say solidarity is the language of the oppressed. It is often one of the most important gifts you can give to people who are being brutalized. And there are many ways in which people all over the world can help the struggle for freedom in Zimbabwe. And one of those ways is to help amplify the different things that the regime is doing but the different things that freedom and democracy actors are doing also in Zimbabwe today. Like Vladimir says, the phones that we have are an easy way to amplify an injustice taking place or to amplify something that citizens are doing to better their nation through a retweet or sharing or through a comment. Or even just approaching your own locally elected representative in the government of your nation and pushing them to pay attention to what’s happening in Zimbabwe. I think, for me, the idea of starting where you are with what you have is really, you know, the embryo of change. Start where you are with what you have. And people don’t realize that you can actually spark off almost a tsunami of change by just starting a hashtag. And we’ve seen this happen over and over again. Somebody starts a hashtag from somewhere across the world concerning something happening in Eritrea or something happening in China or something happening in Zimbabwe or Russia, and it becomes a global movement. So never underestimate the power of what one person can do — the action of one person wherever they are. The spirit of freedom is a peculiar thing; it responds to the determination of those people that have been underestimated.

Moderator: I love that: Start wherever you are with whatever you have. That’s great. And lastly to you, as we wrap this up. Last word: How can people stand in solidarity with you in Russia, Vladimir?

Vladimir Kura-Murza: Sometimes symbols are as important as actions. When Nelson Mandela was in prison in Robben Island during the apartheid era, the Glasgow City Council named a square near the South African consulate there as Nelson Mandela Place. When Andrei Sakharov, a leading Soviet dissident, was placed into internal exile in the 1980s, Washington, D.C. named a portion of the street in front of the then-Soviet embassy Andrei Sakharov Plaza. These are very powerful gestures of solidarity, not just with those individuals but for the whole civil societies of those persecuted countries. When Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in February of 2015, the Kremlin hasn’t stopped fighting him. They are now fighting him in death and now fighting his memory. Time after time, they have come to that spot where he was murdered on the bridge in front of the Kremlin — where, every single day, people lay flowers and light candles — to take them away, to arrest the volunteers who are standing guard. Time after time, they have refused to allow even a small memorial plaque on that bridge. They have refused a moment of silence. In parliament, they’ve made it absolutely clear with everything that they do that they will not allow us to commemorate a Russian statesman in Russia. And so, based on those noble precedents of the past, we went to elected lawmakers and municipal leaders in capital cities of democratic nations around the world, starting here where we’re all sitting in the studio in Washington, D.C. And in 2018, the Washington, D.C. Council unanimously voted to name the part of the street in front of the current Russian embassy in Washington, D.C. as Boris Nemtsov Plaza. And, when we unveiled that street, that square, in 2018, I said that, to me — as a Russian politician, as a Russian citizen — I can think of nothing more powerful as a gesture of solidarity with Russia than to name a street in front of the Russian embassy after a Russian statesman. And whatever people in the Kremlin and government halls around Putin think and say of this today, I know the day will come when of course we’ll have Boris Nemtsov streets in Moscow, St. Petersberg, Nizhny Novgorod, and other places around the country and when Russia as a state will be proud that our embassy in Washington is standing on a street that is named after a Russian statesman. Since then, the city of Prague, the city of Vilnius, and the city of Kiev have all legislated exactly the same thing. Russian embassies in those cities are now standing in the streets, on squares, and in parks named after Boris Nemtsov. I hope many other world capitals follow. And, in democracies, the voices of citizens are the most powerful voices there are, so please contact your lawmaker, your municipal council, your local community leaders. In Prague, it was actually the most local district council that began this initiative because symbols sometimes can be even more powerful than actions. And such a small and simple symbol like this as installing a plaque or putting up a street name really resonates in those countries where citizens, for now, have no voices of their own. And these gestures of moral support and moral solidarity I think have a significance and power and influence that people should be more aware of.

Yang Jianli: Can I add something?

Moderator: Very quickly.

Yang Jianli: Yeah, I agree with what Vladimir just said and every word he said. And one thing, one message I want to give friends is that, despite the difficulty facing the people of China, there is zero civil society in China as we speak. Do not lose hope and confidence in our people. And, when I was in solitary confinement, I had a lot of regret, anxiety. You know, I said, “Why should I do this?” And I did a thought experiment. And I imagined I take the Universal Declaration of Human Rights back to China and ask anyone I meet on the street and then tell them what this document is, what it describes, the rights this document describes. I ask them, “Do you want them? Do you want them?” Do you think there’s a single person who would say no? So desire for freedom is intrinsic and universal. The people of China are not an exception. We have not been able to bring about change in China, and, as I said, it’s the worst time in the past thirty years. I often think of my favorite biblical story: the miracle of the five loaves and two fish, in which Jesus miraculously used the five loaves of bread and two fish offered by a little boy to feed a multitude of 5,000 hungry people. Like the little boy, what I can do and my colleagues can do is just faithfully present to G-d what we have — however meager it is. It is up to him to decide how much he will make of it. So it is in this spirit we continue our work.

Moderator: Thank you. And this has been a fascinating conversation. And I will encourage anyone who’s out there, who’s watching, who wants to learn more about these three very courageous individuals to seek them out on their social media. Get in touch. I’m sure they’d be happy to help you. But that is where we’re going to leave this for today. So thank you very much.

Speakers and Participants

Yang Jianli

Chinese dissident, former political prisoner, Tiananmen Square massacre survivor and President of Initiatives for China

Evan Mawarire

Zimbabwean protest leader, arrested six times and tortured for his civil rights work



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