Tonsentencing This week’s sentence of 25 years in prison for opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza shocked even those accustomed to the high-handedness of Russia’s court system. Yan Rachinsky, president of the recently banned human rights group Memorial, described the sentence as Stalinist. Mr Kara-Murza himself expressed surprise at the extent to which the trial had gone beyond the norms of late Soviet dissident trials. “Something like this could have been in the 1930s, not the 1970s,” he said.
Mr Kara-Murza, an Anglo-Russian citizen, was convicted of a mind-boggling number of crimes: treason, false information, and murdering the exiled former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky ( Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s outlawed “undesirable” organization. His real crime was against Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Knowing the risks of continuing political activity in Russia, Mr Kara-Murza has survived two suspected poisoning attempts that left him in poor health. He also accepted the possibility of arrest, friends and colleagues said. “He said it was a reasonable inference,” said Kirill Rogov, an analyst with whom he spoke before returning to Russia in early 2022. “He sighed and said, if you’re a Russian politician, you need to be in Russia right now.”
Mr Kara-Murza’s sentencing follows an ever-expanding series of wartime laws that limit various dissents against Mr Putin. These are being interpreted increasingly harshly. Last month, security services arrested American journalist Evan Gershkovich on espionage charges. On 18 April, the day after Mr Kara-Murza’s sentencing, Russia announced a further expansion of its legislative network, extending the maximum sentence for so-called state treason from 20 years to life in prison. Lawyers representing those selected for trial have also been targeted. Vadim Prokhorov, who defended Mr Kara-Murza, left Russia shortly before sentencing. He was told he would be next.
Human rights lawyer Maria Eismont, who represented Mr Carla-Murza, remained in Moscow. On our podcast series next year in Moscow, she explains the logic of continuing her work in a country where the security services are above the law. One reason, she said, is that in Russian courts “you can say openly things that have long been forbidden elsewhere”.
In returning to Russia, Kara-Murza emulated Alexei Navalny, who returned to Russia in January 2021 after being poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. In the final episode of the podcast on April 22, his spokesman, Kilayamish, told CNN that he has been in solitary confinement since last summer and that his health is deteriorating. Mr Navalny’s spirit remains as strong as ever, she said.
The state is now preparing a new lawsuit against him. Mr Navalny is currently serving nine years in prison on trumped-up charges, but prosecutors have opened a new investigation into far-fetched terrorism and extremism charges, which carry a maximum penalty of 35 years in prison. They were quick to link Mr Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation to the April 2 assassination in St Petersburg of pro-war blogger Vladlen Tatarsky.
Mr Navalny’s London-based partner, Vladimir Ashurkov, said he did not expect any new trial to “turn out well”. But he said it was understood Mr Navalny – like Mr Kara-Murza and other political prisoners – would remain behind bars as long as Putin remained in power. “Even now, Alexei’s tenure is nine years, which is more than anyone has ever known about contemporary Russia,” Mr Ashurkov said.
The Kremlin has used repression and propaganda to silence Russians who oppose Putin’s war. It appears to be hoping that sentences like Mr Carla-Murza’s will persuade its enemies to give up hope. But some observers see the increased severity as a sign that authorities are nervous.
Repression should be understood as a form of communication between the state and its subjects, according to Grigory Okhotin, founder of OVD-Info, a network for legal support for victims of police violence. “It’s like an invisible hand,” he said. This feeling is heightened when people start pushing the boundaries of what is allowed. Authorities “act when people start to lose their fear. Demonstrative sentences are a sign of failure, a sign of loss of control.” ■