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Putin’s Political Prisoner Refuses to Stay Silent

By the time I met Vladimir Kara-Murza, he had been poisoned twice. Russian president Vladimir Putin’s agents had tried to kill the 41-year-old journalist, documentarian, and protégé of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in 2015 and again in 2017. The second poisoning was so severe that doctors put Kara-Murza into a medically induced coma. It lasted more than two weeks.

The sprightly, eloquent, friendly, and intense married father of three whom I encountered the following year was animated and fearless. We discussed his life, parenting, and mutual acquaintances. He said that he enjoyed the Washington Free Beacon. Having admired from a distance his courageous stand for freedom, I marveled at Kara-Murza’s ability to connect with strangers, his generosity, his humor. Nor was I alone. The world is filled with people who share my gratitude for his example and my hopes for his future in a democratic Russia. One such person was the late senator John McCain (R., Ariz.), who before he died asked Kara-Murza to serve as a pallbearer at his funeral in September 2018.

Now Kara-Murza sits in prison. He was arrested in Moscow on April 11, 2022, for criticizing the Russian invasion of Ukraine in a speech to the Arizona House of Representatives. He was punished with 15 days in jail. Subsequently, he was accused of spreading false information about Putin’s army and remained in captivity. Last August, the Russian authorities slapped on an additional charge of working with an “undesirable”—that is, pro-democracy—nongovernmental organization. Kara-Murza’s detention continued. Then, last October, he was accused of high treason. The maximum sentence is 20 years.

Let’s be clear about what is going on here. Kara-Murza is no oligarch. He is not a foreign agent. Nor is he a saboteur. He is a writer and a filmmaker who holds British and Russian passports. He’s an activist who committed the “crime”—one flinches at calling it that—of stating his views in public on a matter of global concern. In Russia today, voicing a dissenting opinion makes you an enemy of the state.

For pointing out the illegality and barbarism of Putin’s unprovoked aggression against the sovereign nation of Ukraine, Kara-Murza joined the ranks of at least 19,535 fellow citizens of the Russian Federation who have been detained for protesting the war. Their acts of defiance express a universal will to freedom, a desire for religious and civil liberty, for self-government and rule of law, that remains alive in even the most barren and hostile environments. Kara-Murza is a voice of this other Russia. He is a spokesman for the free society buried beneath the fear.

And, remarkably, he has kept up his work. Kara-Murza communicates with family, assistants, and allies from lockup. His professional team maintains his Twitter account. The dateline on Kara-Murza’s columns for the Washington Post read, “Pretrial Detention Center 5, Moscow,” but his ability to write them at all is both reassuring and inspiring. Last autumn, while he was under arrest, Kara-Murza’s wife Evgenia began exhibiting his third documentary to Western audiences.

My Duty to Not Stay Silent: A Film About Father Georgy Edelstein—click the link to watch it on YouTube—is the incredible story of a philologist turned Orthodox priest whose refusal to participate in Bolshevik doublethink antagonized civil and religious bureaucracies. Born in 1932 to a Jewish-Christian family in what is now Ukraine, Edelstein and his wife chose a life of poverty and service when he sought holy orders. After he became a priest, Soviet apparatchiks grew so annoyed with Edelstein’s push for religious freedom that they denied him a parish church.

Edelstein’s son, Yuli, who was raised Jewish, was denied an exit visa to migrate to Israel. He became a refusenik and was sent to the Gulag. President Ronald Reagan took up the cause of both father and son, pressing Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for Yuli’s release and Georgy’s rehabilitation. Yuli was freed in 1987, went to Israel, and entered politics. In 1988, when Reagan visited Moscow, Georgy was invited to meet the president. Uninterested in politics, he grudgingly went to the home of the American ambassador. He shook Reagan’s hand. The Soviets watched carefully. Afterward, they gave him a church.

Central to Father Georgy Edelstein’s ethical system is the duty to speak. He practices the injunction of another great Soviet dissident, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who said not to live by lies. Edelstein’s contrary nature, his resistance to political interference in pastoral life, his abhorrence of silence, continues to this day.

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Father Georgy spoke to his congregation. “We cannot shyly close our eyes and call black white, evil good, and say that Abel was probably wrong and provoked his older brother,” he said. “The blood of the people of Ukraine will remain on the hands of not only the rulers and soldiers who carry out orders. Their blood is on the hands of each of us who approved of this military operation or simply remained silent.”

Watching My Duty Not to Stay Silent at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute this week, one couldn’t help noticing certain parallels between Father Edelstein’s life and Vladimir Kara-Murza’s. Evgenia Kara-Murza was visibly moved when, during a panel discussion after the film, Ambassador Andrew Bremberg of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation said that in telling Edelstein’s tale, her husband had in some ways prefigured his own. Mrs. Kara-Murza is as eloquent a champion of freedom as her husband. She told the audience, “The fight against evil, no matter what form or shape it may take, is never hopeless.”

She also said that court proceedings against Vladimir Kara-Murza are expected to begin soon. They will be a farce. Real justice will be served when Kara-Murza is freed, and Putin is punished for his crimes against mankind.

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