The Volokh Conspiracy

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Russian Opposition Leader Vladimir Kara-Murza's Powerful Final Statement to the Court

He made it prior to being sentenced to 25 years in prison for speaking out against Vladimir Putin's war on Ukraine.


Vladimir Kara-Murza (October 2022).


Earlier today, prominent Russian dissident and opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment in a "strict regime penal colony" for speaking out against Vladimir Putin's war on Ukraine. Here is an excerpt from the English translation of his compelling final statement to the court:

At one point during my testimony, the presiding judge reminded me that one of the extenuating circumstances was "remorse for what [the accused] has done." And although there is little that's amusing about my present situation, I could not help smiling: Criminals must repent of their deeds. But I'm in prison 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. I blame myself for only one thing: that over the years of my political activity, I have not managed to convince enough of my compatriots and enough politicians in the democratic countries of the danger that the current regime in the Kremlin poses for Russia and for the world. Today this is obvious to everyone, but at a terrible price — the price of war.

I have made a couple small adjustments to the above text, so it will better reflect the Russian original (which is available here).

Later in the statement, Kara-Murza expresses his confidence that Russian views of the war and the Putin regime will shift over time:

I… know that the day will come when the darkness over our country will dissipate. When black will be called black and white will be called white; when at the official level it will be recognized that two times two is still four; when a war will be called a war, and a usurper a usurper; and when those who kindled and unleashed this war, rather than those who tried to stop it, will be recognized as criminals.

This day will come as inevitably as spring follows even the coldest winter. And then our society will open its eyes and be horrified by what terrible crimes were committed on its behalf. From this realization, from this reflection, the long, difficult but vital path toward the recovery and restoration of Russia, its return to the community of civilized countries, will begin.

I wish I could be as confident of this as Kara-Murza. But it's worth noting that similar transformations have happened in a variety of nations around the world. Today, most Germans, Italians, and Japanese recognize the evil nature of the regimes that ruled those countries in the 1930s and 40s. In the United States, most Americans have come to recognize the historic evils of slavery, segregation, and the oppression of Native Americans. It is entirely possible that a similar transition will occur in Russia in the future. Those who believe that Russians are inherently brutal authoritarians incapable of change should recall the long history of similar statements about Germans and Japanese, among others.

As I explained in a post on the one-year anniversary of the current war, such transformations are often facilitated by defeat in war. As the examples of the Nazis, the Confederates, and others show, defeat often helps discredit the ideology of the defeated regime. Putin's imperialist nationalism is more likely to be discredited in the eyes of Russians if it suffers a decisive defeat in Ukraine. That provides an additional reason to push for such an outcome.

Kara-Murza's bravery, like that of Ilya Yashin, sentenced to an 8.5 year term in December, also raises the issue of the proper Western attitude towards Russians at the present time. In my February post about Yashin [who is no relation of mine, the name "Ilya" is a common one], I explained why both moral and practical considerations should lead us to reject theories of collective guilt and to open our doors to Russian migrants fleeing Putin's regime:

As Yashin suggests [in a statement he wrote from prison], ascriptions of collective guilt are wrong in themselves—conflating the innocent with the guilty. In addition, they play into the hands of the regime's propaganda by lending credibility to its claims that the West is hostile to Russians, as such….

First, I wonder how many of those who fault Russians for not protesting enough, would themselves be willing to do so if they were in Russia right now, and speaking out meant risking a lengthy prison sentence, like the one Yashin got? We should be wary of imposing standards on others that we would not live up to ourselves, if we were in their place.

Second, as I have argued time and again from the beginning of the war, both moral and pragmatic considerations counsel in favor of opening our doors to Russians fleeing the regime, just as we—to a large extent—have done for Ukrainian refugees (I cannot easily be accused of neglecting the cause of the latter)…. Thus, more would be freed from oppression, and the "brain drain" and loss of manpower imposed on Putin's regime would be larger. To the extent that theories of collective guilt are used to justify barring Russian migrants, they are having a deeply pernicious effect.

Finally, projecting a less negative attitude towards the Russian people is in the long-term interest of both Ukraine and the West. Military action may enable Ukraine to expel Russian troops from its territory and end the immediate threat of conquest. But the long-term threat posed by Russia will only dissipate if Putin's authoritarian nationalist regime is replaced by a much more liberal one that abjures oppression and conquest….

None of this means Putin alone bears the sole blame for the war and its evils. Obviously, he has many collaborators, including some who are responsible for horrific atrocities. Those people deserve condemnation and—where possible—punishment. But we should distinguish between them and the population, at large. Indeed, punishment for war crimes is another goal that—most likely—can only be achieved through a liberalization of Russia.

I also addressed issues of collective guilt here.