In a time when the politics of the Kremlin have once again captured America’s attention, Hamilton College was fortunate to host Vladimir Kara-Murza, the vice-chairman of Open Russia, an NGO advocating for democracy and human rights in Russia. He visited to screen his documentary film Nemtsov, about the political life of Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader who championed democracy until his murder in 2015.

Before the screening, Kara-Murza visited Associate Professor of Government Sharon Rivera’s Politics in Russia class to discuss his work and answer questions from the class. He was a close friend of the late Nemtsov so, Kara-Murza’s work toward democratizing Russia makes his perspective on the Russian political world invaluable. This work has also put him at risk, as he was the victim of two poisonings that his colleagues believe were politically motivated. He is an outspoken opponent of Vladimir Putin’s regime, working both within Russia and internationally for the cause of Russian democracy.  

One example of Kara-Murza’s dedication to democratization and the well-being of the Russian people is his work with Nemtsov on the Magnitsky Act. The act is a bipartisan bill passed by the U.S. Congress in December 2012, designed to allow for the application of sanctions against specific Kremlin officials that would not hurt the economic prospects of ordinary Russians.

If you see what is happening and do nothing, you are complicit.

As Kara-Murza noted, it is a way to ensure that “you don’t punish an entire country for the actions of a few” and instead assign responsibility where it is due. Broader sanctions often ended up as a tool of Kremlin propaganda, since the government would use the sanctions as evidence of Western hatred of the country as a whole. The impetus behind the Magnitsky Act informs much of Kara-Murza’s work. He tries to fight against the “equating of a regime with an entire country that it misrules.”

When asked why he chose this life given the inherent the risks, Kara-Murza responded that it was not a matter of choice. He echoed a sentiment he once heard Nemtsov express, that if “you see what is happening and do nothing, you are complicit.”

Despite facing a regime where simply telling the truth in a documentary is a radical action, Kara-Murza is anything but cynical. He consistently stressed his belief that Russia has a democratic future. After the showing of his documentary, a student asked if Kara-Murza thought the portrayal of Russia as a country destined for authoritarian rule is a fair depiction. He responded strongly against the stereotype, emphasizing that when given a choice, Russians have always chosen democracy.

Kara-Murza works in Russia to help build the foundations for a democratic transition when Putin’s regime ends, as all regimes do. He likened the work of Open Russia to the story of Rudolf Kehrer, a Soviet pianist exiled to Kazakhstan in World War II. While living in exile, Kehrer carved a mock piano out of a wooden board so he would not forget the motions to play. When Kehrer returned, he became an acclaimed pianist, all because of his refusal to give up playing even without a proper piano. 

Out of elections whose results are predetermined, Open Russia carves the base for democracy in Russia. The NGO helps train younger people for a future of running for elected office by having them actually run, despite the fact that under current conditions they could never win.

When Putin’s regime ends, the country will have people knowledgeable about democratic processes who can facilitate a transition.  In this way, the younger generation is pushing for democracy, by learning how a democracy functions and by participating in protests across the country. In the face of the stereotype of Russia as a state predisposed to authoritarian rule, Kara-Murza points to examples showing otherwise. “Just look at the protests. That’s Russia too.”

The film screening and lecture were sponsored by the Levitt Center.

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