At 5 a.m., the phone rang. Evgenia Kara-Murza picked up to her husband Vladimir’s voice. He was feeling strange — his heart was racing and he was having trouble breathing. Right away, she knew what was wrong. This, after all, was the second time he’d been poisoned.
“For these two years, I’ve been expecting something like that to happen again,” she said on Wednesday at the Women in the World summit in New York City.
After Vladimir was first poisoned in 2015, he was in a coma for nearly a month. Nerve damage wracked his body, forcing him to learn to walk, talk, and eat anew. The most recent attack in February wasn’t as debilitating as the first one — partly because doctors knew what they were dealing with and acted quickly. (In both cases, doctors were unable to identify the chemical agent involved.) Yet still, he was laid up in intensive care for weeks.
But despite the repeated attacks, Kara-Murza said, her husband “is as fervent as always in his beliefs. He’s already back to work.”
Those beliefs are likely what made him a target. Vladimir actively lobbied the U.S. government to pass landmark sanctions against Moscow. Named for a crusading lawyer who was imprisoned for his anti-corruption work, the 2012 Magnitsky Act targets Russian officials involved in human rights violations. The legislation has been used to freeze assets and ban travel of more than a dozen individuals. Just this year, Putin confidant General Alexander Bastrykin was added to the list.
The act’s success, however, has been undermined by the dire fate of some of its most prominent boosters. Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who worked with Vladimir to advocate for the bill, was shot and killed outside the Kremlin in 2015. He’s one of six people involved with the act that have died under mysterious circumstances. Most recently, on March 21, Magnitsky’s lawyer, Nikolai Gorokhov, fell — or perhaps was pushed — from his apartment building. He is currently in the hospital and unable to speak.
While it’s impossible to definitively draw a connection to the Kremlin in these incidents, the regime has a track record of targeting activists, independent journalists, and other perceived opponents. “I do not believe that Vladimir Putin can be called a leader,” said Kara-Murza. “A leader is someone who is chosen by his or her own people to represent his people — to lead his people. He was not chosen. For 17 years, we haven’t had one free and democratic election in our country.”
While her husband lives in Moscow, Kara-Murza now stays in Virginia with her three children — in part to protect them. Yet Kara-Murza doesn’t believe in hiding to truth. “There is no point in lying to your children,” she said. Although her two youngest children aren’t old enough to grasp the danger, her 11-year-old daughter understands. She has a joke with her father, who’s currently recuperating in the U.S., Kara-Murza said. “She looks at her dad and says, ‘You know daddy, if you ever go back [to Russia] and if it ever happens again, you could work as a librarian.’”
Both mother and daughter feel a mixture of pride and fear. “She also understands that her father is a great man, and is a fighter. And I know that she is terrified, but at the same time, growing up in his presence and seeing him do what he does every day empowers her too.”
Luckily, the Kara-Murzas aren’t alone in their opposition. On March 26, anti-corruption protests popped up in dozens of Russian cities. And while thousands of demonstrators were thrown in jail — with some facing the threat of criminal prosecution — Kara-Murza found reason for hope. She sees a younger generation, one that is fluent in online news and social media, that is less susceptible to the Kremlin’s propaganda machine.
“Putin’s regime is slow-moving and does not know how to react to this new force,” she told Women in the World. “Because of new technology, this new generation is always going to react faster — and they are not scared.”
Yet even with the rise of a new cohort of young, politically-engaged Russians, Kara-Murza noted that her husband isn’t ready to step back from his work. “He is doing the same thing that he’s been doing for his whole life,” she said. “Another poisoning isn’t going to stop him.”
Additional reporting by Helen Fitzwilliam.