‘Russians are ready for freedom,” was the title of a talk at last week’s Oslo Freedom Forum in Manhattan by Vladimir Kara-Murza, deputy chairman of Open Russia, the country’s largest opposition group.
It was a statement likely to elicit a skeptical response, given Vladimir Putin’s 80-plus percent approval ratings and the paucity of protests. Nonetheless, Kara-Murza’s message is a compelling rejoinder to those who believe that Putin’s authoritarianism is Russia’s natural state.
Kara-Murza, a soft-spoken 36-year-old politician who speaks virtually flawless English — he has a degree from England’s Cambridge University — is well aware that he is fighting a dangerous battle. A large part of his talk was devoted to Russia’s political prisoners, often jailed on trumped-up charges from drug possession to embezzlement to participation in violent street protests.
Imprisonment is not the only risk. In 2015, Kara-Murza’s ally, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, was shot to death a few blocks from the Kremlin. Kara-Murza has suffered two collapses, with symptoms of poisoning, that left him in a coma and near death.
Nonetheless, he continues his activism, traveling across Russia not only to preach freedom but to teach freedom-minded people practical skills of civic participation.
His “first conscious political memory,” Kara-Murza said, was the Soviet hard-liners’ coup of August 1991. The coup leaders had everything at their disposal: the KGB, the media, the army and its tanks. Yet they were defeated by unarmed people determined to stay free. At 10, Kara-Murza said, he was too young to join his father on the barricades, but old enough to learn a lesson: “When enough people are willing to stand up, they succeed.”
Kara-Murza urged the West to “stop falling for the lie that Russian people are somehow uniquely unsuited and not ready for freedom.” He gave historical examples: Russians voted for pro-freedom parties after the 1917 revolution, before the Bolsheviks seized power by force of arms; they voted for the pro-democracy message of Boris Yeltsin in 1991, shortly before the coup; they stood up for freedom in August 1991.
This argument may be overly optimistic. Russia’s free parliamentary elections of 1993 and 1995 were depressing setbacks for freedom forces, with ultranationalists and Communists getting the majority of votes. Today, even if Putin’s approval ratings are artificially inflated, polls also show only a minority of Russians are concerned with the suppression of freedoms and up to 60 percent wish for a return to the Soviet system (though most believe it’s impossible).
And yet there are grounds for optimism that change might come. In a 2016 poll, 54 percent of Russians agreed that Russia would benefit from an uncensored television channel critical of the government. Polls also show that young people, whom Kara-Murza praised as the next generation of protesters, are the least susceptible to Soviet nostalgia: Only a quarter would like to bring back the old order.
One fascinating fact Kara-Murza mentioned was not a part of his talk but came up in our conversation: The liberal opposition recently scored unexpected and impressive wins in municipal elections in Moscow.
“It is our task to change Russia, and we will do it ourselves,” Kara-Murza told the audience. But he also asked Western leaders to “stop supporting Mr. Putin by treating him as a respectable partner on the world stage.”
In the real world, that’s easier said than done. Nonetheless, Kara-Murza’s talk was an important reminder that, morality aside, banking on the Putin regime to last indefinitely may not be wise. Authoritarian regimes can crumble quickly, and the next generation of pro-freedom Russians is ready to take charge.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.