It was 4 a.m. in Moscow, Feb. 2, 2017, when Vladimir Kara-Murza knew something was horribly wrong — again. He was scheduled to leave later that morning for America to attend his daughter’s eighth birthday party. But instead, the 35-year-old Kara-Murza, a fearless and persistent critic of Vladimir Putin, was suddenly gripped with the knowledge that, for the second time in two years, his life was in danger.
“My heart was racing, I was sweating,” he told Yahoo News’ Bianna Golodryga in an interview. “It became really difficult to breathe. … It was really frightening. I knew I only had a few minutes in which I could still do something.”
Kara-Murza called his wife, who lives in the Washington suburbs. She immediately phoned a prominent Moscow doctor who had treated him the last time this happened. Kara-Murza was rushed to a Moscow hospital, where in the hours that followed, the doctors frantically tried to figure out what was happening to his body.
One by one, Kara-Murza’s kidneys, lungs and other organs began to shut down. “All my organs failed within six hours,” he said. “By that evening, I was in a coma and was on life support.” The doctors inserted a breathing tube. They brought in a dialysis machine and cleaned his blood, seeking to purge whatever foreign substance had invaded his body. Kara-Murza stayed unconscious for a week but miraculously survived. When he was released three weeks later, the discharge papers recorded the diagnosis: “Toxic action by an undefined substance.”
It was virtually the same diagnosis as before, in May 2015, when Karza-Murza was rushed to the hospital and also fell into a coma. He had been poisoned twice in less than two years. Somebody in Russia very much wanted Kara-Murza dead.
“I could never imagine this happening — not to mention to our family,” said Evgenia Kara-Murza in a joint interview with her husband at the Russian restaurant, Mari Vanna. “It’s unthinkable.”
“Follow the trail of dead Russians,” said former FBI intelligence analyst Clint Watts when asked at a Senate intelligence committee hearing how the panel could unravel the aggressive role that Moscow played in the 2016 election.
And, as Kara-Murza notes, the trail is a long one: Anna Politkosvkaya, a journalist, shot dead in the stairwell of her Moscow apartment in 2006. Alexander Litvinenko, a defector from the Russian security services who turned on Putin, poisoned in London the same year. Boris Nemtsov, Kara-Murza’s best friend and hero, murdered in the shadow of the Kremlin in February 2015. Denis Voronenkov, a former Russian lawmaker who spoke out against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, shot dead in broad daylight in front of a hotel in Kiev just last month.
“I’m the fortunate one,” said Kara-Murza. “Boris Nemtsov — they put five bullets in his back on that bridge in front of the Kremlin. So many people — political prisoners, independent journalists, anticorruption campaigners — have lost their lives in various ways over the last 17 years that Vladimir Putin has been in power. And every time, there is some kind of plausible deniability. Every time, they say, ‘Oh, we had nothing to do with this. Oh, this just happened.’ But you know there is a kind of very strange high mortality rate among the people that have crossed the Kremlin’s path that defies any kind of normal statistical model.”
It is a record for lethality that has not gone unnoticed among U.S. government officials who have dealt with Kara-Murza and followed his case. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he was targeted for his activity against the Russian government,” said Tom Malinowski, who until last January served as former President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of state for human rights. “We don’t know who it was. He doesn’t know who it was. But we do know that in virtually every single hit against a journalist or an opposition leader, no one has been held accountable … and for that Putin is responsible.”
But in almost all these cases, there are lingering questions. What was the poison that almost killed Kara-Murza, and how had it been administered? Kara-Murza and his doctors remain at a loss. Kara-Murza was a human rights activist who spent his days in a constant whirl of meetings, rallies and political events — almost always trailed by various agents of Russia’s security services. He would have seven to eight meetings every day in cafés and restaurants. It is, he says, impossible to pinpoint who and where someone had injected something into his food or drink.
But what is known is that Russia’s security services have a long record of poisoning their political opponents, and they have gotten increasingly sophisticated at it. Some of the substances they use can delay taking effect for as long as a week.
“Using poison is a rather effective way of getting rid of your opponents,” said Evgenia Kara-Murza. “Because in numerous cases, the exact toxins have never been found. So they can say, ‘He ate something. He got food poisoning.’ It happens… In the case of poisoning, how would you actually prove it? … Their laboratories have been known to develop toxins that are completely untraceable.”
But whoever did it had miscalculated, ever so slightly. Kara-Murza had booked his plane from Moscow to Washington for later that morning. Had the toxin kicked in just a few hours later, Kara-Murza would have been outside of Russian territory, in international air space, unable to make it to a hospital. The Russian government could disavow anything to do with Kara-Murza’s murder. “They could say it didn’t happen here,” he said.
What was not a puzzle was the likely motive. Kara-Murza had been a thorn in the side of the Putin regime for years. The son of a distinguished historian, who vividly remembers the high hopes for democracy that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kara-Murza had in recent years been leading protest rallies throughout his country. He, along with Nemtsov, was a key figure in the protests in December 2011 that brought more than 100,000 people into the streets of Moscow to protest the electoral fraud that was returning Putin to power. He had been a tireless crusader for the so-called Magnitsky Act — a law passed by the U.S. Congress in 2012, named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian auditor who had uncovered a massive tax fraud scheme involving Kremlin officials and ended up dead in a Russian jail. The law infuriated the Kremlin and at first faced quiet but determined opposition from the Obama administration, which feared that the law would upset its cherished “reset” of relations with Russia.
The Magnitsky Act gave the U.S. government authority to impose targeted financial sanctions against senior Russian officials implicated in human rights abuses. On Jan. 10 of this year, with less than two weeks left in the Obama presidency, the State Department imposed the toughest sanctions yet under the law: It targeted Alexander Bastrykin, until recently the chief of the Russian Federation’s Investigative Committee, the equivalent of this country’s FBI. “Putin’s enforcer,” Malinowski called him at the time as he announced the action. (Among the evidence in the U.S. government’s dossier: Bastrykin had once summoned a journalist to a forest and threatened to kill him over a critical article — and then joked that he would “personally” handle the murder investigation.)
Also on the Magnitsky Act list were two notorious former agents of the Russian security service, the FSB: Dmitry Kovtun and Andre Lugovoi. There was a pointed message to their inclusion. Seven years earlier, they had flown to London and, according to a later British government inquiry, administered the radioactive substance — believed to be polonium — that had killed Litvinenko.
The U.S. government, in short, was going after Putin’s poisoners. And Kara-Murza, for his part, kept up the pressure: Just as the sanctions were being announced, he sent a blistering letter to the U.S. Senate urging its members to review Putin’s human rights record when considering President Trump’s nomination of Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state: Russian media outlets, he wrote, “serve as mouthpieces for government propaganda.” The country’s elections have turned into a “meaningless ritual” with voting “marred by intimidation and fraud.” The judiciary and law enforcement agencies “are used to punish the government’s political opponents.”
“It is not the task for outside powers to influence the political situation in Russia,” Kara-Murza wrote. “Only Russian citizens can and should do that. But it is important to consider the nature of our current government in the context of international relations.”
Three weeks later, Kara-Murza was in a coma. He is now recovering with his family in the vicinity of Washington, but he plans to return to Moscow and has no intention of backing down. He is encouraged, he said, by new protests that swept through Russia in March after disclosures that Putin’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev — once Obama’s favored interlocutor for the reset — had amassed more than $1 billion in holdings, including mansions, luxury yachts, country estates and a Tuscany vineyard, acquired through offshore companies registered in Cyprus.
“These were the largest wave of protests we had since the early ’90s, since the breakup of the Soviet Union,” said Kara-Murza. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators came out in 84 cities and towns throughout the country. Although physically unable to participate, Kara-Murza had helped plant the seeds during years of organizing work.
“I’ve seen these people, these young people who came out to our events, who took part in debates and discussions,” he said. “This is the Putin generation. These are the people who were certainly raised and, in many cases, born under Vladimir Putin. … All they’ve seen is his face for their whole lives on their television screens. And they’re fed up with it.”
There will be more such protests, later this month and again in June, he said. And for all his personal travails, Kara-Murza sees grounds for optimism — a turning point that he is convinced is one day coming, perhaps soon.
“One thing that history teaches us: All such regimes end. One way or another, nothing is forever,” he said. Putin “thinks he’s going to be there forever. But he’s not. We don’t know when precisely it’s going to happen. But we know that one day this regime will be consigned to history.”