Birth Year 1981
Ethnicity Tatar-Russian
Role Deputy Chairman of OpenRussia
Russian Flag

Cultural Figure

Trained Journalist

Dissident

Pro-Western Figure

Serving as deputy chairman of Open Russia and chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, Vladimir Kara-Murza is among the most outspoken domestic critics of Vladimir Putin. Born in Moscow in September 1981, Kara-Murza was raised in a well-to-do Russian-Soviet family descended from Tatar aristocrats. His father, Vladimir Sr, was an anti-Soviet journalist and television personality, who later became leading supporter of Yeltsin in the early 1990s. After spending his childhood in Russia, Kara Murza went on to study at Cambridge where he ultimately received an MA in history.

Kara-Murza comes from a long line of opposition figures. His father was a staunch critic of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. His great-great grandfather and his great-great great uncle were Latvian revolutionaries who were both assassinated by the NKVD, the KGB’s predecessor.

Kara-Murza was a close friend of Boris Nemtsov, a leading opposition figure who was assassinated in 2015, on a bridge several hundred meters away from the Kremlin. Kara Murza’s professional career began in 2000 when he took a job as an advisor to Nemtsov, who was then a representative in the State Duma.

In 2003, Kara-Murza made his own bid for parliament, and ran for a Moscow seat in the Duma. The Kremlin however, made every effort to thwart his campaign, and he ultimately garnered less than 9% of the vote.

Following this defeat, Kara-Murza  worked with Nemtsov and Garry Kasparov to found Committee 2008, which was designed to launch an opposition figure into the Kremlin. They chose Vladimir Bukovsky, who was then summarily barred from running by the state. Putin ally Dmitry Medvedev ultimately emerged victorious. Since then, Kara Murza has been involved in many political groups, including Solidarnost (named after Poland’s solidarity) and the Institute of Modern Russia. For now, he focuses on his work for two highly-regarded NGOs.

Currently, Kara Murza serves as the deputy chairman of Open Russia, a pro-democracy foundation founded by another famous Putin critic—Mikhail Khodorkovsky—who was also formerly Russia’s richest man. According to Kara Murza, Open Russia is not a political party “but a broad movement encompassing a spectrum of political views.” Open Russia has not yet sought to enter elections, but could do so one day. For now, the organization focuses on spreading ideas of democracy, human rights, and freedom in Russia.

Kara Murza admits that he does not believe that Open Russia will on its own bring a tidal wave of change to Russia’s political system.  However, he wants to be ready for when the political winds change in his country. Despite Putin’s enduring popularity, Kara-Murza believes authoritarians remain vulnerable even at the pinnacle of their power. He has noted that “the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu boasted 99.9 percent support just two weeks before he was overthrown…public opinion in an authoritarian regime is absolutely meaningless.”

In addition to Open Russia, he also serves as the chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom. He has said that “The most prominent and effective voice, and the strongest leader in the Russian opposition to Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime, was the former Deputy Prime Minister—Boris Nemtsov.” Kara-Murza is intent on ensuring his legacy survives. Thus far, there have only been sham investigations into the murder of Nemtsov, all legitimate ones have been blocked, but Kara-Murza is determined to uncover the truth behind the murder. On the one year anniversary of his friend’s death, Kara Murza declared: “We will find out his murderers, and those who ordered the murder — if not under the current leadership, then under the next one.”

To spread his views and his causes, Kara Murza writes for several publications and produces films. He regularly writes for the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and World Affairs. In Russia, he previously worked for Ekho Moskvy and Kommersant. He has produced and directed two documentary films: they Chose Freedom, on the dissident movement in the USSR, and Nemtsov: on the life of Boris Nemtsov.

Kara Murza has worked to spreading his message abroad as well. In 2012, alongside Putin-critic Bill Browder, he lobbied US congressmen to pass the Magnitsky Act, which authorizes the US Treasury department to sanction Russians implicated in human rights abuses. The act passed soon after his efforts, and many believe his voice was one of the main factors in its success. Since then, he has lobbied many EU states to follow the US example and implement their own Magnitsky acts. His fight for freedom earned him the respect and friendship of John McCain. Kara Murza was a pallbearer at the senator’s funeral.  

His efforts have also put him into a precarious position. In 2015 and 2017 Kara Murza was hospitalized presenting life-threatening symptoms, that were later revealed to be the result of poisoning. Since his early days working with Nemtsov, he has been regularly followed and harassed by agents of the Kremlin or pro-Kremlin groups. Additionally, he has been targeted by Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, who published a video on Instagram depicting Kara Murza in the cross hairs of a sniper.

Kara Murza’s work has made him powerful enemies, and Nemtsov was not his only close associate to be killed. In September 2004, Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist for Novaya Gazeta and family friend to the Kara Murzas was poisoned on her way to Beslan. She slipped into a coma, and within hours had suffered multiple organ failure. Somehow she survived. Then, 25 months later in October 2006, Politkovskaya was shot and killed in Moscow.

Kara Murza believes one of the most pervasive, but deeply flawed, myths spread by the Kremlin is that apart from Putin, there are no leaders in Russia. He argues that in a country of over 140 million, of course there are other capable leaders.  He sees Navalny, Khodorkovsky (despite being exiled), Yevgeny Roizman (mayor of Yekaterinberg), Lev Shlosberg (active in the Pskov region, runs the newspaper Pskovskaya Gubernia), Dmitry Gudkov (member of the Duma), and Galina Shirshina (mayor of Petrozavodsk and member of Yabloko—the opposition party chaired by Grigory Yavlinsky) as being the most intrepid figures in the Russian opposition.

So what does Kara Murza want? First, he does not want to replace a bad tsar with a good tsar, as some other members of the opposition do. Instead, he wants Russia to become a modern, democratic country. He also wants the West to better understand Russia: “It’s very insulting for us Russians to hear people in the West equate us as a whole nation with the small clique of crooks, kleptocrats and criminals in the Kremlin.” Kara-Murza has urged foreigners to “stop falling for the lie that Russian people are somehow uniquely unsuited to and not ready for freedom.” He cites historical examples to prove his point: Russians voted for classically liberal parties after the 1917 revolution, before the Bolsheviks seized power by force; they voted for the pro-democracy message of Boris Yeltsin in 1991, shortly before the coup; and they stood up for freedom in August 1991.

He believes that when given a chance, Russians will reach out for democracy and try to implement it successfully.