GENEVA, February 19, 2018 – Russian democracy dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza today received the Geneva Summit Courage Award and addressed the main session of the 10th Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy — see quotes below.

For links to other speakers’ quotes, videos, photos, livestream, and more, click here.

On commitment of Russian’s to human rights:

  • “Russia is not usually the first country that comes to mind when people think of such notions as liberty, democracy, or human dignity. The prevailing stereotypes are the opposite. Yet some of the strongest and most inspiring leaders in the human rights movement—certainly during the 20th century—have come from Russia.”
  • “It was never about numbers. As Sakharov himself said, ‘it is not a case of arithmetic, but of a qualitative fact—breaching the psychological barrier of silence.’ It does not take many to break that barrier.”
  • A few years ago…Natalia Gorbanevskaya, for a documentary I was making about the Soviet dissident movement. I asked what motivated her to go to that square, knowing for certain what price she would have to pay. I will never forget what she answered. ‘For me going to that demonstration was a selfish act,’ she said. ‘I wanted to have a clean conscience.'”
  • “We certainly are is unwilling to be complicit in the crimes of a regime that claims to speak on behalf of our country.”
  • “Every time the Russian people could actually choose, in a more or less free election, between dictatorship and democracy, they chose democracy.”

On being poisoned by the Putin regime:

  • “Twice in the past three years—in May 2015 and again in February of last year, both times in Moscow—I experienced symptoms of severe poisoning that left me with multiple organ failure, in a coma, and on life support. It was certainly intended to kill.”
  • “Doctors told my wife they estimated the chance of survival at 5 percent. The message was clear enough. But so is my response…You will not see us run, you will not see us hide, you will not see us give up.”

On assassinated opposition leader Boris Nemtsov:

  • “He didn’t have to do what he did. As part of Russia’s top political establishment—member of parliament, regional governor, deputy prime minister, once an heir to the presidency—he could have easily opted for a quiet and comfortable existence.”
  • He was smeared on state television as a “traitor”; physically assaulted by pro-Kremlin groups; repeatedly arrested at peaceful demonstrations. But he would not relent. He was silenced the only way he could be: by five bullets in his back, on the evening of February 27, 2015, as he walked across a bridge in front of the Kremlin.”

On oppression in Russia:

  • “It is difficult to compete if you are in prison, in exile, or dead. It is difficult to receive votes if you are not actually allowed on the ballot.”

Message to the world community:

  • “The only thing we ask from you is that you stop supporting Mr. Putin by treating him as a respectable partner on the world stage and by allowing his cronies to use your countries as havens for their looted wealth.”
  • “Above all, please stop falling for that tired and dishonest stereotype that Russians are somehow uniquely “unsuited” or “not ready” for freedom. We are suited. We are ready. And we will get there, just like you.”
  • “When Andrei Sakharov wrote his Nobel Lecture, which he was not allowed to go to Oslo to deliver in 1975, he named in it 126 prisoners of conscience in the Soviet Union. Today, according to Memorial, we have 117 political prisoners in Russia.”


Full prepared remarks:

I am deeply humbled by this award, and it is a special privilege to receive it from the hands of my dear friend Professor Irwin Cotler, a towering figure in the global human rights movement, who has worked on behalf of such leaders as Nelson Mandela, Anatoly Sharansky, Jacobo Timerman, and Andrei Sakharov. For his work over the years Irwin has been honored with awards that are too numerous to count, but I do want to single out one in particular. In March 2014, by the order of Vladimir Putin, he was placed under a Russian government travel ban. As Irwin himself has said, coming from the current Kremlin regime this certainly is a badge of honor. And I know one day it will be an honor for us to welcome Irwin Cotler in Russia when our country is finally free from this authoritarian kleptocracy. Irwin, thank you for everything you do.

Russia is not usually the first country that comes to mind when people think of such notions as liberty, democracy, or human dignity. The prevailing stereotypes are the opposite. Yet some of the strongest and most inspiring leaders in the human rights movement—certainly during the 20th century—have come from Russia. And it is telling that Europe’s highest award for contributions to the fight for human rights, presented annually by the European Parliament—the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought—is named after a Russian citizen.

The story of Andrei Sakharov and of the Soviet dissident movement was, for me, one of the most inspiring and one of the most optimistic stories of the 20th century; the story of a small group of people “armed” only with their word and their sense of dignity who, in the end, proved stronger than a mighty totalitarian system with the world’s most-developed machine of repression. It was never about numbers. As Sakharov himself said, “it is not a case of arithmetic, but of a qualitative fact—breaching the psychological barrier of silence.” It does not take many to break that barrier. In August 1968, as Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia and as the Soviet government claimed unanimous support among its citizens for the invasion, seven Russians came onto Red Square in Moscow to protest against it. They were arrested within minutes; they were all sent to prisons, internal exile, or psychiatric hospitals. But after what they did no one could say that all Soviet citizens supported the aggression. As the Prague newspaper Literární listy wrote, “There are now at least seven reasons for which we will never be able to hate the Russian people.”

A few years ago, I interviewed one of those seven, Natalia Gorbanevskaya, for a documentary I was making about the Soviet dissident movement. I asked what motivated her to go to that square, knowing for certain what price she would have to pay. I will never forget what she answered. “For me going to that demonstration was a selfish act,” she said. “I wanted to have a clean conscience.”

 

This award is presented for courage. I don’t know if we are courageous. Stubborn, maybe. And perhaps a little selfish, in the sense Natalia Gorbanevskaya meant it. But what we certainly are is unwilling to be complicit in the crimes of a regime that claims to speak on behalf of our country.

It is a powerful motivation. I know it was for Boris Nemtsov, the leader of the democratic opposition in Russia. For years, his was the clearest and loudest voice against the corruption, authoritarianism, and aggressiveness of the Putin regime. He publicized abuses by officials; organized demonstrations against election fraud and against political repression; campaigned for international accountability in the form of targeted sanctions on human rights abusers. And when the Kremlin launched another war, this time on Ukraine, in 2014, he led not seven, but tens of thousands of people through the streets of Moscow in protest. The line of Muscovites who came to say “No” to Mr. Putin’s war stretched for miles down the Boulevard Ring, from Pushkin Square to Sakharov Avenue, and when those of us in front had reached the endpoint, people were still lining up to go through metal detectors at the beginning.

He didn’t have to do what he did. A part of Russia’s top political establishment—member of parliament, regional governor, deputy prime minister, once an heir to the presidency—he could have easily opted for a quiet and comfortable existence under the present regime, as so many have. But he loved our country too much to watch its future being destroyed by authoritarians and kleptocrats. And he did not want to be complicit. He was smeared on state television as a “traitor”; physically assaulted by pro-Kremlin groups; repeatedly arrested at peaceful demonstrations. But he would not relent. He was silenced the only way he could be: by five bullets in his back, on the evening of February 27, 2015, as he walked across a bridge in front of the Kremlin.

As Boris himself once said, “Freedom does not come cheap.”

It was the greatest privilege of my life to work with Boris Nemtsov for fifteen years. He taught me, with his own example, that politics can be honest, and that if you believe in your principles, you should stand up for them, whatever the cost.

As so often in Russia’s history, the cost of political dissent today is high. When Andrei Sakharov wrote his Nobel Lecture, which he was not allowed to go to Oslo to deliver in 1975, he named in it 126 prisoners of conscience in the Soviet Union. Today, according to Memorial, we have 117 political prisoners in Russia. They include Oleg Sentsov, a Crimean film director who protested against the annexation; Alexander Shpakov, a carpenter from the Moscow Region who attended an anticorruption demonstration; Dmitri Buchenkov—who wasn’t even at the protest rally for which he is being tried; Oleg Navalny, the brother of anticorruption campaigner and barred presidential candidate Alexei Navalny; and Alexei Pichugin, the remaining hostage of the Yukos case, who, after almost 15 years, is Russia’s longest-serving political prisoner.

Sometimes we encounter more creative methods. Twice in the past three years—in May 2015 and again in February of last year, both times in Moscow—I experienced symptoms of severe poisoning that left me with multiple organ failure, in a coma, and on life support. It was certainly intended to kill: doctors told my wife they estimated the chance of survival at 5 percent. The message was clear enough. But so is my response. Now for the second time. You will not see us run, you will not see us hide, you will not see us give up. As Boris Nemtsov always said, “This is our country. We have to fight for it.” And if we believe in our principles, we must be prepared to stand up for them.

We know that these principles are important for many people in Russia. We know this despite the long-held stereotype that Russians “don’t want” or “aren’t ready” for freedom. That all we need is a “strong hand” and a “stern whip”. This stereotype is shallow; it is insulting; but most importantly, it is not true. Because every time the Russian people could actually choose, in a more or less free election, between dictatorship and democracy, they chose democracy. In 1906, when the Constitutional Democrats trounced autocratic parties in the first Duma election; in the Constituent Assembly vote of 1917, when Bolshevik usurpers lost to proponents of a parliamentary republic; or in 1991, when democratic presidential candidate Boris Yeltsin defeated the Communists by 57 percent to 17.

Today we hear that Vladimir Putin is very popular among Russian citizens. That he is supported by “86 percent”. That he is, to quote his press secretary, “the absolute leader on the political Olympus, with whom no one can seriously compete”. That last statement is actually true. It is difficult to compete if you are in prison, in exile, or dead. It is difficult to receive votes if you are not actually allowed on the ballot. It is difficult to speak and hear the truth when all television channels are controlled by the state. But the next time someone tells you that Mr. Putin is popular, just ask them why would such a popular leader be so afraid of a free election? It doesn’t say much for your popularity if you have to prop it up with intimidation, censorship, and fraud.

And yet despite all this, there are more and more people who are prepared to stand up to the corruption and abuses of Mr. Putin’s Kremlin. I’ve met many of them as I went around the county as part of my work with Open Russia, a political movement that seeks to restore the rule of law, free elections, and accountable government. Our work is mainly with young people; the new generation of democratic activists. Through our training and educational programs; through projects aimed at encouraging political participation and civic engagement we want to empower them and help them become active and informed citizens. We want to help them gain the skills and the experience they will need when they face the task of building a new Russia on the ruins of yet another authoritarian system.

We are already seeing this generation. In these past few months, thousands of people went to the streets all across Russia to voice their protest at the pervasive government corruption, the lack of accountability, the sham elections, and the sheer arrogance of the small group of people that has now been in power for almost two decades. These rallies took place in more than 200 towns and cities, large and small, across 11 time-zones, from Kaliningrad to Khabarovsk. And the vast majority of those who came were young people; university and high-school students; many in their teens and early twenties. They are—literally—the future of Russia. They are the people who were raised or born under Vladimir Putin—and they are increasingly saying “Enough.” And, in the end, there’s not much Mr. Putin will be able to do about that.

Of our friends in democratic countries, we ask only one thing: please stay true to your values. We are not asking for your support—it is our task to change Russia, and we will do it ourselves. The only thing we ask from you is that you stop supporting Mr. Putin by treating him as a respectable partner on the world stage and by allowing his cronies to use your countries as havens for their looted wealth. Please don’t enable corruption and human rights abuses in our country by welcoming their perpetrators on your soil and in your banks. Six years ago this month, Irwin Cotler hosted Boris Nemtsov on Parliament Hill in Ottawa as he launched the effort to pass the Magnitsky Law, a law that laid down a very simple principle: that those who violate the basic norms of democratic society in their own countries will not be entitled to the privileges of democratic society in the West by traveling or holding assets there. Despite the obstacles, the resistance, and the realpolitik, Irwin Cotler succeeded, and this measure is now the law of the land in Canada—as it is in five other countries, including the United States. It was a privilege to work with parliamentarians in these countries to help make it happen, and I am proud to have played a small part in this process. We hope that more democratic nations, including the one in which we are meeting today, will send a message that crooks and abusers are no longer welcome.

And, above all, please stop falling for that tired and dishonest stereotype that Russians are somehow uniquely “unsuited” or “not ready” for freedom. We are suited. We are ready. And we will get there, just like you. As Soviet dissidents have shown us, all it takes, in the end, is a certain number of committed individuals who are unwilling to be complicit, who are prepared to stand up for their principles, and who succeed in breaching that “barrier of silence.”