Vladimir Kara-Murza, leading Russian democracy activist and politician who twice survived being poisoned by Russia’s Federal Security Service, addressed the 13th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy as a panelist on the Champions for Change panel – see quotes below.

For the full text of the Champions for Change panel, click here.

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

13th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, Monday, June 8, 2021

On being a dissident in Russia:

“In Russia, the biggest gift that opponents of the regime could give the Kremlin would be to leave.”

“It’s really easy for me to answer what was the easiest decision I made in my life. It wasn’t even a decision. I knew that as soon as I was physically able to, after both poisonings, I would go back.”

“You cannot just stand idly by and watch.”

“Why are we doing this? Because we want to have a clean conscience.”

On being Poisoned by Russian agents:

“In the 21st century in a European country, there is a professional squad of assassins in the employment of the state whose task it is to physically eliminate opponents of Vladimir Putin.”

“It is excruciatingly painful and terrifying to be dying because this is exactly what you feel.”

“I’ve had to learn to walk again literally — after the first time — because when you’re in a coma for such a long period, your body just loses all strength completely.”

“Even if you hire thirty bodyguards who are going to walk all the time around the house, how is that gonna stop something like this from happening? The only tangible measure of precaution that we can take — and I did — is to have one’s family in a safe place. My wife and my children are not in Russia.”

On democracy in Russia in the 1990s:

“I always consider myself very fortunate that I do remember that brief period of freedom in our country — the ten years in the 1990s when we had independent television, democratic elections, a pluralistic parliament. It’s something that is totally unthinkable in Russia under Putin today.”

“My first conscious political memory was the democratic revolution in August of 1991, when one of the most oppressive totalitarian systems in the history of humanity — the Soviet communist regime — went down in three days.”

“Even as a child, when a revolution is happening in front of your eyes, you tend to draw lessons from it.”

On Russia’s transformation from democracy to authoritarian regime:

“There was no single day when Russia was transformed from a democracy to an authoritarian regime.”

“Putin did this incrementally, following Mussolini’s advice — that famous phrase of Mussolini: ‘You need to plug the chicken feather by feather to lessen the squawking.'”

“In October of 2003, a lot of Putin’s most prominent critics, an oil tycoon by the name of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was arrested in a dramatic early dawn raid on his private plane in Siberia, brought back to Moscow, and paraded on television cameras literally sitting in a cage in a courtroom.”

“Fast forwarding to December of 2003, a turning point election, the first election since the end of Soviet rule in Russia that was assessed by international observers as not fair. I remember that very well from the inside, as I was a candidate.”

“After that, very quickly, the Putin regime consolidated itself into what we’re seeing in Russia today, a system that is a hard line personalistic dictatorship where there are hundreds of political prisoners; where elections or a meaningless ritual with predetermined results; where all major media outlets are directly controlled by the state; where opponents of the regime are not only harassed, imprisoned, or exiled but very often murdered, as Putin’s leading opponent, Boris Nemtsov, was.”

“This regime was not only robbing the people of Russia of their wealth and this mammoth corruption that the Putin regime was characterized by — I mean, Putin is, by all accounts, the richest man in the world today — but also, much more importantly, robbing the people of Russia of their prospects and of the future.”

On why he continues his activism:

“A lot of people ask, ‘Well, how’d you do this? You have children.’ Yes, I do have three children, and I want, in however many years it takes, for people in Russia to fully realize the truth of the Putin regime. I do not want one of my kids to come up to me and say, ‘Daddy, where were you when all this was going on? What were you doing?'”

On the need for Russians to be active in opposing Putin:

“Only Russians can change the situation in Russia. Only Russians can affect political change in Russia. This cannot and this should not be done from the outside.”

On hypocrisy of Russian elites:

“We have the people at the very top of the system, the people who abuse and undermine the most basic norms of democratic society at home in Russia who then want to enjoy the benefits and the privileges of democratic society in the West because that is where they have their second homes, their families, their wives, their mistresses, their bank accounts — that’s where they spend their holidays and so on.”

On Western complicity:

“They want to steal from their own people and then stash away that stolen loot in Western countries. And, for years, the West has been complicit in this.”

“It’s being said, talking specifically about Russia, that the biggest export from the Putin regime to the West is not oil or gas; it is corruption. That is an absolutely true sentiment…”

On the U.S. Magnitzky Act:

“It took Boris Nemtsov’s conviction and courage and experience to convince them to actually do this. Senator McCain is on the record saying there would not have been a Magnitsky Act in the United States without Boris Nemtsov.”

“Once you take these arguments out into the public, this is how we always win because there is no public argument for allowing murders and torturers and criminals into Western democratic countries and accepting their dirty, stolen money.”

“The brilliance of this law and of this mechanism is that it imposes sanctions not on entire countries or on entire peoples, as used to be the case in previous historical eras. It goes after the individuals who actually deserve it.”

On repression in Russia today:

“We have prominent opposition leaders either murdered or incarcerated.”

“You can get a several years prison term for a tweet now — literally.”

“If you try to peacefully exercise your right to freedom of assembly, which, on paper, is supposed to be guaranteed to us not only by our own constitution but also by the European Convention of Human Rights because Russia is a member state of the Council of Europe, the response you’ll get from the authorities would be beatings, arrests, detention, sacking from your job, expulsion from universities, and so on and so forth.”

“The vast majority of these protesters were young people; it was the young generation. And that is the generation of the future. They are the future of Russia; Vladimir Putin is not.”

“When I speak with these people, this really fills me with hope that, one day, Russia will become, to use the words of Alexei Navalny in one of his interviews last year, a ‘normal European country.'”

On the importance of symbols:

“Sometimes symbols are as important as actions.”

“When Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in February of 2015, the Kremlin hasn’t stopped fighting him. They are now fighting him in death and now fighting his memory.”

“Time after time, they have come to that spot where he was murdered on the bridge in front of the Kremlin — where, every single day, people lay flowers and light candles — to take them away, to arrest the volunteers who are standing guard. Time after time, they have refused to allow even a small memorial plaque on that bridge. They have refused a moment of silence.”

“Such a small and simple symbol like this as installing a plaque or putting up a street name really resonates in those countries where citizens, for now, have no voices of their own.”