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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

A 25-Year Sentence Seals Putin's Switch From Authoritarianism To Totalitarianism

Vladimir Kara-Murza was handed the heaviest prison sentence since the beginning of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Putin is making an example of the rare few who dare to speak out against him, evoking the reign of Joseph Stalin.

Image of Russian political activist Vladimir Kara-Murza in a formal attire, handcuffed and staring intently ahead.

Russian political activist Vladimir Kara-Murza attending the verdict announcement at the Moscow City Court after being charged with high treason on April 17th, 2023.

Pierre Haski


Facing his judges, Vladimir Kara-Murza compared his trial to those of the Stalinist era. He knows what he is talking about: during Stalin's reign, his two great-grandfathers were executed and his grandfather was sent to the Gulag. In turn, Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years in prison yesterday for his opposition to the war in Ukraine.

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This is the heaviest sentence handed down since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Any opposition to the war is severely punished, but the Russian authorities clearly wanted to make an example of Kara-Murza by significantly raising the cost of dissent. The justice system has piled on by accusing him of "subversion.”

Since Feb. 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin has transformed the authoritarianism of his regime into totalitarianism: there is no more space for freedom of the press, no more right to demonstrate, no independent justice. Even children have to adhere to warrior patriotism: in early March, 13-year-old Maria was sent to an orphanage for a pacifist drawing, and her father in prison.

Everything Putin hates

Vladimir Kara-Murza embodies everything that Putin hates. He was a journalist, a political opponent, he is charismatic, speaks several languages and has an open door to Washington. He also has a second passport, a British one: he is a true "cosmopolitan,” as they used to say in Stalin's time.

Laws regarding conscription are becoming more stringent.

At only 41 years old, he has been one of the most turbulent figures in post-Soviet Russia. Kara-Murza was a close associate of Boris Nemtsov, a man who supported Putin in his first election in 2000, but then turned against his regime, ending up shot several times during a demonstration a few meters from the Kremlin.

Kara-Murza himself has been a victim of two assassination attempts, one of which left him in a coma. This same method nearly killed Alexei Navalny, the opposition figure who is also languishing in prison, and whose health worries his relatives.

Image of Boris Nemtsov, famous Russian liberal politician and Putin critic, looking ahead and smiling.

Boris Nemtsov, famous Russian liberal politician and Putin critic, in Moscow in 2014.

Ilya Voyager

The price of speaking out

After Nemtsov, Kara-Murza has aligned himself with another "bête noire" of Putin: the former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who now lives abroad after serving a long prison sentence. This trajectory makes Kara-Murza a target for the Kremlin.

In Russia today, it is suicidal to speak out against the war. To hear dissenting voices, one must have access to independent Russian media that have reorganized abroad, such as the website Meduza, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov, or the TV channel Dojd. Their reach is hard to gauge, as one must get around the blockades to receive them.

This iron curtain is clearly not a sign of great confidence in Russia, especially as laws regarding conscription are becoming more stringent.

It takes an extraordinary personality to willingly return to Moscow knowing you will be arrested, as Navalny did, or to denounce the war from Moscow, as Kara-Murza did. Not everyone is a hero — but Putin knows very well that those who remain silent do not necessarily support "his" war.

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