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‘It’s Not Difficult to Win an Election When Your Opponents Are Not on the Ballot’
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‘It’s Not Difficult to Win an Election When Your Opponents Are Not on the Ballot’

Russian opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza on the Putin regime, Alexei Navalny, and what gives him hope for the future.

Vladimir Kara-Murza is a Russian opposition politician. A protégé of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered on the orders of Russian leader Vladimir Putin in February 2015, Kara-Murza has twice been poisoned by Russian agents. Twice he has almost died. He was recently arrested at a meeting of some 200 Russian municipal leaders, charged, absurdly, with “carrying out the activities of a foreign undesirable organization.” In addition to his writing and advocacy for human rights and democracy in Russia, he has worked closely with Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, who himself has been the victim of two poisoning attempts and is now imprisoned and being denied medical care. Like Navalny, Kara-Murza has vowed that despite the physical danger, he will never accept exile from Russia. We spoke on April 13, 2021, I from Washington and Kara-Murza from Moscow. This interview has been edited for length.

Danielle Pletka: How did you get into this business of politics? You’re originally from Moscow, but you were a journalist, weren’t you?

Vladimir Kara-Murza: Yes, I’m actually a historian by education, a journalist by my first profession, as was my father, as was my grandfather. And so, when I was coming of age and choosing what my future profession should be, I thought, “Well, it’s going to be anything except history and journalism, because it’s got to stop somewhere, right?” And then of course, guess what? When it came time to choose, I suppose you can’t fight the genes.

But you know, I think my generation in Russia was inevitably politicized. I don’t think we had a choice, because my first conscious political memory was the Russian democratic revolution of August 1991, and my dad was there all three days and all three nights of the coup. My only regret is that I was too young to join him. I was 10 years old, but I was certainly old enough to realize what was happening, and to grasp the lesson that I think is going to stay with me for as long as I live. Because the people who are behind that attempted hard line coup d’état, the top leadership of the Soviet Communist Party, the military and the KGB, had everything at their disposal, or at least that’s what it seemed like. The police, the army, the KGB’s impressive machine, the government bureaucracy, the party apparatus, the media, you name it. Everything. And of course they had the tanks, which we saw in the streets of our city that morning, on August 19, 1991.

The people who came to stand up to that coup were not armed with anything, except their dignity and their determination to defend their freedom. And so, they went into the streets—first in the thousands, and then in the tens of thousands, and eventually in the hundreds of thousands, and literally stood in front of the tanks, and the tanks stopped and turned away. That was my first conscious political memory as a child, as a human being. And I think that lesson’s going to stay with me forever, that however strong a dictatorship, however many repressive tools it has at its disposal, when enough people are willing to stand up, they succeed, and then the tanks stop and turn away. And in a metaphorical sense—or maybe in a literal sense, you never know—that’s what’s going to happen in Russia again one day. And I know this, and actually, that knowledge is an important source of energy for us to continue going to work.

So, I was politicized inevitably from my childhood. And then when I was 18 years old, I met with Boris Nemtsov. And of course I’d known who he was from the television screen, but meeting him was a life-changing experience for me. Because you know, neither before nor during nor since have I ever met anybody who was … He was in politics for all the right reasons. Right? You know, there’s a stereotype that politics is dirty business, and it has to be cynical, that it’s all about compromises. Well, Boris Nemtsov showed with his life that it’s possible to be in politics to actually do good, and to be there for decent reasons. And I’ll always consider it to be the greatest honor of my life to have worked with him for more than 15 years, from the late ’90s and until that wretched evening on the bridge when he was gunned down in front of the Kremlin.

And so, I began to work with him. This was the parliamentary election campaign of December 1999. And then our party got into the Duma. That was the last time Russia had a free and fair parliamentary election. December 19, 1999. So, we now have a whole generation that has grown up in Russia not seeing ever a real election, and all they’ve ever seen on their TV screen was Vladimir Putin.

As I was getting into it I was still expecting this to be normal politics, because Russia in the ’90s was flawed and imperfect, but nevertheless a democracy. We had a real parliament, real elections, independent media, political pluralism, freedom of speech. And so, I was expecting to sort of do what members of Congress in the U.S. do, sort of to have a normal political life. Of course that didn’t quite turn out to be that way, but that’s not a question to me. That’s a question to the man who came into the Kremlin right about at exactly the same time as I came into politics, in December of 1999.

Pletka: So, you got into politics as an exercise in hope. You got into politics at a moment that Russia appeared to be on a salvageable democratic path. You got in to work with somebody who has become a hero to you in many ways. And what went wrong?

Kara-Murza: The answer to your question is Vladimir Putin. Things could have gone very differently. In fact, they were going differently. When that man came in, nobody knew who he was. As you remember, he just sprang up on the back of the Chechen War, the second Chechen War, and the apartment bombings, terrorist bombings of apartment blocks in Moscow and other cities that almost nobody doubts were organized and orchestrated by the FSB, the Federal Security Service. 

He won that parliamentary election with just about 20-something percent for his party on the list system, and within days of that election victory, he was in the Kremlin instead of Boris Yeltsin. And as you will remember well, there were a lot of people in the West asking themselves who this man was, and which direction he was going to take Russia, what that would mean for the world. That famous question posed by Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer at the Davos Forum in January 2000, “Who is Mr. Putin?” And a whole panel of Russian experts going quiet, and then everybody laughing in the room. An amusing moment, but it’s actually anything but amusing that it took so long for Western policymakers to actually work out who this man was.

And very quickly, within I would say about three years … You know, Mussolini, I think it was, who said of his own experience in Italy in the early 1920s, when he consolidated his own regime, he said that you should do this. “You should pluck the chicken feather by feather, to lessen the squawking.” Meaning don’t do it all at once. Do it gradually, so that people don’t notice as much. And that’s what Putin did. His first target was independent television. On day four of his inauguration as president in May 2000, Putin sent armed operatives from the tax police and the prosecutor general service to raid the offices of Media Most, which was at that time the largest independent media group in Russia, the parent company of NTV, the most popular privately held independent television network, that was known for its independent news coverage, hard-hitting political satire, sharp criticism of the war in Chechen, among other things.

NTV was taken down within a year. In fact, April 14 is the 20th anniversary of the forcible takeover of the studios of the company. And then, by the summer of 2003, all the other independent TV channels were taken off the air. That same year, in October, Putin arrested Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of his main rivals, an oil tycoon; the richest man in Russia, the richest man in Europe under the age of 40 at that time, in a dramatic early dawn raid on his plane in Siberia. He was brought back to Moscow and paraded on television screens, literally sitting in a cage in a Moscow courtroom. It was a very clear message to everybody else in the Russian business, “If you behave like him, you’ll end up like this.” And that message was certainly heeded.

And then December 2003, still that same year, we had a parliamentary election. I was a candidate for the Russian parliament running in a district in southern Moscow. This was the first election in Russia, since the end of Soviet rule, that was assessed by international observers as not fair. So there was the consolidation of the dictatorship by the end of 2003. And so today, we’re living in a system where elections are being turned into a meaningless ritual, where going out to a peaceful opposition rally can land you in prison, where we have nearly 400 political prisoners today. The latest verified figure from the Memorial Human Rights center is 378 political prisoners (double what the Soviet government admitted in the late ’70 and ’80s).

But of course, imprisonment is not the worst that can await those who dare to cross the path of the Putin regime. And it’s now more than six years since Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was literally gunned down in front of the Kremlin Wall, the most high=profile, the most brazen political assassination in the modern history of Russia. And all the masterminds and organizers continue, to this day to be fully protected from the highest levels of the Russian state, for the reason that I think is going to be obvious to all of our readers.

Pletka: When we had you on our podcast, you said something that I very much liked —that if Putin was so sure of his personal popularity, because there are many including in Europe and in the United States who continue to suggest that while he is problematic, that Putin remains nonetheless popular. And you asked why, if he were so popular, he would need to steal elections and murder his opposition. But let me ask you a harder question, because you ascribe a lot of this to Putin’s character, to Putin’s personality. How much a part of the problem is the Russia that was trained for 70 years under the Communist Party, that had an education system corrupted by the Communist Party, that had people who were nostalgic for the time of Stalin? How much can we ascribe to, and obviously I’m being provocative here, the Russian people looking for a strong leader in the Kremlin?

Among the many stereotypes that I encounter in my work, especially when I interact with Western journalists, or Western policymakers or Western parliamentarians, perhaps the most offensive of all of them is that old red herring that Russians somehow crave a strong hand. That these Russians, they just can’t live in a democratic system. They need to have a ruler, a tsar, a general secretary. The nature of the stereotype was best described, I think, by President Reagan in his Westminster speech in 1982, when he called it “cultural condescension or worse.” “Worse,” meaning of course, racism. And I think that people who use this “argument,” that argument is borderline racist. To suggest that some people just by the very virtue of, I don’t know—genes, ethnicity, history, geography—are incapable of living in a democratic system.

Of course, the only people who benefit from such stereotypes are the people who repress these nations. I don’t know any nation under God on this planet, who enjoy being beaten up at peaceful rallies, who would prefer to be muzzled and told to keep quiet, as opposed to being able to peacefully express their opinions; who prefer to be told who the ruler will be for the next several years or decades, as opposed to having an opportunity every few years to vote in a free and fair election. I mean, it almost is too absurd, the stereotype, to even try to debunk.

Pletka: But there is a piece of this that is important. And it is something I know you know very well, the question of institutions of democracy. Because what America discovered in Iraq is that when we simply threw elections at the Iraqi people, they had poor choices. Being offered better choices, they would have preferred them, but they had poor choices, because they didn’t have the same free press, because they didn’t have the same political party formation. Does that play any role at all in this brief, this really too brief interregnum between 1990 and the early 2000s that Russia was free?

Kara-Murza: Institutions, no question, are a problem; we lack the tradition of institution status, that is absolutely without question. We were the last great power in Europe to get a parliament. In April 1906, 115 years ago this month, we had our first parliament, which was sort of forced onto the tsar as a result of the First Revolution in 1905. And then we had that brief period of parliamentary history before the Bolsheviks seized power, for 11 years between 1906 and 1917. And then again, the first freely elected modern Russian parliament was in 1990, and that lasted just a little more than a decade. So again, maybe 12 or 13 years. That’s our institutional history, in terms of democracy; very modest to say the least. And that is absolutely true, but I think that needs to be separated from the notion that the people of Russia is somehow not ready or not prepared for democracy.

And I mentioned that the stereotype is offensive, and it is to me, as a Russian and to many of my compatriots, but perhaps even more importantly, to me as a historian. Every time, and unfortunately these were very few times, but every time the Russian people actually got a choice at the ballot box between democracy and dictatorship, they invariably chose democracy. In 1906, supporters of autocracy in that election who held all the administrative advantages, they had all the levers of government, they won zero seats. In the elections to the constituent assembly held in November of 1917, two months or a month after the Bolsheviks had seized power by force, they lost that election to a party that wanted a parliamentary Democratic Republic, not the dictatorship of the proletariat. And the Bolsheviks had to disband that assembly by force.

And then again, something that happened within my own lifetime, in June of 1991, the first ever direct election for head of state in a 1,000 year history of Russia. Boris Yeltsin, the democratic opposition candidate against Nikolai Ryzhkov, former Soviet Premier candidate of the then still ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union. And Yeltsin defeated him 57 percent to 17 percent. These are facts. These are not stereotypes. And so, of course institutional history is lacking, but every time the Russian people actually had a choice, they opted for democracy. And I have absolutely no doubt that next time we will have a free and fair election, the outcome will be similar.

Danielle Pletka: So, how do we get there? There’s this remarkable dichotomy, if you will, that the Putin regime is eager to murder you, and yet is unwilling to exile you. And you have continued with great courage, even after two attempts on your life, to go back to Russia, to continue to fight this fight. How do we get from where we are now, which is this tightening noose around the throat of the Russian people by the Putin regime, to where we want to be, with a free and fair election again?

Kara-Murza: I think the answer to this lies in the young generation. One of the biggest sources of hope and optimism that I have in my work, which there are not many, as you can probably gather in the last two years, is looking at that young generation that actually remembers nobody except Putin, right? Because he’s been in power now into his third decade. So we have now people in Russia who have been born, went to kindergarten, went to school, went to university, got married, got children, they started their first jobs and all this while, one and the same man has been staying in power. A mind boggling fact in itself. It’s just not normal, in a European country in the 21st century, for one man to stay in power for so long. And that’s actually the source of a lot of the recent shifts in public opinion against the Putin regime. It’s not even maybe specific policy disagreements or opposition to specific actions, it’s just the fact that people have had enough. 

If you look at the protests that have been happening all across the country, really in a big way since 2017, but most vividly just now in January after the return and arrest of Alexei Navalny, when we had hundreds of thousands of people going out to protest all across the country, literally from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean, and the vast majority of these protesters were young people.

You see in the public opinion polls, which I’m always hesitant to even mention in an unfree authoritarian society, because so many people will be naturally hesitant to openly share their opinions with strangers. But even with that caveat, if you look at the figures from the Levada Center, which is the last more or less independent polling agency in Russia, you will see for example that the level of trust in Vladimir Putin among the young generation, those 25 years and below, has plummeted to just 20 percent. 

It’s not good overall either. It’s 34 percent in an open-ended poll across the age groups, which is astonishing for a dictator who controls all the national media, all the government machinery, the way elections are run, and so on. He has total control, and yet he’s only trusted by 34 percent. But if you look at the younger age bracket, it’s down to 20 percent, and a vast majority of younger Russians do not want to see Putin stay in power beyond 2024. Unfortunately, I do not think that when a change of government comes in Russia, it’s going to be through the ballot box, because there is no ballot box. We don’t have one in the real meaning of the term.

One of the first things Putin did when he came into power was to get the very process of elections under control. Of course in most cases, real opponents aren’t even allowed anywhere near the ballot. That is one of the main reasons I continue to be astonished by the fact that some serious Western analysts still repeat this criminal propaganda mantra that Putin remains popular among Russian citizens, and they point to election results as proof. It’s not difficult to win an election when your opponents are not on the ballot, and that’s the way it’s been for years and years now. Putin’s always eliminated, sometimes physically, as with  the case of Boris Nemtsov, his strongest, his most prominent political opponents.

Having said that, even with the way elections are run, Russian citizens are increasingly finding ways to send a message. Two years ago, in 2019, we had elections to the Moscow City Duma. In the usual fashion, most major opposition candidates, the strongest opposition candidates were disqualified from the ballot, were in fact jailed for the duration of the campaign. There were mass protests over the disqualification of opposition candidates.

They were dispersed, beaten down by police. A lot were arrested. Some are still in prison to this day, as we speak, for having participated in those protests in the summer of 2019, and then came the election itself. How do you send a message when there’s no opposition on the ballot? So Alexei Navalny and his movement decided to opt for tactical voting, when they would call on people to go and select just some random no-name or some technical spoiler of whom there are always some on the ballot to imitate competition.

They did this about a week before the vote, and on Election Day in nearly half of the districts, in 20 out of 45 districts in the city of Moscow, pro-Kremlin candidates were sent to humiliating defeats, including the Moscow leader of United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s ruling party, in the face of literally nobodies, just some technical spoilers who did nothing, except just be there.

You know my favorite story’s from Shchukino District, north of Moscow, where a good friend of mine, Alexander Soloviev from the Open Russia Movement, was planning to run for a seat on the city council. He was taken off the ballot. He was put into jail, but then there was another man with the same name, Alexander Soloviev, a classic spoiler tactic where they would put a person with the same name to confuse voters.

I suppose they just forgot about him because he didn’t do anything. He’s never been in the district. He hasn’t held a single meeting with voters. He hasn’t published a single leaflet. He hasn’t appeared at a single rally, nothing, zero, and this guy won in a landslide against the pro-Kremlin candidates because Navalny’s movement called on people to vote for him. The electoral commission has spent two days after the vote, trying to locate where this guy was to tell him that he’s now an elected member of the Moscow City Council.

Alexei Navalny is escorted out of a police station on January 18, 2021, in Khimki, outside Moscow. (Photo by Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images.)

It’s a totally absurd story, but there’s a very serious point behind it, which is the growing popular sentiment for change in Russia, especially among the young generation, that no authoritarian controls can stall that any longer. Even if there’s a completely doctored election with no real opposition, Putin’s candidates are still sent to humiliating defeats. This, by the way, is likely to be repeated this year when we have our national parliamentary election on September 19. This is one of the biggest reasons the Kremlin is so afraid of Alexei Navalny and his movement. But again, in the end, I think when major political change in Russia comes, it’s not going to be through the ballot box. It’s going to be through the street simply because the Kremlin has left no other way for Russian society to effect change. One of the ironic things is that Kremlin propaganda likes to accuse people like myself and my colleagues in the Russian opposition of fomenting some kind of a revolution. So many post-Soviet countries have now gone through this model.

As a historian, I actually think my country’s had enough revolutions for a century. Unfortunately, the Kremlin is leaving no other way. If there is actually anyone, and I would like nothing better than for the government in my country to be changed peacefully, legally, constitutionally through the ballot box, every four or every five years, as happens in every other European country except to Russia and Belarus, right? If anybody is preparing the ground for a popular uprising or for some kind of revolution, it’s those people who have destroyed elections as a meaningful way to change the government. Those people today are sitting behind the Kremlin walls.

Pletka: I know that there was a delegation that you wrote about of doctors and others who went to see Alexei Navalny, where he’s been imprisoned and he’s been denied health care. It seems to me that’s a risky thing for the Kremlin to do, to allow him to die in custody. It’s one thing I think in their calculus to somehow have a deniable state assassination, as they’ve tried twice, and another to, to allow him to die in custody, Magnitsky style. How do you think they’re going to proceed?

Kara-Murza: First of all, we do have this horrific history of political prisoners being led to their death in the modern day gulag. You mentioned one name, Sergei Magnitsky, that’s from recent years, the Putin years. Of course, another name from the recent years is Vasily Aleksanyan, the vice president of Yukos Oil Company who was basically a hostage for Khodorkovsky, who had three lethal diseases. He was being deliberately denied medical care in detention because they tried to get a false testimony, a signature from him, falsely testifying against his superiors, and he refused.

In late Soviet times, names such as Yuri Galanskov and Anatoly Marchenko, a writer who died, and just before the Vienna meeting, actually December of 1986, created a global uproar over the treatment of political prisoners in the Soviet Union. But if we’re talking about Alexei Navalny, I think frankly, there are no limits now to what the Putin regime may do. Navalny is a personal enemy of Putin. He goes after the most closely guarded secret of the Putin regime, and that’s his astonishing corruption.

The Putin people like to portray themselves as these big patriots and almost nationalist defenders of traditional Russian values. They’re actually thieves, but they’re not just thieves. They’re thieves and murderers. What Navalny and his movement have been doing is exposing that true nature of the Putin regime.

As you know, the regime has tried to kill Alexei Navalny by chemical weapons last year in August of 2020. Incidentally, according to the Bellingcat investigations, the same FSB officers who poisoned me twice in 2015 and 2017 also poisoned Navalny in 2020. It’s the same chemical weapons unit of professional assassins that work at the federal security service of the Russian Federation. When that didn’t succeed, when he thankfully recovered, he was then arrested.

They’re now basically trying to do what they couldn’t do with poison. They’re now trying to do painfully, slowly and in front of the whole world to see. Alexei is now into the third week of his hunger strike in protest of being deliberately denied medical care, again in the worst traditions of Magnitsky and Aleksanyan and Marchenko and others.

He’s obviously suffering from the after-effects of poisoning. I remember myself, it took me both times more than a year to fully recover, and I was not in prison. A Russian prison is not a good place for even the most healthy person. He is also being tortured by sleep deprivation, and they are denying him access to a civilian doctor as he should be allowed to, as he has the right to, both by Russian law and under the European Convention of Human Rights, of which Russia is a signatory.

So he declared a hunger strike in protest of that. The only thing that can help him, that can protect them, that can save his life now, we’re talking about that, is personal intervention by the leaders of Western democracies. I mean personal intervention, not statements from foreign ministries or parliamentary committees, but for Western leaders to personally pick up their phones and call Putin, just as U.S. presidents of both parties in previous years used to get political prisoners out of the gulag, even in Soviet times.

It is really incumbent now upon President Biden and upon Chancellor Merkel, upon President Macron and Prime Minister Johnson and all these other ones, to pick up the phone and call.

Pletka: Will they do it? 

Kara-Murza: As far as I know, Angela Merkel did that. Two recent political prisoners under Putin in Russia, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Oleg Sentsov, neither of them would be free today, were it not for the personal intervention of respectively American, in the case of Khodorkovsky, and Macron in the case of Sentsov. You know, we’re not talking about some political issues here. We’re talking about the life of a human being.

I think that is frankly, the last resort. The last defense is that internationally and domestically there’s public pressure, and Navalny’s team is preparing what they are describing as the largest protest rally in the history of post-Soviet Russia. That’s planned for the next few weeks, but internationally, the only measure that can be effective as direct and personal intervention at the highest level from Western heads of state or heads of government directly on a phone call to Vladimir Putin, to make clear to him that this is a red line that he cannot cross.

Pletka: I hope that that happens. I want to ask you one last thing, Vladimir, if you have just a moment. The person who introduced us, our mutual friend and my colleague, Leon Aron, has written about foreign policy as the tiger that Putin rides, that he believes at once distracts the population from his shortcomings domestically, but also unifies them perhaps slightly less when it comes to somewhere like Syria, but certainly more when it comes to somewhere like Georgia or Ukraine in particular. Putin is amassing troops now on the border with Ukraine. Do you think his intentions are to distract, to invade? And do you think he has so little fear of the repercussions that it doesn’t matter to him?

Kara-Murza: Well, Putin’s regime was born out of war, that was the original sin, the war in Chechnya, that’s how he came to power. And he has used it, from time-to-time, to bolster his standing, held his party ahead of elections, distract Russian citizens from growing domestic problems, including social and economic problems. He’s done it, as you mentioned, in Georgia, he’s done it with Crimea. He’s done it to an extent with Syria as well. But you know, there comes a time when every dictator stumbles, and you never know which next war is going to actually turn the opposite of what you had intended.

Back in 1904, now the tsar’s government also thought that it needed a small victorious war, that was a phrase coined by Vyacheslav von Plehve, the interior minister at the time, and in that case, the war was against Japan. He said, “We need this small victorious war to try to solve all the domestic problems of the empire, to make people forget about the domestic problems, to distract public attention.” Well, that war ended up being not so small, and not so victorious. And the result was actually our first revolution in 1905, when the tsar was forced to concede a parliament for the first time in the history of Russia, as well as civic and political freedoms, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and so on. This is when Russia became a semi-constitutional monarchy for the first time.

And so these wars can sometimes have the opposite effect to what their architects intended. I think anything is possible when it comes to Putin. Our parliamentary election is five months away, it’s in September. The public standing of Putin’s party is down to 27 percent, this is the latest figure from the Levada Center from a couple of weeks ago. They know that they are facing a similar humiliation to the one they faced in 2019 in Moscow, but this time on a national scale.

And so nothing could be put past them in what they could try to do to distract public attention as that election approaches. But, again, Russian history has been known to take unexpected turns. I don’t think any dictator plans to voluntarily leave or resign or go into retirement, and yet history has sometimes shown them the door. Russian history has shown us that big political changes in our country can come suddenly, and unexpectedly, including for their own participants. When I hear sometimes Western analysts and Western policymakers talk about the long-term stability and the strength of the Putin regime, I sometimes remember those Western Kremlinologists who, at the beginning of the 1990s, said the very same things about the Soviet Union, and its strengths, and its stability, and how it’s going to continue for decades and decades.

Pletka: They’ve tried to kill you twice, they’re in the process of trying to kill Alexei Navalny again. They killed Nemtsov, and many others whose names are less familiar, but you keep going back. Why?

Kara-Murza: When Alexei Navalny emerged from his coma in September at the Berlin Charité Hospital, and the first thing he said, passed through his wife, publicly, was that he’s going to return to Russia as soon as he’s physically able to. I was literally inundated by calls from mostly Western journalists asking me, all of them, to comment on this, as they put it, “sensation.” To which I responded in some bewilderment, not only don’t I see any kind of sensation, I don’t even see anything really newsworthy here; of course he’s going to go back. He’s a Russian politician and the Russian politician’s place is in Russia.

The biggest gift we could give to the Kremlin and to the Putin regime, those of us who are opposed to it, would be if we all just gave up and ran away. There’s nothing better they want from us. In fact, back in the ‘70s, Yuri Andropov, who we mentioned at the beginning of this conversation, who was a horrific historical figure obviously, but he was very smart and very clever. And he came to the conclusion that the most effective way for the Soviet regime to silence and neutralize dissidents was not to put them in labor camps or prisons or psychiatric hospitals, all of which they of course still did, but it was to exile them to the West. Because once a political opponent is outside of his or her own country, they very quickly lose not just the everyday connections that you need to feel a sense of reality, but much more importantly than that, they would lose any moral authority, and any moral right to continue.

And so this is what Andropov began doing, first with Solzhenitsyn, then with Bukovsky, then with Ginzburg, Orlov, Shcharansky, and so on, you name it. It was almost like a conveyor, all these prominent dissidents whom they kicked out of the Soviet Union. And they would like to do the same now. In fact, the new criminal cases against Alexei Navalny were announced while he was recovering in Berlin, with the goal that he does not come back.

I was recently a guest on a show, on Echo of Moscow, one of the last major independent radio stations in Russia, and I was asked about the most difficult and the easiest decision I ever made in my life. Well, the most difficult, it was something about choosing my profession or something like that. And then the easiest, I said, “Well, I can answer this in a second, to return back home to Russia after both poisonings, in fact.” And to be honest, that wasn’t even a decision. I didn’t even consider for a second, that I would not go back.

And so the first time was harder because I was in a coma for three weeks, it took a really long time to recover. I had to learn to walk again after the first poisoning. And it was very difficult, physically and psychologically, not just on myself, but on my family. But as soon as I was literally able to limp with a cane, I went straight to the plane. I was recovering in the U.S., doing rehabilitation after the poisoning. I took my cane, limped straight back on the plane, and went straight back home, same year, 2015. It could not have been any other way, and the same with the second poisoning. I was back home in Russia, as soon as I was able to.

They’re not getting rid of us. This is what they would like to do. And again, I couldn’t think of no bigger gift to the Putin regime, from our side, than if we all just gave up and ran. This is our country. We care about our country’s future. We know there are a lot of people in Russia fundamentally reject Putin, and everything he stands for. I want Russia to be, to use the words of Alexei Navalny in a recent interview, “a normal European country.” For the sake of our country, for the sake of our compatriots, we have no right to give up and run.

And so, we’re going to continue. I have absolutely no doubt that day, when Russia becomes a normal European country, will come, and everything that we do has as its goal to try to bring that day a little closer.

Danielle Pletka is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.