Britain can’t let the man Putin hates most die in prison

Opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza
Opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza

The UK must arrange a hostage swap to save Vladimir Kara-Murza, a heroic British-Russian journalist, from the Kremlin’s regime

Tom  Stoppard

19 May 2023 •

Prague, 1975. Ferdinand has just come out of prison for putting his head above the parapet.

Unnerved by a visit from State security, his friend Jan explains, “The thing is, I don’t feel grown up enough for prison. I’m definitely afraid of prison.” That’s nothing to be ashamed of, Ferdinand assures him.

Jan’s irritated reply, taken from life and put into my play Rock’n’Roll (2006) goes like this:

“I’m not ashamed of it. It’s normal to be afraid of prison. Normal people don’t do things that might send them to prison. I can’t even remember what you did, or who it was supposed to help. Of course I understand it was for being heroic, I just forget the details.

Heroism isn’t honest work, the kind that keeps the world going round. It offends normal people and frightens them. It seems to be about some private argument the heroes are having with the government on our behalf, and we never asked you. It’s very annoying. It pisses me off. Why do you do it?”

I have often thought about Jan’s words, and I thought about them again recently when I heard that Vladimir Kara-Murza has been sent to prison for 25 years by a Moscow court.

Why does he do it?

For years and years Kara-Murza has not just been putting his head up above the parapet, he has lived above the parapet, twice surviving attempts to poison him. The savage sentence he received on April 17 testifies to what his friends know, that Putin hates him above all his critics. 

If his name means nothing to you, you are not alone. It seemed to mean nothing to the minister batting for the government when the case was brought up at a Foreign Affairs committee as recently as March, when Kara-Murza had been in pre-trial custody for eleven months. 

Things have moved on in one respect. The UK, trailing Canada and the USA by some months, has now sanctioned five people, including the prosecutor and the judge, under the Magnitsky Act.

That law (imposing travel bans and freezing assets) is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer hired by the American-born investor Bill Browder to investigate a 230 million dollar Russian government corruption scheme. Magnitsky was arrested, tortured and killed. He was 37 years old. I got to know Browder in the early years of his campaign to get justice for Magnitsky.  Since then in countless interviews, speeches and two books, he has made the case that Putin himself profited from the fraud and was in the cover-up of Magnitsky’s murder, which Putin said was a heart attack.

The Magnitsky Act, now enacted in over 30 countries, is the accomplishment of Browder and Kara-Murza who travelled the world together for a decade to advocate it. It is half the reason Putin has it in for this unbelievably brave Russian-British historian, journalist, film-maker and activist. The other half is Kara-Murza’s relentless speaking up against Putin’s war in Ukraine, though in fact he has been speaking up against Putin’s law – breaking for a lot longer than that.

Kara-Murza does not finesse. He told CNN “This regime is not just corrupt, it’s not just kleptocratic. It’s a regime of murderers.”

In March last year he spoke for 20 minutes at a fundraiser for Ukrainian refugees. He talked about the pride he felt for the thousands of protestors in Russia arrested for opposing the war. (I wasn’t there, I’m relaying Browder writing in TIME magazine). He ended by telling the audience that in a few days he would be returning to Moscow to continue his protest.

Browder was appalled. Kara-Murza’s mother divorced when he was a teenager and married a British man. He has a British passport. With his wife and three children he has a second home in Washington DC. He had no need to return to Moscow, where his voice would surely be silenced. Browder played another card: “If you’re arrested, I and all your friends would have to spend the next ten years trying to get you out of a Russian prison.” Kara-Murza wouldn’t budge – “I’m talking about something far bigger than you or me.”

His courage is off the scale, but it’s on a continuum with the thousands of Russians who offer themselves for arrest by wearing blue and yellow, or simply holding up a blank placard.

Why do they do it? That young Czech might well have asked the question of the seven Soviet citizens who protested in Red Square in 1968 against the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and are heroes to this day.

“Unhappy the land that needs heroes,” says Galileo in the play by Bertholt Brecht.

On March 13 the trial of Kara-Murza began.  On the same day in Parliament the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office sat to hear oral evidence on the mare’s nest of state hostage taking – except that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary explained that the government found it more useful to call it arbitrarily detaining people for diplomatic leverage. “We focus on the diplomatic leverage that they are seeking”, he said. 

You mean like Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe? The Government’s performance was pathetic then and it will be pathetic again unless forced to the point of a hostage swap by media and public opinion. 

Kara-Murza is a sick man weakened by the attempts at poisoning. He lost 40lbs in the year since his arrest. A hostage swap is the only way, and it is urgent. We need to make a fuss and to keep on making a fuss.

Sir Tom Stoppard is a playwright and screenwriter


  1. “Kara-Murza does not finesse. He told CNN “This regime is not just corrupt, it’s not just kleptocratic. It’s a regime of murderers.”

    A brave man who speaks the unvarnished truth. A man who could lead Russia out from the depths of hell.
    We MUST get him out of putler’s gulag.

  2. Selected comments from DT readers

    Alastair Wylie : Pukin must surely be the most repulsive lizard on the planet. Even looks like one. I know I’m not alone in praying for his imminent demise – but it has to be painful. Not just a smack on the wrists through a courtroom. Those he has tortured, poisoned, imprisoned or killed deserve nothing less than that this evil incarnate rots in hell.

    Russell Evans : I have always admired Tom Stoppard as a person and a playwright and he is absolutely right about this.
    Kara-Murza is undoubtedly a brave man as is Alexi Navalny who returned to Russia after an attempt to poison him failed. There has been a long line of dissidents who opposed the monstrous Soviet regime and this man is only the latest.
    Britain should do all it can to get him released.

    ThePeddler OfOldDreams : I don’t understand why this man returned to russia. Ditto navalny. I admire their bravery but how do they advance the cause by being locked up and eventually murdered? Surely they would achieve more by campaigning from the west. Anyway 100% agree with stoppard, the government should do everything possible to support this man and navalny. And shame on anyone that says we should be minding our own business. If you’re a human being it is your business.

    Mark Cronshaw : Try reading Bill Browder’s books Red Notice & Freezing Order: they read like thrillers. Anyone in any doubt as to the value of concerted international action to oppose institutional rampant criminality will find these excellent books an inspiration. Brave men like Kara-Murza & Alexia Navalny plus Bill Browder are modern day heroes.

  3. It’s a shame that in the vast territory of mafia land, a Kara-Murza is an extremely rare exception to a ruskie, having dignity, common sense, courage, and not being constantly under the influence of alcohol.

  4. I was thinking Saakashvili was the man Putin hated most.
    He is even rumoured to have said that Putin wanted him to hang by his balls.

    I think he is the man that was most feared by Putin, as he achieved what Putin wanted to prevent at all cost: a former part of the Soviet-Union becoming prosperous, free of corruption and most importantly: a democracy.

    I think during the Saakashvili era Putin became paranoid, as he feared a Rose Revolution more than anything.

    Maybe he doesn’t hate him that much anymore, as Saakashvili became crazy and got locked up and no longer is in a position to harm Putin (or what Putin perceives as harm, if I was a Russian leader I would have watched Georgia with interest to learn what works and what doesn’t).

    Unfortunately Georgia is back into Russian orbit, but the good news is that this is going to end when Russia runs out of money and the stream of bribes dries up.

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