Where Are Russian Critics of Putin Featured in “Putin and the Presidents” Now?

A still from FRONTLINE's documentary "Putin and the Presidents."

A still from FRONTLINE's documentary "Putin and the Presidents."

January 31, 2023

When opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza sat down for an interview with FRONTLINE in July 2017, he warned about the consequences of speaking out against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“There’s been a very high mortality rate in the last several years among the people who have crossed the path of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin — independent journalists, anti-corruption campaigners, opposition activists, opposition leaders,” he said.

Interviews like Kara-Murza’s help shed light in FRONTLINE’s new documentary Putin and the Presidents on the Russian president’s years-long efforts to stifle dissent at home as he clashed with American presidents and tried to rebuild the Russian empire.

In the documentary, Kara-Murza, Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats and opposition politician Gennady Gudkov speak openly about Putin and the crackdown on protesters and critics.

One year into Putin’s war with Ukraine, FRONTLINE checked in on where Albats, Gudkov and Kara-Murza are today.

Vladimir Kara-Murza: When criticism is labeled ‘high treason’

Kara-Murza has been in detention in Moscow, Russia, since April 11, 2022. He could face decades in prison after publicly criticizing Putin and ongoing repression in Russia on three occasions between October 2021 and March 2022. His case is considered the first in which opposition to the Kremlin has been deemed high treason — a decision Kara-Murza said “baffled” his lawyers. In addition to high treason, he was previously charged with working with an “undesirable organization” and “spreading deliberately false information” about the Russian military.

“Adding significant insult to a very real injury was the accusation of ‘betraying’ the country I love — coming from the people who really are destroying its future, its reputation and its standing in the world,” he wrote in an October column for The Washington Post from the detention center.

Kara-Murza has been writing columns for The Washington Post regularly since 2018 and has continued to do so while in detention. In October, he received the Václav Havel Prize for the protection of human rights in Russia.

Before his arrest, Kara-Murza delivered speeches and testimony to U.S. lawmakers, the United Nations and NATO, in which he criticized Putin’s actions to try to remain in power, censorship of the media and stifling of freedom of speech and protest in Russia. He served as deputy leader of the People’s Freedom Party from July 2015 to December 2016, a political party that built its platform around advocating for democracy and protection of human rights of Russian citizens.

Kara-Murza also advocated for a 2012 U.S. law — the Magnitsky Act — that froze American assets of Russians found guilty of human rights violations. It was a move that he told FRONTLINE he had “no doubt” led to two attempts to kill him. He was hospitalized for suspected poisonings twice — in 2015 and again in 2017.

Vladimir Kara-Murza
Vladimir Kara-Murza (FRONTLINE)

Read more: Vladimir Kara-Murza (2017)

Despite the potential for a multi-decade prison sentence ahead of him and an unclear path to the end of war in Ukraine, Kara-Murza has still expressed faith that a democratic, peaceful Russia will eventually emerge.

“Even today, in the darkest of hours, I firmly believe that time will come,” he said in remarks his wife delivered on his behalf when accepting the Václav Havel Prize.

Yevgenia Albats: One of Russian independent media’s last holdouts

When Putin signed a law in March 2022 criminalizing “fake news” about the war — or anything that ran counter to official statements — many journalists fled, choosing to report from abroad, while others shut down their outlets entirely. Yevgenia Albats, editor-in-chief of Russian independent magazine The New Times, stayed in Russia for nearly five more months.

“I already had four administrative cases against me, I was labeled a ‘foreign agent,’ and it became clear to me that just three or four weeks were left before I will be arrested,” Albats said in a video posted on her YouTube channel in September, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Read more: ‘Children of the Cold War’: Inside Biden and Putin’s Years-in-the-Making Clash Over Ukraine

Albats was labeled a foreign agent by the Russian government at the end of July 2022 — a designation that would subject her to state audits and the publication of a disclaimer alongside all of her work. She told NPR last September that the decision reminded her of her grandfather, who had also been labeled a foreign agent and shot and killed in Soviet times.

Yevgenia Albats
Yevgenia Albats (FRONTLINE)

The New Times was fined almost $13,000 last July for violating the fake news law and publishing information about the war in Ukraine. Like several other independent media websites, the magazine’s website was blocked in Russia just days after the February invasion of Ukraine. But the magazine has continued to cover the war.

Kremlin scrutiny of the magazine isn’t a new development. In 2018, the magazine was ordered to pay a fine equivalent to nearly $300,000 over issues with reporting foreign funding. The fine was imposed shortly after Albats interviewed leading opposition politician Alexei Navalny on the radio show, Echo of Moscow.

In a 2017 interview, Albats told FRONTLINE that Putin moved early in his political career to exert control over the media as a means of exercising political power.

“Putin realized that in order not to have any contester, any opposition, he has to have full control over networks,” she said. “His first move was to take control over private TV network and TV, and then, step by step, he got control over each and every TV network in this country.”

Since September 2022, Albats has been running The New Times from the U.S. while she teaches at New York University as a journalist-in-residence. She has taught seminars in Russian politics and is teaching journalism and political science classes this spring.

Gennedy Gudkov: Watching Putin move ‘toward authoritarianism’

Gudkov has been living in Bulgaria since 2019, when he left Russia as a precautionary measure, Reuters reported, following years of being a vocal critic of Putin.

A former KGB officer like Putin, Gudkov had served in the Russian parliament, the State Duma, since 2001 and watched Russia become less democratic as Putin tightened his grip on all aspects of government.

“I think Putin should have been the man who would embrace those democratic ideas, the ideas behind the reforms, in the country and in the Communist Party,” Gudkov told FRONTLINE in a 2017 interview. “I regret watching him change toward authoritarianism, toward totalitarianism, toward almost dictatorship.”

In the same interview, Gudkov talked about participating in a demonstration with tens of thousands of Russians after evidence of fraud emerged in the 2011 election that gave Putin his third presidential term. At the time, he was a member of the populist A Just Russia party, which says it advocates for a “new socialism” in Russia.

Gennady Gudkov
Gennady Gudkov (FRONTLINE)

Read more: Gennady Gudkov (2017)

In 2012, Gudkov was expelled from the Duma for violating a law that prevents Duma members from profiting commercially while holding office. Gudkov said the move was “political revenge” for his role in opposition politics.

Gudkov has continued to speak out against Putin and denounce the invasion of Ukraine. Like Kara-Murza, he’s counting on, and planning for, a post-Putin Russia.

“What Western governments and diplomats primarily require of us is a general picture of Russia as it should be after Putin,” he told Bloomberg in November. “Because everyone understands that the regime doesn’t have much time left.”

Watch the full documentary Putin and the Presidents:

Julia Ingram

Julia Ingram, Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowship



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