A U.S. resident was recently sentenced to several years in a Russian penal colony. I’m not referring to Brittney Griner, the college basketball wunderkind turned WNBA star. But you would be forgiven for thinking so.
I’m referring to Vladimir Kara-Murza, the Russian dissident, journalist, and activist who on Monday was given a 25-year prison term for offenses related to treason. In President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, that word is mostly devoid of meaning. Kara-Murza’s offenses essentially amount to repeatedly criticizing the Russian government for its obvious and objective barbarism. That includes, for example, the Kremlin’s not-so-secret habit of killing, or attempting to kill, those who step out of line, something Kara-Murza himself was likely a victim of—twice. He survived poisonings in 2015 and 2017, though they have left him with severe polyneuropathy, a condition causing numbness in the extremities.
“The entire world sees what Putin’s regime is doing to Ukraine,” Kara-Murza said, addressing Arizona’s state Legislature in March 2022. “It bombs civilian areas, hospitals, and schools.” He was arrested in Russia the following month. The government is sending him to a “strict regime penal colony” which has the most grueling conditions of the country’s carceral system—a high bar to meet, and an ominous sign of what may be to come with the lingering health issues he faces from the poisonings. “I do realize that he doesn’t have five years, let alone 25 [in prison],” said his wife, Evgenia Kara-Murza.
But despite that Kara-Murza has been held unjustly for over a year, and despite that he was arrested for advocating ideals core to the American ethos, his story has not elicited the same urgency and advocacy for his release—both from the wider public and from U.S. politicians—as seen with Griner. It’s worth asking why.
In February of last year, Griner was detained at a Moscow airport after she was found with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. She was ultimately convicted of smuggling drugs and received nearly a decade in prison, close to the maximum sentence for that offense. The charges were ludicrous, and the penalty was harsh even by Russian standards, according to her attorneys, in what was in all probability a political ploy on the part of the Kremlin. In December, her freedom was secured via a prisoner exchange with Viktor Bout, an arms dealer who in 2011 was convicted of, among other things, conspiracy to kill American citizens.
Over the course of Griner’s 10-month incarceration, a particular narrative took shape, especially in certain parts of the American left. It’s one that may inadvertently shed some light on why Kara-Murza’s story has not penetrated the national consciousness in the same way. “The muted response to Griner’s detainment reveals the larger social dynamics at play: American society undervalues its women, its Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), and it’s [sic] marginalized groups, including LGBTQ+,” wrote Dorothy J. Gentry in Dame magazine. “Even globally renowned female athletes of the highest caliber cannot escape the limitations we place on the worth of women.”
There is more truth to the inverse. Griner was the sustained subject of national press conferences, news blitzes, and remarks from the highest political offices, including those of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Her immutable characteristics were at the center of that conversation. And her celebrity as a female basketball player didn’t hinder her; it bumped her to first priority. There is a reason you probably don’t know the story of Marc Fogel, the American teacher in his 60s who is spending 14 years in a Russian penal colony after he was arrested in August 2021—six months before Griner—when authorities found about half an ounce of medical marijuana in his luggage.
And it’s why you may never have heard of Kara-Murza, who, to this day, has still not been classified by the U.S. government as wrongfully detained. That’s notwithstanding the fact that he meets the qualifications as a permanent U.S. resident who makes his home in Virginia with his wife and three children. If the response to Griner was “muted,” then I’m not sure what word exists to characterize the responses to these other stories.
To be clear: Griner, too, was the victim of an unjust assault on freedom from the same embarrassingly brutal regime. It was righteous to secure her release, an opinion I have made no secret of. But the energy that spurred her rescue should not expire now that she’s home, nor should that sort of fervor hinge on who is at the front of America’s never-ending culture war.
That Kara-Murza is facing decades in a pitiless penal colony for criticizing the government should resonate deeply with a country built on the principle of free expression. Railing against state incompetence is a light pastime in America. In Russia, that comes at a cost. “He’s one of the bravest people I’ve ever known,” Meghan McCain, the political commentator and daughter of the late Sen. John McCain (R–Ariz.), tells Reason. Kara-Murza and the senator had a yearslong relationship working on Russia-related issues. “He should be released without any questions whatsoever. And it should be the number one priority of our country and the global community, because if political dissidents and free speech is policed there, it’s only a matter of time before it’s policed here.”
At McCain’s funeral, Kara-Murza was a pallbearer alongside, among others, President Biden. One hopes Biden hasn’t forgotten.