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Leader Of Russian Pro-Democracy Movement Remembers His Friend, John McCain


John McCain was thoughtful in his choice of pallbearers. They are all friends, some of them from his time in the Navy, some from his long career in Washington. One of them is a man less than half McCain's age, a kindred spirit of sorts when it came to their shared scorn for Russian President Vladimir Putin. His name is Vladimir Kara-Murza. He's the vice chairman of Open Russia, a Russian pro-democracy movement, and he joins me now.

Thank you very much for coming in today.

VLADIMIR KARA-MURZA: It's good to be here, although I wish the subject were different.

CHANG: Indeed. So when you were asked a few months ago to be part of Senator McCain's funeral, what went through your mind? What was your reaction?

KARA-MURZA: Well, frankly I didn't want to speak about it or think about it. This is the most heartbreaking honor you can imagine. And for me, the most important thing is that I will have this opportunity to say one last goodbye to someone who for me was an embodiment of integrity, of commitment to principle, the willingness to always speak the truth when it came to Russia and when it came to so many other things.

CHANG: Tell me about the very beginning at least between the two of you. How did you meet? How did you two become friends?

KARA-MURZA: Well, we actually met - this was the beginning of 2010 when Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was a very close friend of mine with whom I worked for many, many years together, when...

CHANG: He being a very vocal critic of the Kremlin.

KARA-MURZA: He was the most principal political opponent of Vladimir Putin's regime in Russia. And of course, as you know, 3 1/2 years ago, in February of 2015, he was assassinated on the bridge...


KARA-MURZA: ...Just in front of the Kremlin. But this was the beginning of 2010, and Boris Nemtsov and I were here in Washington. And we went to see Senator McCain to meet with him to discuss a piece of legislation that had just recently been introduced and of which Senator McCain was one of the chief co-sponsors. It was called the Magnitsky Bill.

CHANG: Yeah.

KARA-MURZA: At the time still a bill, not an act. And this was a law that introduced an absolutely groundbreaking principle in international affairs. And that principle was that the people who engage in human rights abuses and who engage in corruption should face some personal responsibility for it. And what that law did was to make sure that the people who engage in corruption and human rights violations would no longer be able to receive visas to the U.S., to own assets in the U.S. or to use the U.S. financial and banking system because of course so many of the people around Vladimir Putin - the cronies, the oligarchs, the senior officials, the same people who attack and undermine the most basic norms of democracy in Russia - want to use the privileges and opportunities that democracy affords in the Western world because it's in the West where they, you know, keep their money, educate their children, buy their real estate, send their wives to do their Christmas shopping and so on and so forth.

CHANG: It's...

KARA-MURZA: And the Magnitsky law put a stop to that.

CHANG: How would you say that your relationship with Senator McCain has helped you build your work here in the U.S., further the causes that are important to your work here?

KARA-MURZA: He would always speak publicly and openly and loudly in defense of the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens that are denied and violated by the Putin regime. For example, every time, you know, we have a, quote, unquote, "election" in Russia and Vladimir Putin is declared a winner with an absolute majority of the votes, so many Western political leaders pretend that this is actually a real election. They go along with this farce, and they congratulate Putin. John McCain would always make very stern and strong statements that this has nothing to do with a genuine democratic process. You know, it would not be an exaggeration to say that I'm able to sit here today and speak with you thanks in large part to Senator John McCain because 18 months ago, when I was lying in a coma in a Moscow hospital after a severe poisoning...

CHANG: Your second poisoning.

KARA-MURZA: Second poisoning in two years. And both times doctors told my wife that I had about a 5 percent chance to survive. But, you know, one of the few things that can serve as a protection in such cases is public attention. And Senator McCain took to the floor of the Senate, and he spoke about my case. And this was one of the things I think that saved me. So I'm able to sit here and speak with you thanks in large part to him.

CHANG: Give me a sense of how McCain's death has been viewed in Russia. How has the media been talking about his passing?

KARA-MURZA: So of course, as you know, the vast majority of Russian media today are directly controlled by the government. And so for many years now, Russian state media have been referring to Senator John McCain as a Russophobe, as an enemy of Russia. And these are the same epithets that they're giving him now in death. When they're reporting his death, these are the phrases that they're calling him. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Senator John McCain was never an enemy of Russia. He was never an enemy of the Russian people. He certainly was an enemy and very public and very committed enemy of the kleptocrats and the crooks and the criminals in and around the Putin regime and the Kremlin - the people who are stealing from Russian citizens, who are denying the rights of Russian citizens, who are stealing Russia's future and Russia's hopes. And he called them what they deserve to be called. He called them liars. He called them thieves. He called them murderers.

CHANG: It sounds like McCain wanted you to be one of his pallbearers because of your friendship, your shared goals. But do you think that there was a part of him when he chose you that wished to send one last message to Vladimir Putin and perhaps to President Trump?

KARA-MURZA: You know, I was actually quite upset when I read some of the headlines suggesting something similar...

CHANG: Tell me why.

KARA-MURZA: ...To what you're saying because, you know, there are some things that just aren't about politics and aren't about PR. I think it's just characteristic of Senator McCain's magnanimity in life that he would think of a Russian democracy activist when choosing the people he wanted to be his pallbearers. And going back to what we have been speaking about just a few minutes ago - how the Kremlin tries to present Senator McCain as, quote, "an enemy of Russia," end of quote - you know, I think it's pretty symbolic that among a small group of people that are going to serve as the pallbearers at this funeral will be a Russian citizen.

CHANG: Vladimir Kara-Murza is vice chairman of Open Russia. Thank you very much for coming in today.

KARA-MURZA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.