Vladimir Kara-Murza’s on “Russia: Putin, the Opposition, and the Prospects for Democracy”

Vladimir Kara-Murza's seminars will be held on Mondays at 12:30pm unless otherwise noted.

All IOP Pritzker Fellows Seminars will be held in the IOP Living Room unless otherwise noted. 
All seminars are students only and closed to press/off the record.


A number of persistent stereotypes have governed Western understanding of Russia and Western approaches toward it. We are told that Russia can only live under autocracy and is not suited for democratic governance; that Russian citizens yearn for a “strong hand” and are enamored with Vladimir Putin; that Western countries should choose interests over values when it comes to dealing with Russia; and that it is possible—and necessary—to seek accommodation with the Kremlin in the spirit of realpolitik, despite its authoritarian behavior.

An in-depth look at Russia’s history and the current situation challenges these stereotypes. If Russians prefer a “strong hand”, why did they choose democracy over dictatorship every time they had an opportunity to vote in a free election? If Vladimir Putin is as popular as he claims, why does he need to bar opponents from the ballot and censor the media? If realpolitik is beneficial, why did years of Western accommodation of Mr. Putin’s result in the worst crisis in Western-Russian relations since the “cold war”?

As controversies surrounding the 2016 U.S. election draw increased attention to Russia, this seminar series by Vladimir Kara-Murza will explore Russia’s domestic scene, focusing both on Mr. Putin’s regime and on the opposition to him; the lessons and trends of Russian history; and the interrelationship between the Kremlin’s domestic repression and its external aggressiveness; as well as consider whether there is a future for democracy in Russia. 

Session 1 (April 2): The 2018 Russian Presidential Election: Why Does Vladimir Putin Keep Winning? | RSVP

On March 18th, Vladimir Putin triumphantly won his fourth (de facto, fifth) term as Russian president, extending a rule that has continued unbroken for eighteen years. The official returns indicated a high level of support for Mr. Putin on a strong voter turnout. But the real picture is more complex, and Russia’s 2018 vote was, in effect, an election without choice. As the OSCE observer mission has concluded, “restrictions on the fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and expression, as well as on candidate registration, have… resulted in a lack of genuine competition.” This seminar will look at Russia’s 2018 presidential election beyond the official statistics.

Session 2 (April 9)*: Boris Nemtsov: The Man Who Could Have Been President of Russia | RSVP
* Please note, this seminar will be held from 5 - 7 pm.

This seminar will feature a screening and discussion of Nemtsov, Kara-Murza’s documentary about the Russian opposition leader with whom he has worked for many years and who was assassinated in Moscow in 2015. Nemtsov chronicles a remarkable political life. It is a story told by those who knew Boris Nemtsov at different times: when he was a young scientist and took his first steps in politics; when he held high government offices and was considered Boris Yeltsin’s heir apparent; when he led Russia’s democratic opposition to Vladimir Putin. The film contains rare archival footage, including from the Nemtsov family. Nemtsov is a portrait. It is not about death. It is about the life of a man who could have been president of Russia.

Session 3 (April 16): Are Russians Suited for Democracy? | RSVP

The idea that Russians are not suited to a democratic system and must be subjected to authoritarian rule has been long-held and carefully maintained. As is often the case with stereotypes, this one does not stand the test of facts. Every time Russian citizens could freely choose between dictatorship and democracy—the first Duma election in 1906; the Constituent Assembly vote of 1917; the presidential election of 1991—they chose democracy. Authoritarian rule has always resulted from the suppression of popular will, not an expression of it. This seminar will also consider how the imperfect democracy that Russia was in the 1990s was transformed into the full-fledged authoritarian system it is today—and what lessons this may hold for other countries.

Session 4 (April 26)*: Political Dreams & Economic Realities: How the Economy Impacts Politics in Russia | RSVP
* Please note, this seminar will be held on Thursday, April 26 at 12:30 pm.

Economic factors have played an important role in political developments in Russia, from the bread shortages that triggered the February Revolution of 1917 to the breakdown of the Soviet economy that boosted popular demands for democracy in the late 1980s to the economic difficulties of the 1990s that damaged the political standing of liberal reformers and paved the way for an authoritarian restoration. This seminar will consider the relationship between the economy and politics in Russia and how economic factors may impact the fortunes of Vladimir Putin’s regime.

Special Guest: Dr. Sergey Aleksashenko, former deputy minister of finance and deputy chairman of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation; nonresident senior fellow in Global Economy and Development at the Brookings Institution

Session 5 (April 30): Standing Up to Putin: Who Makes Up the Opposition in Russia? | RSVP

Authoritarian states are, by definition, not a comfortable environment for opposing the government. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, opposition activists have been exiled, imprisoned and killed. Yet despite the repressions, and despite being shut off from the official political process, there is a vibrant and diverse movement of opposition voices in Russia. This seminar will look at the state, the goals, and the most prominent personalities in the Russian democratic opposition.

Special Guest (via Skype): Dmitri Gudkov, former Member of the Russian Parliament and candidate for Mayor of Moscow in 2018

Session 6 (May 17)*: Russia’s Role on the World Stage | RSVP
* Please note, this seminar will be held on Thursday, May 17 at 12:30 pm.

From political repression, election fraud, and media censorship at home to political meddling, assassinations, military incursions, and annexations on foreign soil, Vladimir Putin’s regime has been flouting international norms for years. Western governments that once turned a blind eye to these abuses are now looking for ways to respond to the challenges presented by the Kremlin. This seminar will examine the motives behind Mr. Putin’s actions on the international stage and the effective Western responses to them.

Special Guest: Andrei Kozyrev, first minister of foreign affairs of the Russian Federation under President Boris Yeltsin (Oct 1990 – Jan 1996)

Session 7 (May 21): What Next? Charting the Course for a Post-Putin Russia | RSVP

However unlikely this may seem now, Vladimir Putin’s rule will one day end. And, if one takes cues from modern Russian history—in particular, the upheavals of 1905, 1917, and 1991—his rule may end suddenly and unexpectedly. As past lessons also indicate, the failure to be prepared for when that change comes can have a high cost, both for those who are faced with the responsibility of leading the transition and for the country (and the world) as a whole. The final seminar in this series will consider how Russia’s opposition is preparing for the tasks ahead; the ways in which Mr. Putin’s regime may come to an end; and what could come after.