Among the pallbearers scheduled for Sen. John McCain’s memorial service on Saturday in Washington, D.C., are a former vice president, an actor, business executives and a Russian dissident whose own brushes with death brought him close to the late senator.
The dissident, Vladimir Kara-Murza, is an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin who suffered organ failure and fell into a near-fatal coma after being poisoned with an unknown toxin in Moscow in early 2017. The incident was the second time he had been poisoned in two years. “The doctors say, if there is a third time, that’ll be it,” the 36-year-old said then.
Both attacks were widely believed to have been directed by the Kremlin. Kara-Murza has crusaded over the past decade against what he alleges to be the Russian government’s corruption and criminal behavior in his position as vice chairman of Open Russia, a group that the Kremlin deems “undesirable” and a “foreign agent.”
Writing in The Washington Post on Wednesday, Kara-Murza credited his survival to the attention that McCain drew to his case. In February 2017, McCain displayed an image of Kara-Murza as he delivered a speech on the subject on the Senate floor.
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“I am able to write this thanks in large part to John McCain,” Kara-Murza wrote. “Eighteen months ago, when I lay in a Moscow hospital, in a coma after a severe poisoning, McCain took to the floor of the Senate to draw attention to my case. Public attention is often the only protection in these situations, and it certainly was for me.”
McCain was a fierce foe of Putin, often earning the Russian leader’s wrath. In one of his last pronouncements, McCain harshly criticized President Donald Trump for his friendly attitude toward Putin, slamming their joint news conference in July in which Trump suggested he believed Putin’s denial of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election over U.S. intelligence agencies’ assessment.
McCain called it “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
This Saturday, Kara-Murza will be one of more than a dozen pallbearers for McCain, a reflection of their years-long friendship and an opportunity for the late senator to take a tacit swipe at Putin – and indirectly at Trump – from the grave.
Last September, Kara-Murza visited McCain in Washington with his wife and three children, three months after the senator was diagnosed with brain cancer. It was in April this year that a mutual friend said McCain was planning his funeral and wanted Kara-Murza to take part.
“I was speechless and heartbroken, close to tears at that moment,” Kara-Murza said. With millions set to watch the services at Washington National Cathedral, the event will provide vital publicity to his case.
Kara-Murza and McCain were originally brought together by Boris Nemtsov, a Russian dissident leader who served as deputy prime minister and became one of Putin’s leading opponents. He was shot to death on a bridge in the shadow of the Kremlin in February 2015, an act widely condemned as state-sponsored assassination.
McCain was one of Nemtsov’s most loyal supporters during his life, and they met whenever he came to Washington, with his younger friend and adviser, Kara-Murza, in attendance. The first time all three were together was in 2010, shortly before Nemtsov was arrested during a demonstration against Putin’s crackdown on civil liberties.
The violent intimidation and arbitrary arrests faced by both men hardened the senator’s view that Putin was an autocrat who needed to be punished. This put him at odds with the Republican Party establishment, with George W. Bush saying “we don’t know enough about him” to make a judgment during the 2000 GOP presidential primaries, and with then-candidate Barack Obama, who called for a “reset” with Russia during a 2008 presidential debate with McCain.
“I looked in Mr. Putin’s eyes and I saw three letters – a K, a G and B,” McCain said in response.
Such skepticism made McCain a foe of the Kremlin, with state-sponsored media calling him “an implacable enemy of Russia” after his death last Saturday. Kara-Murza recalled one Washington meeting where McCain told Nemtsov that he feared for his life and that he should not go back to Russia. “It’s my country, I won’t give up this fight. . . . I have no choice,” he reportedly replied. Within a year, Nemtsov was dead.
Separated by five decades, McCain and Kara-Murza became close in the years after Nemtsov’s death and continued to meet regularly in Washington. They were among the most vocal supporters of the Magnitsky Act, the 2012 sanctions brought against Russian officials as punishment for the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in prison after highlighting state corruption and human rights abuses.
McCain co-sponsored the legislation, while Kara-Murza testified before Congress in support and later lobbied the Canadian and European Union governments to follow suit. The crippling sanctions cut off dozens of oligarchs and state officials from accessing funds and assets.
The measures infuriated Russian officials and remain as politically divisive today as when they were first introduced.