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Chair Cardin Honors Brave Russian Dissidents Fighting for Democracy

WASHINGTON – This week, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered remarks on the Senate floor to honor the memory of Alexei Navalny and other brave Russian dissidents who have sacrificed their freedom fighting for democracy and human rights, and pushing back against the corruption and kleptocracy that have come to define President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Chair Cardin highlighted numerous examples of bravery and determination, including the story of opposition leader and anticorruption advocate Alexei Navalny, whose tragic and sudden death sent shockwaves across the international community last month. Chair Cardin also spoke in support of Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian opposition leader and journalist; Evan Gershkovich, an American reporter with The Wall Street Journal; Alsu Kurmasheva, an American journalist with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; and Ilya Yashin, a Russian opposition leader — all of whom are currently being unjustly imprisoned for opposing the Putin regime or reporting on its actions.

“We in the free world must do everything we can to lift up their voices,” said Chair Cardin. “At the same time, the House of Representatives must pass the supplemental funding request to help support the Ukrainians fighting against Putin’s repression. The fight against Putin in Ukraine is also the fight against Putin in Russia.”

Chair Cardin Floor Speech



A copy of the Chair’s remarks, as delivered, have been provided below.

Madam President, when Alexei Navalny died two weeks ago, he had been in solitary confinement for almost 300 days. Outside his window, the Russian dissident and anti-corruption campaigner could only see a tall fence and no light. Far above the Arctic Circle, the prison was built on the site of a Soviet gulag – a place the Kremlin had sent generations of Russian citizens to break their spirit. But despite the subzero temperatures, despite the months of darkness, despite the violence – Alexei Navalny never gave up. He never lost his sense of humor. He never wavered in his commitment to fight for a better Russia. And what really bothered the Kremlin – he never gave up on telling the truth about Putin.

After all, he is the one who aptly described Putin's united Russian party as “the party of crooks and thieves.” He saw that Putin, still the KGB agent who never turned away from the Soviet legacy that crushed the rebellion in Hungary in 1956, that suppressed the reforms in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and that declared martial law in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to crush Solidarity in Poland in 1981.

There was a chance for Russia to take a different path in the 1990's. Many Russians leaped at the opportunity after the collapse of the USSR. Their independent political parties, their open elections, there was a free press. Civil society emerged. Russians connected with counterparts in Europe and around the world. But since his rise to power at the turn of the century, Putin has turned Russia in a very different direction. Ruling with regimes as oppressive and corrupt as anything under Brezhnevor or Khrushchev. He is old school Soviet. Today Putin wraps himself in an ideology of white Christian nationalism. He’s cracked down on ethnic and religious minorities. He has persecuted the gay and lesbian community. He has shut down independent media and jailed journalists, like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist, Alsu Kurmasheva, a Russian-born American citizen who went to visit her ailing mother. Or even like Americans like Evan Gershkovich of the Wall Street Journal who was imprisoned for doing his job as a reporter.

That’s what Václav Havel recognized as these Soviet tactics. He was a playwright, dissident, and later president of the democratic Czech Republic. He wrote in The Washington Post, “I come from a country where as late as mid-1989, when all around us totalitarian icebergs were crackling and falling, I was in prison. Yet by the end of that same year I was elected president of the free Czechoslovakia.” Long before that, Havel wrote a famous essay – “The Power of the Powerless.” In it, he explained that dictatorial regimes are mortally afraid of the courageous individuals who speak up for their rights, who tells the truth when the regime is telling lies. Havel could have been writing about Alexei Navalny. The Putin regime is a house of cards built on corruption and violence.

I was in Germany earlier this month at the Munich Security Conference when the news of Navalny's death broke. I met with his widow, Yulia, who spoke movingly about her husband's death. I wanted to convey condolences and demonstrate solidarity with her at a painful time. Despite Putin's continuing threats, she is not afraid, and she is committed to continuing her husband's mission. His team at the Anti-Corruption Foundation is not afraid. They still have their lists of bribe-takers and warmongers. Navalny himself was not afraid. Even after they poisoned him and left him in critical condition, he still went back to Russia. Courage only begets more courage. That's what scares Putin.

Navalny was not alone. I want to speak briefly about another brave Russian democrat who is unjustly imprisoned in Putin's gulags. Only a few weeks after appearing before a Helsinki Commission hearing I chaired, they also poisoned Vladimir Kara-Murza. And like Navalny, he refused to be intimidated. He refused to be exiled from his homeland, and he returned to Russia time and again. They threw him in jail almost two years ago for his criticism of Putin’s unjust war in Ukraine. And there are others too. Like Ilya Yashin, who was sentenced to eight years after publishing reports about the war crimes by Putin’s forces in Ukraine, in 2022.

We in the free world must do everything we can to lift up their voices. We give material support to activists both inside Russia and across the diaspora. I was pleased to see the Biden Administration levy more sanctions against Putin's regime last week, including against the warden of the prison where Navalny perished – Putin promoted him to the rank of Colonel General three days after Navalny’s death. We must hold those responsible accountable, including using Global Magnitsky sanctions. At the same time, the House of Representatives must pass the supplemental funding request to help support the Ukrainians fighting against Putin’s repression. The fight against Putin in Ukraine is also the fight against Putin in Russia. There is something Navalny clearly understood when he said “Russia must leave Ukraine alone and allow it to develop the way its people want.”

I realize there is a painful sadness for so many across the Russian community in the wake of Navalny's death. It's a terrible loss. But remember what he told us: “If they decide to kill me, then it means we are incredibly strong.” Navalny personified what Havel long ago described as the power of the powerless. So, to the friends and family of Alexei Navalny and all those in Putin's prisons, to the Ukrainian people fighting against the Russian war machine, to the Russian diaspora who still dream of returning home – don’t give up hope. Have faith that we will one day see a peaceful and prosperous and democratic Russia. Where freedom and justice reign.