- By Robert BerschinskiRob Berschinski is the senior vice president for policy at Human Rights First. He served in the Obama administration as a deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor.
As America gathered around its televisions to take in the Super Bowl on Sunday, a Russian patriot and democrat named Vladimir Kara-Murza spent the same hours clinging to life in a Moscow hospital.
The vast majority of Americans have never heard of Kara-Murza, but he represents much that the United States holds dear. An outspoken advocate for government transparency and citizens’ rights, he and an ever-dwindling group of Russians like him present a challenge — one that the Kremlin intends to stamp out — to the rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Increasingly, these men and women aren’t just imprisoned for expressing their views: They are killed. That was the fate of Boris Nemtsov, Kara-Murza’s political mentor and a former Russian first deputy prime minister, who was gunned down two years ago within steps of the Kremlin. It was also a fate Kara-Murza himself escaped soon thereafter, when he survived organ failure under circumstances widely held to be poisoning — an episode eerily similar to his current illness.
Enter President Donald Trump, the man the American people have entrusted with a position and title once appropriately described as “the leader of the free world.”
In an interview with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News that aired just before the big game, the president sought to excuse the murder of journalists, activists, and political opposition members in Russia by equating those crimes with the actions of the United States, saying in Putin’s defense, “There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers…. Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
These words are an assault on everything I have ever believed in and fought for as a former U.S. diplomat and military officer. They are an affront to men and women who have given their lives for their country, and to any public official asked to raise his or her right hand and swear to support and defend the Constitution. They are a rejection of the guiding vision that has underpinned the American experiment at home and America’s role in the world.
The United States is far from perfect. One reading of our nation’s history is that of ideals never fully realized. From the original sin of slavery, to ill-advised interventions abroad, to fear-based policies that have abridged the rights of citizens and closed the country’s borders to the most vulnerable, our new president is correct when he says that America is far from innocent.
What Trump apparently rejects, however, is a different, equally valid reading of America’s story. This is the one I heard from activists and human rights defenders from across the former Soviet Union every time I traveled abroad as a representative of the United States. This version of the country’s history recognizes that, despite its failings and hypocrisies, the United States stands for the idea that people the world over have a right to determine their leaders and their future, and that governments have no right to lie, steal, and murder with impunity.
In December, I moderated a meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and a small group of human rights activists from Europe and Russia. In years past, this dialogue had been fairly predictable, if not also disheartening. The activists provided the latest news on how their leaders were robbing their countrymen of rights, and asked for U.S. support to call out these wrongs.
This year, following the U.S. election, the conversation was very different. More than seeking to convey events in their own countries, the activists wanted to know only one thing: Whose side would the United States take in the years to come? Would it be theirs, they asked, or that of the dictators?
When Trump suggests that there is no difference between the actions of the United States and those of Putin, he provides an answer. He tells defenders of democracy the world over that the liberties enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have no meaning to him, and by extension, to the United States. And he hands Putin and other autocrats the ultimate propaganda coup: that the U.S. government and theirs are the same, that we all lie and steal and murder, and that quaint notions like the rule of law and individual rights are but useful turns of phrase.
The last time I met with Vladimir Kara-Murza, I asked him why he would go back to Russia when he knew that his life was in danger. Russia is my country, he responded, and I am prepared to die to see it free. It is this Vladimir that the U.S. president should praise, not the tyrant who would wish him dead.
Top photo: Nemtsov; Leonid Martynyuk, a Russian journalist and opposition activist, right; and Kara-Mirza, left, on January 30, 2014 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. ALEX WONG/Getty Images