#6 - JRL 7259
July 21, 2003
A clear conscience working in the boiler room
By Daniel McLaughlin
For Vladimir Kara-Murza, a decade as one of Russian television's foremost political pundits now seems like a mere interlude in a lifetime of quiet dissent.
He shared sharp-tongued analysis with the nation on three independent television stations, moving with a close-knit group of colleagues from one to the next as the state seized them or shut them down over alleged financial problems.
After Russia's last nationwide independent channel was yanked off air in June, Mr Kara-Murza returned to the work that saw him through life in the Soviet Union, watching dials and flicking switches in the boiler room of a local heating plant. "I was one of the most promising students to graduate from the history faculty at Moscow State University, but it was impossible for me to work with the Soviet authorities, the Communists and KGB who had executed relatives of mine," he said at his Moscow apartment.
"So for years I worked as a cleaner and a stoker in a boiler room, until after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. Now I've returned to what I was back then."
The closure of TVS last month left Mr Kara-Murza and his independent-minded kolektiv with nowhere to go in Russian television. NTV, the channel where a high-flying college friend introduced Mr Kara-Murza to broadcasting, was absorbed by a state-dominated gas firm in 2001, supposedly to save it from financial oblivion.
Mr Kara-Murza and his team continued their often critical coverage of the Kremlin at TV6, until authorities closed it down. TVS was their last refuge, before being bumped off air by a 24-hour sports channel.
"Those journalists were my family, and three weeks ago the Kremlin destroyed it," the 43-year-old said of his old colleagues and his withdrawal from the world of television. "A normal person can't suddenly create a new family straight after the old one, the one he loved, has been wiped out."
Now Mr Kara-Murza works two days on, one day off, at a heating plant close to his home, amid the sweltering pipes that carry hot water to apartment blocks that are just visible through a small grille in the corner of the boiler room.
He says President Vladimir Putin never forgave him or his friends for their reporting of Russia's botched effort to save the crew of the Kursk submarine in August 2000, or their criticism of Mr Putin's initial decision to remain on holiday while confusion surrounded the fate of the 118 doomed sailors on board.
With parliamentary elections in December and a presidential vote in March, Mr Kara-Murza says Mr Putin is now determined to silence any dissenting voices that could embarrass him again.
And faced with the choice of work on a state-controlled channel or in a small, sweaty boiler room, Mr Kara-Murza says his conscience allows only one decision.
"This way I can look my son and grandson in the eye when they ask what I was doing in 2003 - did I work for the KGB or the Kremlin? - and I can say No, I was waiting for a time when I could work without compromising my principles."