Even in death, John McCain has one final burn planned for two of his biggest foes — Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump — at a moment when much of the world will be watching.
The Republican senator from Arizona, who planned his own funeral, chose Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza as one of the dignitaries to carry his coffin to the front of the Washington National Cathedral at Saturday’s memorial service.
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The funeral cortege, or procession, is often one of the most-watched parts of any televised memorial service, and McCain appears to have chosen his pallbearers with that in mind. He picked some, such as former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden and former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), to represent his time as an Arizona congressman, senator and presidential contender. Others, such as former Defense Secretary William Cohen, honor his service as a naval aviator and prisoner of war, and some are friends, such as the actor Warren Beatty.
The choice of Kara-Murza, who twice suffered organ failure from poisoning, appears aimed at sending a last message to Putin and Trump, who McCain had criticized for sounding too cozy with the Russian leader, amid an investigation into whether the U.S. president’s allies cooperated with Moscow’s efforts to intervene in the 2016 election.
For more than seven years, McCain and Kara-Murza had each other’s backs as each criticized Putin and what they saw as his autocratic tendencies in Russia.
Last April, a mutual friend brought Kara-Murza a personal message from McCain. The senator had been diagnosed nine months earlier with an aggressive form of brain tumor known as a glioblastoma and wanted the young Russian to be a pallbearer at his funeral. Would he agree?
“I was speechless and heartbroken, close to tears at that moment,” Kara-Murza told POLITICO on Tuesday. “I said yes, of course, and that it would be the most heartbreaking honor that anyone could think of.”
McCain didn’t believe his death was imminent at the time, Kara-Murza recalls. “But he knew how it was going to end, and he was planning everything.”
On Monday, Kara-Murza wrote of McCain’s death in The Washington Post. “We all knew this day was coming, but hoped against hope that it would not be coming so soon,” he said. “He was a true leader and a dear friend, and it will always be among the greatest blessings of my life to know him.”
Officially, Kara-Murza, 36, who divides his time between Washington and Moscow, is the vice chairman of the Open Russia movement. He is also the chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, established in honor of the dissident political leader who, critics say, was assassinated in 2015 for his anti-corruption investigations into Putin. Unofficially, with help from McCain, Kara-Murza has positioned himself as perhaps the biggest full-time thorn in Putin’s side.
The relationship between McCain and Kara-Murza dates to 2010, the year Nemtsov was arrested for helping lead a massive protest in defense of the freedom of assembly and against then-Prime Minister Putin in Moscow’s Triumfalnaya Square.
In Washington, McCain and a few fellow senators spearheaded a strong U.S. response, publicly insisting that any U.S.-Russia reset in relations should not come at the expense of Russia’s dissidents and its nascent democratic institutions. In Russia, Kara-Murza also railed against Putin’s treatment of the dissidents, saying it “may have been intended to frighten opponents, but instead showed a frightened and desperate regime.”
Over the next seven years, McCain and Kara-Murza often cited each other’s words and actions as ammunition in their opposition to Putin.
In September 2015, McCain and Kara-Murza met in Washington to honor Nemtsov with the International Republican Institute’s 2015 Freedom Award, seven months after Nemtsov was gunned down while walking across a bridge near the Kremlin.
Kara-Murza wasn’t just Nemtsov’s partner in founding and leading the People’s Freedom Party in Russia and the Open Russia democracy campaign, McCain told the assembled crowd. Four months earlier, the younger man had fallen so gravely ill from a mysterious ailment that he suffered multiple organ failure, lapsed into a coma and nearly died.
“Vladimir is a brave, outspoken, and relentless advocate for freedom and democracy in Russia. And [as] has happened to other Putin critics, Vladimir was poisoned in order to intimidate him or worse,” McCain said, after introducing Kara-Murza as “a personal hero whose courage, selflessness and idealism I find awe-inspiring.”
Kara-Murza recuperated in the United States but returned to Moscow several months later, long before he could walk without use of a cane. He and McCain worked closely together on pushing anti-Putin measures through Congress, including enforcing the Magnitsky Act of 2012, which imposed crippling sanctions on Russia for human rights abuses.
In 2017, Kara-Murza also helped McCain and other lawmakers push legislation to designate the stretch of Wisconsin Avenue in front of the Russian Embassy in Washington as Boris Nemtsov Plaza.
That February, Kara-Murza —married and by then a father of three —was in Moscow helping lead his “democratic opposition” efforts against the Putin regime. Suddenly, he fell gravely ill again, slipped into another coma and would have died had he not been staying with relatives, he told reporters at the time.
“If I was alone, I would not be speaking now,” he said. “The doctors say, if there is a third time, that’ll be it. I will not survive this again.”
Doctors officially diagnosed him as having been poisoned, but could never find the exact culprit, he said Tuesday.
The political emergence of Trump and his coziness with Putin brought the two even closer together.
A month into his presidency, Trump was asked by a TV interviewer about Putin’s penchant for murdering political adversaries. “We’ve got a lot of killers,” he retorted. “What, you think our country’s so innocent?”
That outraged McCain, who said in an angry speech that his friend Kara-Murza “knew that there was no moral equivalence between the United States and Putin’s Russia. I repeat, there is no moral equivalence between that butcher and thug and KGB colonel and the United States of America, the country that Ronald Reagan used to call a shining city on a hill.”
Kara-Murza wrote in the Washington Post that McCain saw the dangers Putin posed to the U.S. as far back as 2000.
“On the Magnitsky Act, on public advocacy for Russian political prisoners, and on speaking the truth about Putin’s regime, McCain was indispensable,” he said.
Knowing the senator as well as he does, Kara-Murza said, he believes McCain had some higher purpose in mind than embarrassing Putin or Trump.
“For me, this has nothing to do with politics, it is very personal,” he told POLITICO. “He wasn’t a politician. He was a statesmen, all his life.”