A cautionary tale from Duluth’s Russian sister city

Galina Shirshina (PHOTO: Vladimir Larionov, Wikimedia Commons)

U.S./Russia relations continue to make headlines during President-elect Trump’s transition. Setting aside reports of Russian interference in American politics, there is the fact that Russia has sought to reassert itself as a counterbalance to American power on the world stage.

The Russian intrigue is guaranteed to continue into Trump’s presidency. Trump announced last week that his first foreign trip will be to Russia for a summit with President Vladimir Putin.

This week, as I read up on some Finnish history, I remembered the Russian state of Karelia just over the Finnish border. Karelia was, for a time, under Finnish control. Soviet Russia negotiated (with a strong Cold War hand) to get it back from the Finns after World War II. This brought to mind a story that could help understand Russian politics, and the dangers autocracy presents to any democracy, including ours.

In 2013, I wrote about the new mayor of Petrozavodsk, the Russian sister city of Duluth, Minnesota. The sister city program continues, with the most recent exchange trip in 2014. I remember those trips being a big deal when I was a kid watching the local news after the Berlin War came down.

Anyway, Petrozavodsk is the capital of Karelia. In 2013, the people of Petrozavodsk elected as mayor a relatively unknown independent reform candidate, Galina Shirshina. She was then a 34-year-old journalist critical of Putin and his ruling United Russa party.

Shirshina took office that year, eschewing a ritzy inauguration ceremony as “unnecessary pathos” and criticizing the outgoing mayor for making “golden parachute” payments to outgoing United Russia officials. She announced that she would perform the will of the people, not that of the ruling party.

And then I lost all track of her. I’ve got three kids and a mortgage and, frankly, I don’t read much Russian news. I figured she’d either elevate herself as a national political figure or end up “disappeared” like many of Putin’s other critics. Frankly, I had no idea what it would be like for an opposition leader in a country like Russia.

Now, checking in on the story after three years, I see the truth is more complicated and probably more frightening for people who support democracy in places with autocratic leaders.

Shirshina did not finish her term. After two years, the Governor of Karelia requested that the city council of Petrozavodsk essentially impeach her. The charge? They said she wasn’t “fulfilling the duties of her office.”

Shirshina essentially said this was preposterous. She was right there at her desk, doing her job. But the larger issue appeared to be that she was not enacting policies in line with that of the ruling party. The city council, dominated by United Russia, and the governor, essentially a subordinate to Putin, would not abide Shirshina’s opposition.

The council indeed removed her from office. She appealed through Russian courts, which backed the council’s right to do so. Protestors supporting her encountered interference from the police.

Last year, Shirshina allied herself with the Russian liberal opposition party “Yobloko,” which translates to “Apple” in English. She stood for election to the federal Duma (akin to Congress) which selects members based on the proportion of the national vote. Shirshina’s election there would have been a long shot, so mostly she served as a spokesperson for the party. She remains popular in Petrozavodsk, where a dedicated following still protest her removal from office. The hope was that she could help run up the vote in Karelia, and perhaps help Yobloko win local races.

In August, just two weeks before the election, a court in Petrozavodsk inexplicably invalidated the slate of Yobloko candidates in the city. Though it didn’t prevent people from voting for Yobloko on the federal ballot, it discouraged pro-reform voters in one of the movement’s strongest areas in the country.

Shirshina tried to rally support despite the ruling, but the result was predictable. Yobloko fell short of the 5 percent it needed to gain seats in the Duma. United Russia consolidated its control of Karelia, even though Shirshina and Yobloko had been polling well there.

Shirshina, according to her Facebook page, has remained in Karelia, keeping a relatively low profile since last September’s election.

Sometimes opposition leaders in autocratic states are killed, but this example shows the more common outcome. Opposition leaders aren’t shot, they’re discredited. The ruling party uses false charges to hurt their reputation or serve as justification for removing them from office or the ballot. When people assemble to protest these actions, they are intimidated by police.

So people just shrug. Over time, citizens determine that they can’t believe anyone or anything, and the only real course of action is to stay quiet and out of trouble. They’re used to this in Russia. It’s been like that a long time.

But it doesn’t take long for the attitude to settle in elsewhere, even in democracies. This Melik Keylan column in Forbes magazine shows exactly how it works, and how it could happen in the United States. Keylan isn’t some partisan hack. He’s a journalist who has covered many different regimes across the world.

Autocracy controls the public through constant conflict, never resolved. Chaos, never peace. Characters wander in and out of the public square, never perfect. Never to be believed. The leader is a scoundrel, but so are they all. This is the operating reality of autocracy.

The concept of Russian and American cities forming “sisterhood” was designed to foster peace at a time when the two nations seemed on the brink of war. Today, there is no likely threat of war between these two nations. But there is some thing far more dangerous: the danger of sharing an autocratic form of government.

Look to Petrozavodsk and ask if this is what you want for Duluth, or any other American city. This is what’s at stake over the coming years.


  1. David Gray says

    It is indeed at stake over the coming years, just as it has been at stake through much of the lawlessness of the last eight years and the overreach of the state in certain respects in the years prior to that.

  2. One party autocracy has proven move destructive and autocracy itself. Look at the fear, crime, proverty and poor education that’s dominated our major cities over the past sixty years…and then look at which party has autocratically ruled them.

    With Obama leading the charge over the past eight years to fire over 1,000 elected Democrats nation-wide, maybe, just maybe we’ve turned the corner…

  3. I commented to wrong post.
    I never could have imagined an American president-elect being a bootlicking toady to Putin and Russia nor the GOP going along with it, not in my most horrifying nightmares.
    I’ll add that we have front row seats watching how easily with no hesitation the loudest “put America first”, flag waving, self-proclaimed “patriots” sell out their country.

    • David Gray says

      Don’t you occasionally feel the need to reach out to the real world before posting?

      I spent twenty years defending my country, that will have to suffice.

  4. I wasn’t talking about those who have served. I was referring to people who never had skin in the game and chest thumpers like Trump who got five deferments but said he felt like he was in the military because he attended a military prep school. You don’t have any concerns about Trump being Commander in Chief, someone who is manifestly unfit to be president. Nukes, anyone? I know I’m concerned about family serving under this loose cannon.
    He’s not interested in intelligence briefs, one a week is the best guess, because he’s “smart”, has no knowledge of foreign affairs and doesn’t care to learn. His only interest in foreign countries, what he talks on and on about, gets excited over is making money, deals in foreign countries. He bragged about his “weekend in Moscow” a few years ago meeting the “top oligarchs” and “the relationship was extraordinary”. Trump can’t bring himself to say anything the least bit critical about Putin or distance himself at all. Sure looks like Putin has Trump right where he wants him.
    He has surrounded himself with people with questionable Russian ties, several Goldman Sachs nominees and advisors, billionaires, other nominees with no experience and compromised in various ways. The swamp has expanded considerably. The rush, rush hearings on the nominees have been painful to watch. Remember how Republicans say government should be run like a business? Senators were only allowed 5 minutes each to question nominees. I can’t think of any business which would hire a prospective employee with only a 5 minute interview.
    Betsy DeVos has no degree in education, couldn’t answer basic questions on education, never went to a public school and has lobbied and spent millions of dollars promoting private charter and for profit schools. Tom Price was not happy to be asked about his budget legislation that would cut $449 Billion from Medicare and over $1Trillion from Medicaid. The New England Journal of Medicine article, “Care for the Vulnerable vs Cash for the Powerful” shows Price has much more concern for the well-being of doctors than patients. Rex Tillerson has spent his whole career with Exxon. Russia would love to have sanctions lifted because OIL. Over and over, it’s the same story with Trump nominees. The GOP has been salivating for decades for the chance to privatize SS, Medicare, Medicaid and the VA. They’ve never made a secret of that and they are in a very big hurry to do it now. Repealing ACA would give the very wealthy a tax cut windfall. The CBO report out this week was devastating about the consequences. They want to get their hands on the money in the trust funds and other federal money, our money. It doesn’t matter what Trump promises about health care, etc. After all, he’s the one who nominated the people who just want to cash in.

  5. Time will certainly tell whether the American people really ” won”. I strongly suspect this will not be a victory at all, for the average citizen, but one crisis after another.

    • Are you implying Jackie, that Obama hasn’t put us into a state of one crisis after another already? Are you kidding? Let’s take a look:

      Terrorism…The number and frequency of deadly terrorist attacks on U.S. soil has grown substantially worse under Obama. No one knew what a “lone wolf” terrorist was until Obama came along. And the mess he’s made of Syria will threaten the world for years to come.

      Cybersecurity….Can you honestly say we’re in good shape? Obama had no interest or made any investment in this area, other than political.

      Number of working age people actually working….The U.S. workforce has contracted dramatically under Obama. With 95 million people sitting on the sidelines and not being incentivized to go back to work is evil. And no, we don’t have 95 million retirees.

      Poverty…..Obama is responsible for the skyrocketing increase in welfare and number of people receiving foodstamps. Terrible.

      Racial strife……It’s painfully painfully clear that race relations have deteriorated significantly under Obama. He’s led this issue front and center. Launching his “war on police”. Why in God’s name would he do that? He could have done so much in this area, yet not only nothing, but made it worse.

      The debt he’s left us and our kids/grandkids with…..Obama claimed Bush’s deficits were not only too high but unpatriotic. So what does he do? Doubles down and leaves us with an eyepopping national debt of $20 trillion!!

      Education….Obama has done nothing, absolutely nothing in this area. Businesses are constantly saying we don’t have kids with the right skills to do the jobs required. Our kids are out rioting at the malls and freeways verses getting educated.

      Foreign relations….Obama has bungled foreign relations across the board, agitating both our enemies and our allies alike. His lead from behind, laughable red reset buttons and deadly do nothing red lines in the sand have made us the laughing stock as a global leader.

      Healthcare….No amount of Democrat spin can conceal the breathtaking disaster of ObamaCare, ‘nough said.

      Trust in government, media and academic institutions….All at an all time low. Led by Obama’s style in government and reinforced by a fawning media and liberal so-called educators.

      Need I go on? No president can possibly fail taking over at this point in our history. There’s nowhere to go but up..

  6. http://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/januaryfebruary-2017/obamas-top-50-accomplishments-revisited/

    Funny how you never acknowledge the Republican Congress, ranger, and its obstruction at every turn .

    • If Obama accomplished so much good, why is the world…the U.S., in such a mess? Tell me Jackie, what positive proposals by Obama were blocked by Congress? Name one obstruction of a good program? Obama accomplished everything he promised eight years ago….and the results are a depressed, dismal country.

      • David Gray says

        I wouldn’t bother with Jackie. She’s shown herself to be dishonest in the past. There’s no point in an exchange with a dishonest poster.

  7. Tell me again about my dishonesty, David.

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