What losing freedom really means

Galina Shirshina repairs a bird nest box during her time as mayor of Petrozavodsk. A regional political council loyal to Russian leader Vladimir Putin and the United Russia Party forced Shirshina out of office in 2015. After several attempts to lead reform campaigns, Shirshina left politics. A small but brave scattering of activists continue to defy Russia’s ruling party, providing an important lesson about the difficulty of winning back freedoms lost. (PHOTO: Nataly Kozlovskaya, Wikimedia Commons)

As the United States struggles to balance freedom with religious and cultural nationalism, we might learn a lesson not just from history, but from the present struggles of those who support democracy around the world. That’s the subject of my latest essay for the Minnesota Reformer, “Lessons on freedom from the Russian opposition.” 

When I e-mailed an opposition political party in Russia, I held scant hope that my query would lead to a real person. But it did. That’s how I met Igor Yakovlev, spokesperson for the Russian United Democratic Party, known as Yabloko, or “Apple” in English. This is the last remaining domestic political party opposed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A combination of Google Translate and mutual patience would allow us to have an enlightening conversation about democracy, freedom and the perils of speaking out in an autocratic state.

The story starts with the former mayor of Duluth’s sister city, Petrozavodsk. Galina Shirshina was a young upstart when she beat an unpopular United Russia incumbent in 2013. Though this politically independent psychology professor and publisher had broad support, the growing forces of authoritarian rule in Russia led to her premature ouster from office in 2015. From there, she became frustrated trying to lead reform through democratic means.

Yakovlev describes the challenges of opposition politics under the threat of fines, arrest or violence. Political leaders generally don’t “fall out of windows.” The actual push-back is more subtle and persistent. Rather, they give up on civic engagement, focus on their families, and try to make a living — instincts we understand all too well in America.

You can read more in today’s essay at the Minnesota Reformer.

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