Lessons on freedom from the Russian opposition

Tyranny often employs a slow grinder rather than a blunt hammer, but the result is the same

June 21, 2023 6:00 am
Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky presenting battle flag

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy gives a Ukrainian flag signed by members of the Ukrainian military to then-U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi .D-CA, as he addresses a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 21, 2022 in Washington, D.C. In his first known trip outside of Ukraine since Russia invaded, Zelensky met with U.S. President Joe Biden and outlined Ukraine’s request for continued military aid. Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images.

Americans enjoy many freedoms. We may criticize the government or large corporations without legal consequence. This broad freedom, relatively rare in human history, allows us to treat political arguments like sports talk or squabbles over whether pineapple belongs on pizza. Comfort allows us to treat our rights like trifling trinkets. 

But freedom is hard-won and easy to lose. 

Whether American freedoms are shared equally is a longstanding debate. Now, the United States risks losing freedom amid a dysfunctional Congress, politically motivated U.S. Supreme Court and hyper-partisan state legislatures. Evidence varies from state to state, but the nonpartisan Freedom House notes that the U.S. freedom score has dropped from an “A” to a “B” since 2010. 

The old saying goes, “Freedom isn’t free,” but I rather think of freedom as a productive garden: A lot of work by everyone if you want enough to eat. Just ask someone hungry for freedom.

That’s what I did when I recently corresponded with Igor Yakovlev, a communications operative from Russia’s only remaining legal political party opposed to the war in Ukraine. I don’t speak Russian, and his English is limited, but with translation software and mutual curiosity, our conversation proved enlightening.

Peter’s Factory

Ten years ago, I wrote about political intrigue in Petrozavodsk, the Russian sister city of Duluth, Minnesota. 

In his book “Cold Comfort,” Duluth’s former poet laureate Barton Sutter wrote that Petrozavodsk “sounds like a brand of vodka made out of diesel fuel.” In reality the city’s name translates to “Peter’s Factory,” named for Peter the Great and the industrial function Petrozavodsk shares with Duluth.

But the relationship between the two cities goes deeper.

Petrozavodsk is the capital of Karelia, a region near Finland that played a part in Minnesota history. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Finnish immigrants — disillusioned with labor conditions in Duluth and the Mesabi Iron Range — left for Finnish-speaking communities in Karelia. A year later, a distrustful, paranoid Joseph Stalin sent many of them to die in the gulags as political prisoners. 

More than 70 years after that, as the Cold War waned, Duluth symbolically opened its relationship with Petrozavodsk. Despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the sister city program continues

In 2013, the people of Petrozavodsk elected as mayor a relatively unknown independent reform candidate, Galina Shirshina. She was then a 34-year-old publisher and psychology professor critical of the ruling United Russia party.

Shirshina’s victory relied upon a meticulous plan and a lucky break, according to Yakovlev, who is a spokesman for the Russian United Democratic Party, often called “Yabloko,” which means “Apple.” 

That year, Emilia Slabunova, a well-known local legislator, ran for mayor of Petrozavodsk on the Yabloko ticket. She faced an unpopular incumbent, United Russia’s Nikolai Levin. 

Yabloko, a pro-Europe party, holds significant support in places like Petrozavodsk, St. Petersburg and other parts of Russian Europe. But, just before the election, Slabunova was removed from the ballot on what Yakovlev calls “far-fetched grounds.” 

“This often happens with strong competitors of government candidates,” Yakovlev said. “There is an excuse to keep them out of the elections. As a rule, this is illegal, but in Russia there is no justice independent of the executive branch, so it is useless to seek justice in court.”

Yabloko was prepared for this. Shirshina appeared on the ballot as an independent “reserve candidate” with no stated ties to Yabloko. 

“When Slabunova was removed from the elections, Slabunova called on her supporters to support Shirshina,” Yakovlev explained. “In addition, Galina Shirshina herself is a young, charismatic politician. She aroused the sympathy of the voters. Thanks to this, she was able to win the election.”

Shirshina eschewed a ritzy inauguration ceremony as “unnecessary pathos” and criticized the former 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. In mere months, Shirshina became a recognized reformer who earned attention across former Communist bloc countries in Europe.

“Shirshina was a very popular and effective mayor, she managed to do a lot,” Yakovlev said. “However, the authorities did not forgive her for her victory. Although the mayor of the regional capital is not formally subordinate to the governor, (she) is seriously dependent on him. The governor of Karelia constantly prevented Shirshina from exercising her powers.”

Shirshina did not finish her term. In 2015, the governor of Karelia requested that the Petrozavodsk City Council remove her for not “fulfilling the duties of her office.” The council complied.

In a 2015 interview with FlashNord, Shirshina described comments she heard from councilors who voted against her.

“I speak with some of those who voted against my initiatives, and I know they treat me well,” Shirshina said. “The deputies frankly tell me, we are scared. You know, everybody who supported you are already in prison or under investigation. And they all have something to worry about.”

Shirshina appealed, but Russian courts backed the council’s right to remove her. Police dispersed protestors who demonstrated on her behalf.

In 2016, Shirshina ran for the federal Duma (akin to Congress) on the Yabloko ticket. Shirshina’s election would have been a long shot, but she was an effective spokesperson. Yabloko hoped she could run up the vote in Karelia and perhaps help the party win local races.

In August, just two weeks before the election, a court in Petrozavodsk inexplicably invalidated the slate of Yabloko candidates in the city. Though it didn’t prevent people from voting for Yabloko on the federal ballot, it discouraged reform voters in one of their strongholds.

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

That same fall, Americans elected Donald Trump, who would go on to praise Vladimir Putin and privately admit that he envied his methods.

Safety in silence

Sometimes opposition leaders in autocratic states are killed, but Shirshina’s example shows the more common outcome. Opposition leaders usually aren’t shot. More often, they step out of the limelight to avoid further conflict. 

“I think she understands that with her political views it is quite difficult or maybe even impossible to succeed in politics,” Yakovlev said. “She could arrange her career, but for this she would have to change her principles. Therefore, she chose to realize herself in business. Ms. Shirshina is a smart and efficient manager. Her competencies were in demand.”

Shirshina now leads a dairy company. Her current online footprint extols the virtues of Russian milk and laments challenges in bringing it to market. For every reformer killed in an autocracy, many more simply fade into the crowd.

This is why opposition parties in countries like Russia appear so small. Citizens pay a price for associating with them, even when public sympathies might favor their views.

That only proves the bravery and endurance of those who remain in the opposition. Each week, Yabloko officials gather to write encouraging letters to their members held in prison on political charges. Then they go to work. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, reformers face even greater danger.

“We are the only legal political organization in the country that opposes war,” Yakovlev said. “By the way, in Russia I don’t have the right to use this word. We must say “special military operation,” otherwise we will be fined or even jailed. Dozens of Yabloko members have already been brought to justice. We try to choose such words so that we can say what we think and not end up in jail. The great Russian language allows you to do this. The problem lies elsewhere — there are no independent media outlets left in Russia. Popular sites on the internet are blocked (for example, Facebook and Instagram). It is difficult for us to talk to society, but we still try to do it.”

In the United States, rights like the freedom of speech and public assembly are enshrined in Constitution. Over time, new laws and court rulings created concepts like the right to privacy and legal protections for the news media. A system that balances power between an executive, legislative and judicial branch was designed to protect these rights against the rise and fall of intemperate political movements.

These freedoms weren’t always part of American life, and many Americans — everyone who wasn’t a propertied white male — were often denied these rights. Nor have these rights ever been universal around the world.

You often hear people complain about losing freedom when they’re put in Facebook jail for sharing nasty memes, but that’s not really freedom. It’s privilege granted by a private company. 

A more apt example of losing freedom is purged voter rolls or banned books about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other historical civil rights figures. This is happening in the United States.

“I would not like to give anyone advice, but I would suggest that people look into history and look around,” Yakovlev said. “They will find many examples where even small restrictions on the expression of a position very soon led to a dictatorship.”

Americans speak of freedom, but we should rightly be judged for how we use it.

“We must be free not because we claim freedom,” wrote William Faulkner, “but because we practice it.”

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Aaron Brown
Aaron Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author, community college instructor and radio producer from Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.