Editorial: In both Iran and Russia, backlashes against tyrants grow. It's defiance that should be nurtured.

  • In World
  • 2022-10-03 12:53:00Z
  • By Chicago Tribune

When authoritarian regimes strip away the humanity of their own people, blowback invariably follows. That is now happening in both Iran and Russia, where the autocrats in charge are seeing firsthand their nations' boiling points reached, both on the streets and in the minds of infuriated citizens.

In Iran, fiery demonstrations against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have persisted for days, ignited by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman arrested by the country's morality police for violating the requirement that women wear a hijab. She died while in custody. Authorities say she died of a heart attack, but many Iranians are deeply skeptical of that claim.

The protests, Iran's largest since 2009, fanned out to as many as 80 cities. Iranian authorities responded with a brutal crackdown that killed at least 50 people. In several cities, police opened fire on crowds.

To the north in Russia, indifference toward President Vladimir Putin's illegal invasion of Ukraine has exploded into anger, fear and defiance now that Putin has in essence instituted a draft of able-bodied men to help counteract his long queue of battlefield failures. Protests in cities across Russia have continued despite crackdowns, and tens of thousands of men are fleeing the country either by air or car to neighboring former Soviet republics, including Kazakhstan and Georgia.

Both Iran and Russia are afflicted with the same cancer - despotic leaders whose unchecked power and brutality are the result of removing from their societies any space for political opposition and free expression, either from the media or by everyday citizens.

Though Amini became the flashpoint for widespread protests, tension had been building up for months among young Iranians increasingly frustrated with President Ebrahim Raisi's crackdown on women. Raisi, a hard-liner, was Khamenei's hand-picked successor to Hassan Rouhani, Iran's former president whose more liberal approach toward Iranian society wasn't embraced by Khamenei.

Khamenei is now learning that young Iranians have a breaking point. During street protests, they've been shouting, "Death to the dictator!" and "Life, liberty and women!" Women have been casting off their hijabs, and crowds have called for an end to the Islamic regime's rule - while at the same time facing down its truncheons, tear gas and bullets.

Russians, meanwhile, largely had tuned out the conflict in Ukraine before Putin's de facto national call-up, a desperate bid to regain momentum in a war that has become the most humiliating and perilous chapter in his long rule over Russia.

Putin's labeling of the draft as a "partial mobilization" is a sham, as fabricated as the referendums that led to Russia's illegal annexation of four regions in eastern Ukraine Friday.

Now, however, Russians can no longer ignore the war. It has been thrust into their homes, with tens of thousands of men being ushered onto buses that will take them to the Donbas to become cannon fodder, and tens of thousands more escaping their homeland. The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta recently reported that as many as 261,000 men have fled.

Anti-war protests have broken out across Russia, from St. Petersburg and Moscow to the far eastern city of Khabarovsk. The decision to demonstrate isn't made lightly. Apart from the brutal means Russian riot police use to put down protests, demonstrators risk being sentenced to as many as 15 years in prison. Authorities have found another crafty way to dissuade demonstrations - at protests they've been detaining men and handing them draft summons, a punishment arguably even worse than jail.

Many Russians remain defiant. A video that appeared in social media featured an anti-draft demonstrator helping to block a federal highway in the southern Russian province of Dagestan earlier this month. "When we fought (in World War II), that was war. And now it's not war, it's politics!," he shouted, according to the Moscow Times. In the Siberian city of Tomsk, a man stopped traffic in the streets and screamed, "A peaceful life for our children!" the New York Times reported, adding that within minutes he was arrested.

To keep protests in both Iran and Russia fervent and unyielding, one voice needs to grow even louder. That of President Joe Biden.

Biden has indeed expressed sympathy for the plight of citizens in both countries. He told the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 21 that the U.S. backed "the brave citizens and brave women of Iran, who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights." In the same U.N. speech, Biden rebuked Putin's partial mobilization announcement, saying the Russian leader had violated "the core tenets of the United Nations charter."

Given the sacrifice and courage that protesters in both Iran and Russia have demonstrated, Biden should say much more. He can remind the world that the U.S. stands in solidarity with Iranians and Russians who defy the coarse brutality that their leaders consistently inflict upon their own people. And he can promise the globe that the U.S. will never forsake its responsibility to uphold human rights, no matter how much bombast and venom leaders like Khamenei and Putin spew.

The leaders of Iran and Russia maintain a grip on their respective societies not because their people adore them, or because their people consistently elect them back into office, but simply because they hold their populaces hostage - through force and fear.

In both countries, however, everyday citizens are showing they can only take so much. It may not be the kind of patriotism Khamenei and Putin desired, but it's patriotism nonetheless - the patriotism of protest.

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Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email letters@chicagotribune.com .


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