In this photo taken by an individual not employed by...

In this photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, people chant slogans during a protest over the death of a woman who was detained by the morality police, in downtown Tehran, Iran, Sept. 21. Credit: AP

The promise of freedom that shone so brightly after the collapse of communism in Europe and after the Arab Spring in the Middle East has often proved a disappointment. Much of the post-communist space in Europe — above all, Russia — has backslid into authoritarian repression. Many Muslim countries have found themselves caught between the threat of radical Islamism and the blight of secular dictatorship. And yet in the past week, we have seen reminders — in places as different as Russia and Iran — that oppression can only last so long before the human spirit rises. These are refreshing signs, even if it’s far too early to predict doom for either country’s tyrannical regime.

In Iran, protests have raged for nearly two weeks following the death in detention of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, arrested by the morality police of Iran’s theocratic state for wearing her hijab improperly. While the authorities say Amini died of heart failure, her family says she was beaten. The reaction among vast numbers of Iranian women — and men — has been one of fury. Women have ripped off their hijabs and danced in public; men have defended them from morality cops. The protests have spread from Tehran to some 80 cities, undeterred by the authorities’ panicked move of a national Internet shutdown and by a violent crackdown that has killed more than 70 people already. Even members of the Iranian national soccer team have spoken out in sympathy.

State-controlled Iranian television has blamed Zionists, monarchists, and Americans. Still, the authorities have allowed some reformist voices on the air, no doubt realizing that the protests reflect long-standing frustrations with a 43-year-old fundamentalist regime.

In a very different situation in Russia, the “partial” mobilization declared by Vladimir Putin last week for his failing war in Ukraine has sparked only a few relatively small protest rallies — perhaps because, after more than two decades of Putin’s authoritarian regime, the civil organizations that could have coordinated such protests have been too thoroughly destroyed. And yet resistance is evident in many ways.

Opposition to the mobilization has been particularly vocal in areas populated by ethnic minorities that have borne the brunt of the war so far. Videos from the southern Dagestan region show crowds, particularly women, aggressively arguing with officials and police and denouncing the war as “politics” and Russian aggression toward Ukraine.

Across Russia, dozens of enlistment offices and government buildings have been the target of attacks — from shootings to firebombing. But most remarkable, perhaps, has been the mass exodus of military-age men — some taking flights to Turkey and a few other countries that still allow Russians to enter without visas, others taking trains or driving across the border to Kazakhstan, Georgia or Moldova. It’s estimated that 100,000 Russians have already entered Kazakhstan alone. While some war critics say they should stay and protest the war, active draft evasion is also a form of resistance. Perhaps to neutralize protests, Russia’s state-run TV has allowed some harsh criticism of the mobilization effort — at least, of the way it’s being handled. 

“Protests are rapidly eroding the body of the Russian state,” Russian political scientist Ivan Preobrazhensky wrote in a column for the Russian-language site of the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

The Iranian state may quell the protests as it has done before, and the Putin regime may well survive what looks like a coming winter of discontent. But this week’s rebellions offer hope for the future.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a cultural studies fellow at the Cato Institute, are her own.


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