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As the Cold War raged in 1975, I attempted to attend a mass celebrated by a giant of the 20th century, Cardinal József Mindszenty, a man who the Encyclopaedia Britannica says “personified uncompromising opposition to fascism and communism in Hungary for more than five decades.”
Unable to enter the overflowing cathedral in Caracas, Venezuela, I waited, along with many hundreds of others, in the adjacent Plaza Bolivar, hoping to catch a glimpse of the courageous priest. At the end of the service, the cardinal led an outdoor procession. Struggling under the weight of his robes and miter, the 83-year-old, just weeks away from his death, seemed buoyed by the crowd’s thunderous cheers.
Mindszenty’s bravery was legendary. First arrested twice in 1919 as a 26-year-old priest for opposing communist policies, he was later incarcerated in 1944 for resisting the fascist Arrow Cross Party. Freed at the end of World War II, he quickly returned to fighting communist repression after a Stalinist government took power in Hungary. In 1949, despite condemnation from the United Nations, a show trial resulted in Mindszenty being sentenced to life in prison, where he was tortured repeatedly. Freed again during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, he was forced to seek asylum at the U.S. embassy in Budapest when Soviet tanks entered the country to seal the first major crack in the Iron Curtain. The cardinal remained at the U.S. legation for 15 years.
I confess that I don’t think often about the cardinal or that day, but he immediately came to mind when I watched Marina Ovsyannikova’s fearless protest on Russian state television.
Ovsyannikova, an editor and producer at state-owned Channel One, burst onto the set of its evening newscast on Monday chanting “No war, stop the war,” and holding a sign that said: "Stop the war. Don't believe propaganda. You are being lied to here." The broadcast quickly cut away from her protest.
Ovsyannikova was reportedly arrested, and human rights groups had said her whereabouts were unknown until she appeared in a Moscow court on Tuesday. She says she went two days without sleep and was questioned for 14 hours. The court fined her for organizing an unauthorized public event, and then released her. But her ordeal may not be over.
"Marina is facing incredible risks to her life, her safety, her future," Julia Davis, a Russian media analyst and columnist for the Daily Beast, told CBS News. "She knew that, and she willingly took that risk… My hat is off to her."
The fear is that Ovsyannikova could be further charged under a more severe new criminal law that threatens a 15-year prison sentence for anyone who calls the Russian attack on Ukraine a “war” or an invasion.”
Before the TV incident, she posted a video on social media that can be seen on this link, which includes a translation by The Washington Post. Calling the invasion a “crime,” Ovsyannikova said she’s "ashamed that I allowed myself to tell lies from the television screen. Ashamed that I allowed Russians to be turned into zombies. We just silently watched this inhumane regime."
Citing Ovsyannikova’s actions on Twitter, the European Commission said: “We applaud the continued courage of the brave Russians who dare to express their opposition to this war led by Putin.”
James Cleverly, a junior minister in the U.K.’s foreign office, echoed the European Commission in an appearance on the BBC. “These acts of defiance within Russia … these are incredibly important,” he said. “It shows a huge degree of bravery for those individuals to protest in what is, we know, an oppressive authoritarian state.”
Ovsyannikova’s audacity also reminded me of the daring Chinese students who stood up to Chinese repression with their large-scale Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 in Beijing. Possibly the most iconic image ever of the struggle against government oppression happened on June 5 of that year, when a lone man faced down a line of People’s Liberation Army tanks.
It is impossible to predict whether Ovsyannikova’s valor and that of the thousands of others who have been arrested in Russia for opposing the war will turn the tide against the invasion.
But her moral stance, like that of Mindszenty and the Tank Man before her, brings hope to all of us who believe in democracy and freedom. We should all celebrate these heroes, while demanding respect for all peaceful protesters' human rights.
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Cover photo: A woman watches a computer screen showing a dissenting Russian Channel One employee interrupting Russia's most-watched evening news broadcast in Moscow on Monday, March 15, 2022, holding up a poster that reads as "No War" and condemning Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. (AFP/Getty Images)