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Free Russia Founder: “Activism Doesn’t End With Borders”


“What’s the cost of activism? It’s huge,” Natalia Arno, founder of the Free Russia Foundation (FRF), said in a talk on April 18. Arno, in her presentation “Human Rights and Democracy in Russia,” discussed her activism experience within the Russian political system and explained the current state of Russian politics. She described the extent of Russia’s authoritarian policies and practices while including anecdotes from her own life, detailing the corruption that has increasingly pervaded Russian society.

Before founding the FRF, Arno had worked at the International Republican Institute and represented Russia at the World Summit of Women Leaders in Geneva in 2009. During this period, she traveled throughout Russia, providing civil training and workshops to various groups.

After being asked to leave her country by Russian security agents, she went to Europe and eventually the United States, forming the FRF along the way. The FRF, a nonpartisan and nonprofit U.S.-based NGO, aims to educate policymakers on Russian politics and works to create plans for transitioning out of Putin’s autocracy. Her prior experience ultimately helped motivate her to create the organization.

Arno said that, in Russia, “You face corruption as soon as you’re born,” going on to describe some of the events that inspired her to activism. She noted that one of her most poignant memories of societal corruption was when her grandmother had a stroke and to secure her grandmother a ride in an ambulance, she had to bribe the ambulance operators. She also acknowledged news stories that emerged throughout her life, citing incidents of journalist imprisonment and harsh politicization of everyday activities.

After leaving Russia, Arno continued her work. “Activism doesn’t end with borders,” she said, explaining why her expulsion did not inhibit her efforts. In addition to and as part of her job with the FRF, she tours the world giving talks to groups that include students, Congress, and parliament members. She stressed that “Russia and Putin’s Russia are different,” showing that besides making policy recommendations, she hopes to diminish any negative perceptions of average Russian citizens.

Arno said she hopes Hamilton students value the democracy and freedoms that they have in the United States and go on to “appreciate it, protect it, fight for it.” She emphasized that students have numerous civic opportunities and that, in using them, they can affect change both in their communities and internationally. Overall, Arno highlighted the tragedy of the current Russian administration and urged the audience to consider their role in society and how they can positively influence politics around them.

This talk was supported by the Levitt Center and the Winston Foundation.

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