The 2022 John S. McCain Freedom Awards: Honoring Democracy’s Heroes in a Time of Turmoil

  • Alison Schafer

One of the challenges of hosting the International Republican Institute’s Freedom Awards this year is that so many of the awardees are in jail, or a war zone, and unable to come to Washington for the celebration. This year’s event honored people in Ukraine and Russia, people at the center of one of the world’s most pressing conflicts– the Ukrainian people Vladimir Kara-Murza, and Alexei Navalny. The first group is trying to stay alive in a war zone, living as refugees, or serving on the frontlines. Kara-Murza and Navalny are both in Russian jail cells, Kara-Murza for speaking out against the invasion of Ukraine, Navalny after having been persecuted, poisoned and, ultimately, sentenced to more than nine years in prison.

Judy Van Rest, Executive Vice President at IRI for nearly two decades, who died last fall, was also honored. Van Rest founded the Women’s Democracy Network (WDN) and was a fierce advocate for women around the globe. She helped expand IRI’s impact and programming and left a legacy for the many women at IRI and elsewhere she nurtured and mentored.

Not surprisingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine garnered the most attention at the Freedom Awards. Speaker after speaker worried about the fate of the Ukrainian people, the future of dissidents in Russia, and praised the broad appeal of democratic governance. “The universal appeal of American democratic values of individual dignity, inalienable rights, and democratic choice must be central to any strategy to navigate the dangers and opportunities in this new era of authoritarian aggression marked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” said IRI President Daniel Twining, in a speech that set the tone for the evening.

Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan, who also serves as Chairman of IRI, agreed, saying the fight against oppression represents a core American value. “The promotion of democracy by America around the world transcends domestic politics, and it connects Americans of different backgrounds and different political persuasions. From the beginning, it has been a bipartisan affair, a truly American mission.”

Yevgeniya Kara-Murza, spoke on her husband Vladimir’s behalf, noting he is not alone; she said 15,000 Russians have been arrested for opposing the invasion of Ukraine. Though, she said, Russia’s future seems bleak right now, she and her husband believe many people there do not support the war. “Only Russians can bring change to Russia. But in order for a grassroots movement to emerge in our country, bring change to our country, we ask the democratic community, leaders around the world, to acknowledge the brave Russians who stand up to Putin’s violent, bloody regime– against all odds.”

Leonid Volkov, who served as chief of staff for Navalny’s 2018 presidential campaign, also voiced optimism that Russia can change. “We ask you here to continue doing your part, keeping up your good work on supporting Ukraine and keeping up sanctions on Putin and his family and friends.”  Volkov accepted the Freedom Award on behalf of his friend and colleague, saying it was an honor and the best part of his trip to the United States.

Representative Michael McCaul of Texas reminded the crowd at the ceremony that the world was watching American action toward Ukraine, and that history would be the ultimate judge. And Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, who spent time on an agricultural exchange in Ukraine in 1989, lamented the fate of her old friends in the country and reminded the audience at the Freedom Awards about the big picture. “Putin’s war of aggression doesn’t just threaten the dear country of Ukraine, it threatens the region, our partners, and our very homeland.” 

The evening ended on a note of concern about the fate of people in both Ukraine and Russia, and a small sense of cautious optimism that perhaps for next year’s Freedom Awards, things will seem less dire, and the honorees will be free to make the trip to D.C. to pick up their awards. IRI has presented the Freedom Award since 1995. Past recipients include President Ronald Reagan, President George H.W. Bush, and slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. 

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