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The Face and Voice of Russia's Environmental Conscience

May 11, 2012

One day Evgenia Chirikova, variously described in news reports as a small businesswoman, homemaker and engineer who lived in the greater Moscow area, decided to take a walk through Khimki Forest with her two young daughters, near their home in the town of Khimki.

Contemporary Russian history would never be the same.

Chirikova had moved her family to Khimki, on the north side of Moscow, to be closer to the forest, frequently called the "lungs" of Moscow, a city choked with pollution, automobile congestion and concrete.

Think of a Central Park that surrounded New York City, instead of being at the center of town, and you get the idea of the forest's importance to weary urban-dwelling Muscovites.

Khimki is 2,500 acres of lovely ancient forest - supposedly federal protected, although we'll get to that later. It's one of the last old-growth forests in the area, and it is home to lots of wildlife, including many endangered flora and fauna species.

That day Chirikova walked through Khimki with her two daughters, in 2007, she noticed red "X"s painted on some trees. She recognized the signs as a mark for trees to be cut down for lumber and clearance. Puzzled, since she knew Khimki was a federally protected national forest, Chirikova went home and did some homework.

To her shock, she learned that a road from Moscow to St. Petersburg was to be built through Khimki, and that the Russian government had awarded an $8 billion contract to a firm to build it and develop the surrounding land. The trees alone were worth a fortune to developers, not to mention the land in close proximity to Moscow.


It is, of course, purely a coincidence that the firm awarded the contract, Vinci, a French construction company, had, among its investment partners for the project, a close friend and supporter of Russia's prime minister.


Neophyte Activist

Chirikova wasn't a rabble-rouser. She had no experience with grassroots organization. Yet she felt that this road through Khimki was important enough to stand up against. She quit her job to form a group called Defend Khimki Forest, dedicating herself to halting the destruction of Muscovites' beloved greenland. Defend Khimki Forest was probably the first grassroots environmental organization of any consequence in Russian history.

Of course the public hadn't been consulted on plans to cut a highway through the forest. Yes, there were alternate routes that wouldn't entail the destruction of the forest. No, they weren't anywhere near as lucrative as the chosen road to the developers and to those who grant permits to developers. No, the project would do nothing to relieve Moscow's terrible congestion. Yes, some well-placed individuals would make a ton of money.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, local authorities "stand to gain the most from privatizing a vast tract of real estate on the fringes of Moscow" and listed the price of forest land at about $140 per hectare, a sum Chirikova called "ridiculously low and an obvious cover for dishonest dealing."


Understand that Russian grassroots organization was still in its infancy. Until the early 1990s, organizing a protest meant offending a monolithic government that answered to no one. Unapproved things unhappened in the old Soviet Union, and unless you had a desire to live out your days in a secure, gated community as a guest of the Soviet state, you kept your head down and your mouth shut.

So it was a remarkable milestone for Chirikova to muster 5,000 people for Defend's first rally to protest the road project. Some observers rank it as "one of the largest public environmental protests in Russian history." Not like there were many contenders for the title, but still.

Equally noteworthy was that 50,000 people signed a petition opposing the project. Many of those who signed remembered a time when putting your name to a document protesting government action was unthinkable.


The New Russia

The Russian state doesn't send, anymore, the KGB to your door at night and drag you off to the gulag or Siberia, but that's not to say protesting sweetheart deals is without its risks. Chirikova was arrested numerous times and accused of being an American spy, and the state even threatened to take her children children because of "neglect."

Supporters of her cause fared much worse. Journalist Mikhail Beketov was beaten so severely in 2008 for publicizing the opposition to the road project that he was left physically incapacitated. He lost a leg, plus four fingers, while suffering brain damage.

Another activist who publicly opposed the project, Konstantin Fetisov, was attacked with a baseball bat in 2010. Oleg Kashin, a journalist for newspaper Kommersant, was beaten with an iron rod by two unknown assailants outside his home in Moscow on November 6, according to news reports from RiaNovosti. Alexei Dmitriyev, a 23-year-old lawyer and supporter of Defend, was accosted in the entryway to his apartment severely beaten. Khimki town officials have been linked to beatings carried out on other opponents of the project.

Many protesters were arrested, and some were held in jail for a considerable time.

In 2009, the Russian Supreme Court upheld the decree stripping Khimki of its federal protection. That led to the memorable mid-August demonstration of 5,000 people, which attracted the likes of Russian rock star Yury Shevchuk and considerably raised the profile of the event. International political dilettante Bono even discussed the issue in a private Kremlin meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who agreed to suspend work on the project and conduct an investigation.


Chirikova and her supporters were ultimately unsuccessful. But ultimately, she might be far more successful than she planned to be back in 2007.

When Chirikova was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2012, the Goldman citation noted that her organization's most notable success was convincing the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank, major financial backers of the highway, to withdraw their funding. They citing environmental, social and financial concerns about the project.

But her most notable success could very have been the fact that Russians now have an example of peaceful movements that raised environmental issues and garnered widespread support. In what's certainly one of the oddest bedfellows an environmental cause could ever have, the Moscow chapter of the Russian Federation of Motorists threw its support to Chirikova's cause.

And Defend could very well have been a springboard from widespread environmental protests to widespread protests of other kinds. Witness the recent large-scale protests against the return of Vladimir Putin as Russian president, where thousands and thousands of people battled riot police in the streets.

How much of that can be attributed, directly or indirectly, to Chirikova's bravery is impossible to say, of course, although she, herself, sees a strong connection. As the Christian Science Monitor reported elsewhere, in December 2011 many Russians were incensed over what they saw as widespread and blatant vote-rigging in the Duma parliamentary elections. According to the Monitor, tens of thousands of people took to the streets - repeatedly, over a period of three months - to prevent Mr. Putin from running for a third term in the presidential elections that took place in March -- elections that returned Putin to power.

The Monitor called such protests "unthinkable" in the past, and that's a correct assessment.

Chirikova, herself, "was at the center of that mass protest movement and hailed as one of its leaders," the Monitor said, adding that she, herself, embraced the association:

"You can thank Putin for my transition from local environmentalism to national politics. Our country has a resource-based economy, where people with power basically cash in those resources and bank their profits offshore. You can fight this in your own backyard, or on a central square in Moscow. Khimki Forest is just one small part of a very big picture."

Chirikova is careful to maintain being grassroots. In a savvy move, last month, according to RIA Novosti, she took her $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize money and established a reward of 1 million rubles ($34,000) "for anyone who wins a court battle to protect three Moscow region forests in danger of partial demolition."

"They aim to split woodlands around Moscow by roads and then to develop the entire areas," around the roads, said Chirikova, who now heads an ecological group and much larger organization, named Our Earth.

Russia has always been fond of its martyrs. Maybe there should be a statue in Moscow of a tree from the Khimki Forest, which gave its life to reawaken the Russian people's awareness of their precious ecological heritage and their ability to effect change through action.