“It’s important that the Russians understand that resistance is possible”. A conversation with Evgeniya Chirikova, one of Russia’s most prominent environmental activists.
Evgeniya Chirikova’s days are, for the lack of a better word, normal. She wakes up in the early morning, sends her children to school, and reads the news before starting to work. Her job mainly consists in shaking hands, Skype calls and answering emails. Later, she edits vlogs commenting recent news. In the afternoon, she has tea with her family, while their dog tries to snatch whatever falls from the table. Finally, the parents help the kids with their homework and tending the garden. But this routine doesn’t do justice to Mrs. Chirikova’s life, which is all but unremarkable. Formerly a small business owner, she currently lives in exile in Estonia, where she fled following increasing intimidation by the Russian authorities. In 2007, she jump-started a protest against the destruction of Khimki forest, close to her home in the Moscow suburbs. Initially, she and her neighbors just pleaded to the local government to save the forest by modifying the path of the upcoming Moscow-Saint Petersburg highway, but as the corruption behind said project became evident, it quickly snowballed into something bigger. “The fact is that after public criticism of Putin’s policy, our movement fell into the blacklists and the media stopped writing about our activities. After another attack on our [environmental] camp by bandits who were hired by local authorities, we realized how important it is to have media support; so we decided to organize our own media“. With the help of some friends and some coding magic, activatica.org was born.
I contacted Mrs. Chirikova via e-mail earlier this fall, honestly expecting little more than a polite declination – or silence. For those following the political scene inside of Russia, she has been the embodied promise of the country’s nascent grassroots movements. Punching her name on Google will return you exactly the image you would associate with an environmental activist. Whether she’s been carried away manu militari by cops, or receiving a prize by Joe Biden, or thundering against North Stream 2 at NGO’s press conference, she’ll always appear calmly resolute.
This kind of notoriety however also carries its risks. Intimidation followed a well-known pattern: police violence gave way to accusations of espionage, and finally threats to take away her children under the pretext of “mistreatment”. At that point, Chirikova finally decided to leave the country, although not requesting asylum as to avoid problems if she ever decided to re-entry into her motherland.
Since then, she has become one of many Russians who took refuge in the European Union but that continues fighting against the regime through the Internet. Because of her work of sensitization, she has received multiple awards from human rights organizations, not lest because she represents the kind of oppositioner European and US observers hope will one day prevail in Russia: middle class business owners, concerned with the environment, reformist. A reasonable person with reasonable gripes with the local government. Unluckily, Russia’s political system is all but reasonable. “If a person is faced with injustice, he cannot appeal to a Russian court, because the court takes decisions not according to the law, but in the interest of Putin’s system“. Objecting to the destruction of the region’s oldest forest quickly set Chirikova and her friends against the interests of local elites, as well as French multinational Vinci, which is set to build the highway and has been accused of laundering money for oligarch Arkadi Rotenberg. Even the strive for objectivity and avoiding “loud clichés like ‘bloody regime’” has not shielded the environmentalists from dire consequences. Violent attacks against the sympathizers aren’t unusual, as journalist Mikhail Beketov experienced on his own skin. He died in 2013, a few years after being crippled and having suffered brain damages, from which he never truly recovered. The perpetrators were never found. As put by Mrs. Chirikova, “Civil society in Russia is fighting a huge, monstrous mafia machine that systematically receives huge sums from the West. [Our] civil society is very young, does not have the experience and sufficient resources to struggle with the Putin regime“.
Chirikova is very vocal about her thoughts that the West is effectively colluding with Russia. As she explains me how she collaborates with other European NGOs, it emerges how the EU can both be a bane and a blessing for Russian activists. On one hand, civil society groups like Bankwatch and Sherpa helped filing a corruption lawsuit against Vinci, the French construction company, which culminated in an investigation by French prosecutors. In the EU, Chirikova and her associated were able to find vindication. On the other, German and Dutch attitudes towards North Stream II are perceived like complicity: by continuing to buy energy from Moscow, they bankroll the regime’s next crimes.
Difficulties abound, and solace is scarce. It doesn’t surprise that the galaxy of Russian protest is often painted in terms of a titanic struggle, Oppositioners (with a capitalized “o”) against the all-powerful President. But as grassroots movements have started to grow, citizens unsatisfied with the current situation have been looking for platforms to gather on – spaces that don’t offer leadership, but rather guidance.
“Apathy and frustration are just as serious a problem for activists as violence. […] Being an activist in Russia is not easy, because it is not usual and sometimes activists feel lonely. To them it may seem like they’re outcasts who are engaged in strange activities“. That’s the reason why Activatica was founded. The platform can be best described as social media for activists, where members of civil society can post news about protests, initiatives and grievances bypassing the editorial self-censorship of many news sources. This reticence is not unreasonable: Activatica’s team has still to work hard to proof that single articles don’t breach Russia’s tightening censorship laws. The portal offers the possibility to coordinate and gain unfiltered information on the issues mobilizing people around the country, but it also plays a vital role as an insurance of sorts for dissenters. “Often, violence against activists can only be stopped through a mediatic scandal. […] The authorities are afraid of a united protest and, after systemic efforts, they usually give in at least on some of the requests“. What’s certain is that the Kremlin has been struggling to compensate the unhappiness surrounding the recent economic downturn. Despite the debacle of 2018’s regional elections, the ruling United Russia has only given token concessions to the loyal opposition. Grassroots movement, like those supported by Activatica, are still young and lack experience and resources to fight battles beyond the local level.
And maybe, that’s for the better. Scholar Mischa Garbowitsch has written that one of the blunders of the aborted 2012 “Snow Revolution” was to try co-opting environmentalists and other local activists for a cause that wasn’t theirs: why should they’ve endured rubber bullets and teargas to swap a self-centered Petersburgian elite for a Muscovite one?
Chirikova, who after all is an engineer, has a more concrete answer: the forces of the regime simply dwarfed the protesters. “Russians in general have no experience in activism and defending their rights. But the mafia, which seized power in Russia and has been holding it for 100 years, has a huge experience in suppressing civil society“. Zeynap Tufekci, a researcher who studies modern networked protest movements, would probably agree. Tools like Twitter and Facebook enable an incredible degree of spontaneous mobilization, both in terms of people and resources. However, modern protests often lack the organizational infrastructure required to sustain long-term campaigns and take tactical decisions. A multitude can’t negotiate with the government, nor wait for the best timing to strike.
The way Chirikova sees Activatica’s efforts remind me more of a patient teacher than a righteous dissenter. From this perspective, she seems to have more in common with the activists she helps mobilizing than opposition leaders like Navalny. In 2007, when she first heard about the plans to eradicate Khimki forest, Chirkova pinned snippets of paper with her cell number on trees, hoping that some neighbors would call her to discuss what was about to happen. Those who did had little more knowledge than she had of how to organize a protest. “Grassroot” movements owe their names, I believe, not by the fact that they spontaneously grow from the bottom up: that’s something that also secular oaks do. A single blade of grass is insignificant, and a patch of grass doesn’t have the strength to withstand military-grade boots. But a tree, once it’s sawed and its roots upturned, will be dead for good, regardless of how strong its trunk was. A prairie, however, will grow back because it’s made of millions of identical sprouts. It takes a long time to seed a garden, and Activatica is built with this reality in mind. Dissenters in Russia didn’t need another call to revolt, but rather an incubator, a place for activists to socialize and learn how to build a culture of sustainable protest. In an era inebriated by political performers, in which leadership is reduced to being a protagonist, of mavericks with universal answers, Russian civil society has all odds against it. But after ten years, Khimki forest still stands. “If you look at the map […], you will see a lot of points across different parts of Russia. Each of these points represents some kind of social or environmental problem that is being solved by ordinary citizens. 15 years ago that map would’ve been empty“.
All the articles by Michelangelo Freyrie.