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Russian Activists Fighting to Save Ancient Forest Face Continued Threats

The Crusade to Save Khimki Forest has Become a Symbol of the Struggle Between Russian Civil Society and a Corrupt State

In April, about a month after Russian President Vladimir Putin returned to office for a third term amid massive public protests and widespread allegations of election fraud, Evgenia Chirikova, a young, middle-class mother from the Moscow suburb of Khimki, came to San Francisco to receive the Goldman Prize for her efforts to save a forest near her home.

Photo courtesy The Goldman PrizeThirty-five year old Evgenia Chirikova's efforts to save her beloved forest quickly grew into a
popular campaign.

Chirikova, an engineer and businesswoman by profession, has been fighting since 2007 to stop the construction of a highway through Khimki Forest — a 2,500-acre, federally protected parkland north of Moscow. The forest is one of the region’s last old-growth stands and home to an abundance of wildlife, including numerous threatened plant and animal species.

Today Chirikova is in jail. Again. She was locked up on May 17 with no access to her lawyer. Her crime this time — demonstrating against Putin’s presidency. On the other side of the bars, her fellow activists are being bullied, threatened and beaten up by local officials, hired thugs, and riot police.

Chirikova's story, like that of so many other grassroots women activists, starts with her desire to save the world as she knows it for her children. She said as much during her acceptance speech at the awards ceremony: “I want to preserve this forest because I have two children and I believe that they should live in a land with forests and clean air."

Chirikova and her husband, Mikhail, moved to Khimki from Moscow in 2007 so that their two daughters could grow up closer to nature. The young family loved the outdoors and often took long walks in the forest. It was during one of these walks that they discovered trees marked with a red “X” that tagged them for removal.

Chrikova was puzzled because she knew the forest was federally protected land. On investigating further, she found that the government planned to construct a highway connecting Moscow to St. Petersburg through the forest and develop the surrounding land. The contract for the project (worth billions of dollars) had been handed to a subsidiary of the French construction giant, Vinici, that has deep ties with Russian oligarch Arkady Rotenberg, a close friend of Putin.

The road would relieve a major traffic bottleneck, but the route had been chosen over others that would have bypassed the reserve. Environmentalists say a better highway route would follow a railway line that has connected the cities since the early 20th century. (But maybe access to all that old forest timber proved irresistible.)

Photo courtesy The Goldman PrizeThe 2,500-acre forest north of Moscow is one of the region’s last old-growth forests and is home to
numerous threatened plant and animal species. Construction is now underway on a highway
project that will bisect the forest.

Though she had no experience in grassroots organizing and had never been interested in politics, Chirikova was outraged enough to quit her engineering job to form a local protest group, Defend Khimki Forest. The group received widespread support, including unlikely allies like the Moscow chapter of the Russian Federation of Motorists, and collected over 50,000 signatures protesting the highway plan.

The activists convinced two of Europe’s top financial institutions that were backing the highway — the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank — to withdraw their funding. Chirikova even ran for mayor of Khimki in 2009 with a single agenda, rerouting the highway. She lost, but the huge following she garnered spoke volumes about regular Russian folks' growing disenchantment with the establishment.

That same year, Putin signed a decree changing Khimki forests’ protected status to allow for “transport and infrastructure”. Soon, bulldozers moved into the woods.

Not surprisingly, the backlash against the movement has been violent. Protestors are often wrongfully arrested and detained. Thugs likely associated with the construction company or local officials routinely beat up activists and journalists questioning the project. The most egregious example is of journalist Mikhail Beketov, who was attacked in broad daylight in November 2008. His assailants smashed his skull, broke both of his legs, pulverized his hands, and left him to die in the freezing cold. Beketov suffered permanent brain damage and lost a leg and four fingers. He can no longer speak.

Chirikova herself has been arrested and detained numerous times before. She’s been accused of being an American spy, and had to fight false claims of neglect and mistreatment from child protection authorities who threatened to take away her children.

But none of this has managed to kill the grassroots movement to save Khimki forest. In the face of widespread opposition to the highway project, and possibly because of the political unrest related to the elections, work on the project had stopped for the past few months. Yesterday, I received a press release from Khimki that says construction work has been back in full swing since June 1.

Photo courtesy Defend Khimki ForestDefend Khimki Forest activists were roughed up by construction company goons on June 3.

“Construction workers have not only resumed removal of fertile soil from the clearing, but also destroyed about 5 -7 more hectares of still untouched forest, enlarging thus the clearing up to about 300 meters,” the release said. When local activists who have been camping out in the forest went to investigate, they were badly beaten up by company goons. Yesterday (June 6), six activists, who were camping out in the forest to keep an eye on the construction work, were arrested by local police but later freed by a local court because the cops couldn’t provide any “meaningful evidence” against them.

“It has not prevented police press-service from distributing lie(s) about activists 'attacking construction workers',” Chirikova's husband, Mikhail, informed me in a midnight email. “The camp in the forest is still working.”

And so goes the good fight.

In these past few years, the local struggle to save Khimki Forest has become a symbol of the struggle between Russia's beleaguered civil society and a corrupt State. Back in April, Chirikova called on the US to help “solve the problem” by passing the Magnitsky Bill.

The legislation is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a 37-year-old Russian lawyer who was imprisoned and tortured to death after he uncovered a massive tax fraud by Russia's Interior ministry in 2008. The new law would impose a visa ban and freeze international bank accounts of not only of officials linked to Magnitsky's death, but also of officials who commit human rights abuses against citizens who “expose illegal activity” by Russian officials or who seek to “defend or promote internationally recognized human rights and freedoms.”

The good news is that today (June 7) the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee approved the bill — a first step in advancing a legislation that has bipartisan support among lawmakers. Of course, if the bill passes it will add to tensions between US and Russia, but sometimes you just have to stand up to the bully.

As Chirikova said in a recent interview: “Every time [someone was beaten up], I said to myself: ‘One more time and I’ll run away.’ But you can’t spend your life running away. If we’re afraid, then we’ve lost.”

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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