Russian activists risk lives to save Khimki Forest
- Published: 09 April 2011
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10 April 2011
The Khimki Forest is a rare 150 hectare patch of heavily protected dense oak groves which creates part of the green belt around the Russian capital Moscow. It is critical habitat for local wildlife, including the native Boar, which once made the area one of the Czar's favourite hunting spots.
Since then, the area has dwindled in size due to decades of development, and it now faces the threat of a highway being ploughed straight through the centre of it.
One day in the summer of 2007, while on maternity leave from her position as an engineer, Yevgenia Chirikova was walking through the Khimki Forest that neighbours her home. She noticed that all the trees she was walking past had 'X's' painted on them, a sign recognised the world over as the mark of death for a tree.
Chirikova investigated and discovered that in 2004 the Transportation Ministry had announced plans for a new highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg, straight through the heart of the forest.
The logical path of the highway would have taken it alongside a railway, but instead the mayor of Khimki approved a plan that created a looped detour through the forest so that the highway could be brought closer to the local airport.
"As an engineer who works at an engineering firm, I understand that it was a completely bizarre decision in our modern age to build a highway meandering through a forest, with strange turns and entrance ramps that would not allow cars to gain speed," Chirikova said, speaking to Radio Free Europe. "And so it was totally obvious that it was simply a backroom deal to begin [property] development in our oak forest."
Chirikova took action, plastering the streets of Khimki with stacks of home made leaflets warning of the threat to the forest and encouraging people to contact her if they were concerned. As a result, together with other members of the community she founded the group In Defense of Khimki Forest. Soon they were organising protests, conducting petition drives, and working with other environmental groups and journalists to try and promote the issue.
As part of the campaign Chirikova has run for the position of mayor on a single-issue platform, which forced the incumbent and Moscow's regional governor to drop their direct support for the highway.
She has also brought lawsuits in Russian and international courts, and lobbied banks to deny the government around $750 million in financing for the highway.
Thanks to the Khimki activists' lobbying, the international organisation Bank Watch has now succeeded in its appeal to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development not to invest in a project “that is unsafe on both a sociological and ecological level.”
But it didn't take long before the intimidation started, with members of the group receiving death threats and being arrested on trumped up charges.
In what became an international outrage, a journalist who was covering the Khimki Forest issue, Mikhail Beketov, was savagely attacked outside his home in November 2008, and left for dead. He has been left with severe brain injuries that leave him unable to speak, and has had several of his fingers and his right leg below the knee amputated.
Another journalist sympathetic to the cause, Oleg Kashin, was brutally beaten with an iron bar in November last year.
In July last year, the Russian Government sent in loggers to the Khimki Forest without the required permits. Chirikova was able to stop them temporarily on the permits issue, and a camp was set up in the forest where activists stayed to try and stop the logging.
A few weeks after it was set up dozens of masked thugs attacked the camp and beat up the activists. The police arrived a while later, arrested the activists and destroyed their camp. Chirikova told Radio Free Europe that she and eight other activists were held in a hot, stuffy cell without water, and that she'd lost consciousness several times.
The French company Vinci Concession, who are contracted to build the highway, removed their machinery from the forest, and police were set to guard the area around the clock.
In the lead up to the camp raid there was a protest in Moscow against the logging of the Khimki Forest. As part of the protest a large group of anarchist and anti-fascist activists converged on the Khimki administration's building and broke a few windows, let off a few smoke bombs, and painted "Save the Russian forest!" on its walls.
No one was arrested at the scene, but the forest camp raid followed closely after, and Moscow's anarchist and anti-fascist activists are now facing a severe government crackdown which has seen a number of people arrested and detained, and even an activist fleeing to the Ukraine to seek asylum.
A month later, in early August 2010, Chirikova was arrested again and detained after holding a news conference in downtown Moscow, charged with holding an illegal rally. Later in the month, veteran Russian rocker and vocal supporter of the Khimki Forest campaign, Yuri Shevchuk was invited on stage during a U2 concert in Moscow in what was seen as a deliberate statement of support for the Khimki Forest campaign.
A day later, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the highway construction through the forest the be halted "further civic and expert discussions".
Unfortunately the reprieve for the Khimki Forest did not last long, with the highway once again given the go-ahead by the government only three months after it was put on hold. The government promised that 500 hectares of new forest would be planted to compensate for the lost forests, but activists are understandably cynical of any government promises.
There was a huge public outcry after the announcement, with another protest being held in Moscow, in which Chirikova was once again arrested. It is likely there will be lots more action in the lead up to the expected start of logging work in late April this year.
But in the lead up to what is expected to be an intensified battle for the forest, oppressive tactics are taking a new turn. It was recently reported in the Washington Post that Chirikova received a visit from the Municipal Department of Guardianship, after they allegedly received a letter from one of her neighbours claiming that she was physically abusing her daughters. The Department later admitted that there was no letter and no complaint.
Not long after officials visited her husband's workplace, raiding his office, interrogated him and his employees, seized documents, and alleged that there is a criminal case against him.
No charges were laid, and there is no criminal case. It seems obvious that these tactics are designed to heavily intimidate Yevgenia Chirikova and her supporters.
“If something bad happens to me, then my activity was not useless. Other people will continue, and it will be impossible to make people shut up.” Chirikova told the Washington Post.
In a place like Russia the dangers of being an environmental activist are all too clear, and not just from shadowy government connections. It was only a few years ago that a Russian anti-nuclear activist was killed in Siberia in a violent raid against an activist camp by neo-Nazis.
But these threats to life and liberty are not stopping Russian activists from standing up for what they believe in. As Chirikova stated to Radio Free Europe:
“Sometimes I read 'The Gulag Archipelago' when I am feeling particularly down. I read and think how easy we have it. I really admire Solzhenitsyn," she says. "You know, this person, he had already tried to change the regime, and he sat in prison. He was sick. He was weak and sometimes wasn’t even able to write. And despite this he wrote a book that crossed the world. He found the strength in himself to do it.”
"And you know, today we have the opportunity to be politically active. And in comparison with Solzhenitsyn, we are free, we have the Internet, cell phones. You know, we are so happy-go-lucky.
Lilia Letsch is associate editor at The Scavenger.
Image: a map of the planned highway through the forest. Map was created from OpenStreetMap project data, collected by the community, via Wikimedia Commonsand reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.