Last summer I wrote an op-ed describing the unlikely battle between Yevgenia Chirikova and the Kremlin. Yevgenia is a young mother of two with no background in political activism, but over the past three years she has become one of Russia’s most outspoken — and effective — environmental activists. This morning I received an e-mail from a member of her team telling me that Yevgenia’s fight is now taking another nasty turn.
The fight is over the future of Khimki Forest, a dense oak forest that is supposed to be an environmentally protected green space under Russian federal law. Nearly 10 years ago, Yevgenia and her husband moved to Khimki — a small suburban community outside of Moscow — to raise a family. While on maternity leave with her second daughter, Yevgenia unexpectedly found signs posted in the forest indicating that the oaks were to be clear cut. She later learned that the minister of transportation, Igor Levitin, along with local officials, intended to bulldoze the forest — in contravention of Russian law — in order to build a motorway that would connect Moscow and St. Petersburg, with a loop to Sheremetyevo Airport. These officials stand to benefit handsomely from the road’s construction. (According to a Russian anti-corruption group, new roads in Russia cost roughly $237 million a kilometer; in the United States, it is about $6 million for the same distance.) When Yevgenia raised objections to the project, Russian officials told her to mind her own business.
She didn’t. Instead, she began to talk to people in her community, organize rallies and stage protests. The authorities did not welcome her involvement. Members of her group, In Defense of Khimki, were threatened, harassed and intimidated. Mikhail Beketov, a local journalist and member of the movement, was brutally attacked outside his home. Left for dead, Beketov suffered permanent brain damage and is now confined to a wheelchair. But, at this moment, because of Yevgenia’s efforts and those who have joined the fight, Khimki Forest remains.
But the regime is now employing new tactics. If it can’t scare Yevgenia into submission, then it will put pressure on the people she loves. This morning I received e-mails from Yaroslav Nikitenko and Ivan Smirnov, members of In Defense of Khimki. They described how the new pressure point for the regime has become Yevgenia’s family — specifically her husband and two daughters.
Recently, representatives of the municipal department of guardianship “dropped by” to check on Yevgenia’s apartment. The officials alleged that they had received a letter from one of her neighbors claiming that she “beats” and “starves” her daughters, Liza and Sasha. The charges are absurd. Afraid that they would attempt to take her children from her, Yevgenia refused to open her door. Later, the department admitted that none of her neighbors had written such a letter, brushing off the whole encounter as simply their “duty” to check on the children.
On March 16, one day after Yevgenia led a protest calling for the minister of transportation’s removal, officials paid a visit to her husband’s company, en electrical engineering firm called EZOP. Her husband, Mikhail Matveev, founded the company years ago. Even though the police brought no charges with them, they raided his office, interrogated him and several of his employees, and seized company documents and paperwork. Mikhail had already learned that the authorities were calling his clients, alleging that there was a criminal case against him (when there is in fact none). Nor was the raid a complete surprise. A few days earlier, someone had left a comment on the In Defense of Khimki Web site, writing, “We’ll raid your company EZOP in the nearest future, prepare your papers!” It is clear to Yevgenia and her husband that this harassment is payback for her unwillingness to stop fighting.
The battle to save Khimki Forest may be about to enter another chapter. The government and business interests behind the construction project claim that they will begin cutting down the oaks in late April. In the meantime, Yevgenia and her supporters intend to hold protests and rallies to raise awareness that the construction crews are coming. They also intend to put public pressure on the French construction company Vinci, the only Western business group that supports this highway project.
Last April, when I first met Yevgenia, she took me on a walk in these woods that she is fighting to protect. It was clear to me that she now sees her activism as something much bigger than simply defending Khimki Forest; she sees it as a struggle against an authoritarian system that runs roughshod over its citizens. While we were walking through the forest, I asked if she was ever afraid that the authorities would try to harm her. After what had happened to Mikhail Beketov, it was an obvious question. She told me that if she thought about it too much she would go crazy. “My tactic is complete openness,” she told me. “Whatever I undertake, I try to somehow to reflect it or publish it in all kinds of media.” Yevgenia believes that the more people know about her and her fight, the harder it will be for the authorities to strike out in violence. It isn’t a guarantee, but she knows that it is easier for the regime to harm those who remain in the shadows.
If you are curious to know more about In Defense of Khimki Forest, you can find them on Facebook (www.facebook.com/khimki.forest). Also, look for the petition they plan to issue on Change.org next week.
Near the end of our walk, she said, “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.” Hopefully, people will raise their voices sooner, not later.