March 25, 2011

Last summer I described on this page 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 four years she has become one of Russia’s most outspoken — and effective — environmental activists. Last week her fight for Khimki Forest took a nasty turn.

Khimki is a dense oak forest that under Russian federal law is supposed to be an environmentally protected green space. Just over 10 years ago, Yevgenia and her husband moved to Khimki — a small suburban community outside Moscow — to raise a family. While on maternity leave, 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, and local officials intended to bulldoze the forest 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 objected 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 and organize protests. Authorities did not welcome her activism. Members of her group, In Defense of Khimki, were threatened, harassed and intimidated. One member, journalist Mikhail Beketov, was brutally attacked outside his home and left for dead. Beketov suffered permanent brain damage and is confined to a wheelchair.

Because of her group’s efforts, Khimki Forest remains. But the regime has taken a new tack. If it can’t scare Yevgenia into submission, it seems, it will pressure the people she loves — specifically her husband and daughters.

Recently, representatives of the municipal department of guardianship “dropped by” 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. Afraid that they would attempt to take Liza and Sasha, Yevgenia refused to open her door. Later, the department admitted that no neighbor had written such a letter and brushed off the encounter as officials’ “duty” to check on the children.

On March 16, one day after Yevgenia led a protest calling for removal of the minister of transportation, officials visited the electrical engineering firm, EZOP, that her husband, Mikhail Matveev, founded years ago. The police, who brought no charges, raided his office, interrogated him and several employees, and seized company documents. Mikhail had previously learned that authorities were calling his clients, alleging that there was a criminal case against him (in fact, none exists). A few days earlier, someone had posted the comment on the In Defense of Khimki Web site: “We’ll raid your company EZOP in the nearest future, prepare your papers!” Yevgenia and her husband understand that this harassment is payback for her group’s efforts.

Some government and business interests behind the construction project say they will begin cutting down Khimki Forest in late April. Yevgenia and her supporters hope to raise awareness that the construction crews are coming. They plan to hold rallies and intend to issue a petition on Change.org next week. They also hope to put public pressure on the French construction company Vinci, the only Western business group that supports this highway project.

When I met Yevgenia last April, she took me on a walk in the woods that she is fighting to protect. It was clear to me that she now sees her activism not simply as defending a forest but as a much larger struggle against an authoritarian system that runs roughshod over its citizens. As we walked, I asked if she worried that the authorities would harm her, given what happened to Mikhail Beketov.

If she thought about it too much, she said, 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 fight, the harder it will be for Russian authorities to strike out in violence. There’s no guarantee, but she knows that it is easier for the regime to harm those who remain in the shadows.

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.

The writer, a former managing editor of Foreign Policy, is guest-blogging for The Post. A longer version of this column has been posted at washingtonpost.com/postpartisan.