Chirikova’s life has changed dramatically since 2007, when she was walking in the woods near her apartment just outside the Moscow city limits and noticed red paint on numerous trees. She soon discovered the slashes marked the path of an $8 billion highway project from Moscow to St. Petersburg that would cut through the heart of the 2,500 acre forest.
She started writing letters, embarking on a journey that brought her into a series of brutal confrontations with police and assorted thugs and finally to a leading role in the protest movement that erupted in December over election fraud. Today, not only is she one of the very few women among the opposition leadership, but the environmental organization she started has become part of the foundation on which progressive Russians intend to build a new and engaged civic life.
“She has won a great deal of respect and a wide following,” said Natalia Pelevine, an activist who has seen Chirikova dragged away by police a number of times. “She will be a necessary and important presence in our future political life.”
The winners of the Goldman prize, established in 1989 by a California insurance executive and his wife, were honored Monday at the San Francisco Opera House. Another ceremony will take place Wednesday in Washington at the Smithsonian’s American Museum of Natural History.
The recipients include Caroline Cannon, an Alaskan woman who has been fighting against Arctic drilling; Ma Jun, a Chinese activist who published a guide to dangerously polluted regions; Ikal Angelei, a Kenyan woman resisting construction of a dam; Sofia Gatica, an Argentine trying to limit the use of agricultural chemicals; and the Rev. Edwin Gariguez, a Catholic priest who organized against a nickel mine in the Philippines.
Chirikova was an unlikely advocate in 2007, when she first noticed the marks on the trees. She and her husband had an engineering business and had moved from crowded Moscow to a modest 1960s apartment block so they could bring up a family close to the fresh air and greenery of the Khimki forest. Chirikova was pregnant with her younger daughter, Sasha, now 5, and busy with her older daughter, Liza, now 10.
“You don’t have to be a biologist to understand the forest will die,” she said, walking through the woods and pointing out the marked trees, Sasha skipping at her side. “As soon as Sasha was born I started writing letters.”
The highway project was pushed by powerful people, including the mayor of Moscow at the time, the minister of transportation and high-level regional officials who would benefit from development rights that would be sold along the new roadway, Chirikova said. Her letters were ignored.