MOSCOW — The young Russian woman who repeatedly stood up to bulldozers and baton-wielding police in her efforts to save an ancient oak forest on the busy outskirts of Moscow has won the world’s largest grassroots environmental prize.
Yevgenia Chirikova, 35, was among six community leaders from around the world awarded the $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize, given every year to ordinary people who protect their natural communities in extraordinary ways. The prizes, which have been dubbed the Green Nobel Prize, were announced Monday in California.
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.
Soon she was holding meetings and calling reporters, then organizing protests. In November 2008, a crusading Khimki journalist named Mikhail Beketov was so badly beaten that he lost a leg and four fingers and was left partially paralyzed and permanently brain damaged. His assailants have never been found.
As she organized protests, demanded documents from construction workers and defied heavy equipment, Chirikova was manhandled and repeatedly detained. Supporters suffered beatings and broken jaws at the hands of riot police and security guards. Last summer, child protective services called on Chirikova, saying neighbors had turned her in for child neglect. She alerted reporters, who could find no complaints from neighbors and suggested the visit was intended as a threat to make her stop her work. The agency backed off.
Chirikova and the forest defenders were unable to stop the first stage of cutting, but at one point persuaded President Dmitry Medvedev to order a temporary halt. He later decided the project should proceed, but the environmentalists are still fighting. They persuaded the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development to back out of the project, and they are trying to delay construction while promoting an alternative route.
Last summer, Chirikova organized a long weekend of camping in the forest that attracted a variety of opposition politicians and influential bloggers for what turned into a Chautauqua-like festival of discussion, lectures and song.
“This is a fight,” Chirikova said. “It’s a fight for our soul.”
By then she was seeing her struggle as part of a larger battle to make Russian government representative, its courts law-abiding and its people conscientious and active citizens. In December she was cheered by many thousands protesting unfair elections in Moscow.
She has become a champion for besieged environmentalists all over Russia, finding them lawyers, publicizing their battles, flying hundreds of miles to rally behind them. She has dispatched helpers to France, to organize protests against the construction company building the highway through the forest and traveled to Europe to brief the European Parliament. Her prize money will help her keep the fight going.
Her days are filled with phone calls, e-mails, tweets, urgent conversations about what kind of country Russia will become, protests, pickets and trips to the police department, either because she has been detained or to help a colleague who is being held.
Standing in the yard outside her apartment building one day, Chirikova reflected on all that has happened since she saw the red marks on the trees and decided that she had to find out what they meant.
“I’ve had a chance to learn how we can fight effectively,” she said. “We have set an example of what ordinary citizens can do. We can find ways to defend our rights.”