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Russia’s Foremost Environmental Activist, in Exile: ‘Oil Is at Fault for Everything.’

Yevgenia Chirikova explains what’s gone wrong in Russia –- and what needs to change.

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Earlier this week, Russia’s best-known environmental activist and notable opposition figure Yevgenia Chirikova left her home near Moscow with her two daughters to set up residence in Tallinn, Estonia. Chirikova joins many other prominent opposition-minded Russians, including legislator Ilya Ponomarev and economist Sergei Guriev, who have had to leave their homeland for fear of repression. Chirikova has explained that her decision to leave was motivated primarily by fears that her children could — once again — become pawns in the Kremlin’s effort to pressure her. While in Tallinn, Chirikova plans to continue her latest project, a web portal that allows Russians to crowdsource information about environmental problems.

Foreign Policy spoke with Chirikova this week about her work, what’s gone wrong in Russia, and what it would take to change things.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FP: Why Estonia?

Chirikova: It’s close to my homeland. I have Russian citizenship, so I can go back whenever I need to, and work, and keep taking part in the environmental movement. Estonia is also the most advanced country in the world in Internet technology. I think my project will get a second wind here.

FP: Are you expecting to have any problems crossing the border to visit Russia?

Chirikova: Absolutely, there could be problems. But it’s important for me that my children are safe. I already had a scandal when they tried to take my kids away. As a mother this is the most painful and important thing, the safety of my children. If something happens to me in Russia, I know my kids will be safe. And if something happens to me? I’m an adult, it’s not so scary. I just think parents have no right to risk the health and wellbeing of their children. Children need a happy childhood, and you can’t involve them in your affairs, it’s not their choice.

FP: How about your children – how are they taking it? Do they know why your family had to move?

Chirikova: Of course, the children didn’t want to leave. They had a great school and great friends. They had whole lives there, especially my older daughter. She is 13. She really took it hard. But when we made this decision we explained everything to our daughters. I think this is the best way, because there’s no point in lying. Adults don’t think children know anything, but really they do understand what’s happening.

We explained that they would have a big change in their lives, and that they should be prepared. We said they would have to learn English very well. This is not so important in Russia, but in Estonia many people don’t speak Russian now.

FP: And how has it been for you in Estonia?

Chirikova: I’ve been really impressed by the Estonian attitude towards old things and to the environment. They don’t destroy what’s old. They try to care for it, to preserve it for future generations. That’s why Tallinn is such a great, human city. The children love it. It’s very diverse. There’s a port with a fish market, there are old castles, like in fairy tales, there are interesting modern buildings, lots of cultural life. The nature here is great, with lots of parks. So it’s a pleasure, Tallinn. I really love it.

FP: Why do you work particularly on environmental issues, among Russia’s other problems?

Chirikova: That’s just my personality – I was built this way. I’ve been worried about the environment since I was born. I’ve always felt that nature is very fragile. From my childhood on, I’ve felt how easy it is to destroy everything that has to do with nature. And over my whole life, I’ve been more and more convinced of this. I’ve seen it with my own eyes in Moscow and nearby, where I was born – I’ve been watching the environment being destroyed.

I didn’t become so progressive right away. At first the most important thing was the destruction of the forest in Khimki by my house. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve started to see it more. Thanks to the Internet, thanks to the fact that I’ve become more involved, I’ve become convinced that I was totally right, my childhood feelings did not betray me.

I got such a shock last summer when I read a report that Roshydromet [a state agency that monitors Russia’s environment] released, which said that climate change in Russia is happening 2.5 times faster than in the rest of the world. Everything came together for me – the floods, the wildfires, the horrible smog in Moscow, these are all links in one chain. I’m not talking about warming, I’m talking about destabilization of the climate.

What we see in Khakassia are insane wildfires that are taking human lives, and people are losing their homes. Or what we’ve observed in Moscow, our mortality rate increased by 10 percent since the beginning of the year. Why? It’s the air! No one is writing or speaking about this. It’s dangerous to breathe this air. People are already complaining, but what will happen in the summer?

Climate change is happening in America as well – but in America there’s a different reaction. At least 400,000 people go out into the street in New York to fight for divestment, to call for green renewable energy, to preserve the planet. That’s the order of the day. And for us, it’s more like in the 17th century.

FP: Why do you think there’s no mass environmental movement in Russia?

Chirikova: Oil is at fault for everything. We have a raw material state. In a place where resources like oil, gas, diamonds, and coal are the most important thing, human beings are not important. You don’t need to develop your industry, or any kind of scientific institutions, or think too much. You say, “I’ll just sell oil, and I’ll just live on this oil money.”

Smart citizens who understand what’s happening and are not okay with this become enemies of the state — enemies of this oligarchy that is based on raw materials. And the authorities try to punish them in various ways. You’ll see arrests and imprisonment of environmentalists, violence, murder. Because that’s the system — raw materials are more important than people.

It’s important for our authorities to make money right now, and they don’t identify with the country. If they really cared about the country, they would behave differently. In Norway they have oil too, but they use their oil money to invest in their education system, in the future. They don’t depend on the oil like Russia. Here we’re having an economic crisis precisely because everything depends on the oil. Prices just have to change a little, and the whole country suffers.

FP: So in Russia, when a person is against pollution and worries about the environment, that person becomes an enemy of the political system?

Chirikova: Exactly. And there’s another thing. Here we don’t have that many taxpayers, we have just one source of money — oil. And you can spend this money on propaganda, so you can manipulate this population and convince them of all kind of idiocies. You can create whole institutions of trolls who will advance their point of view on the Internet, in addition to the TV and radio and everything else, of course. You can buy the police, you can buy the prosecutors, you can gradually turn the country into a third world country. It was painful for us to hear Russia called a gas station, but this really looks like it’s true, because nothing is developing. The authorities are not trying to do anything about the main challenge of the 21st century — climate change.

We need real changes in the government policy — a rejection of oil — and a move to green energy. We need to figure out how Russia can get over its addiction to oil. Right now there isn’t even that much conversation about this. You won’t see it on TV.

FP: Besides on the Internet, are there any outlets in Russia taking up environmental issues?

Chirikova: None. Neither the TV, nor the radio will talk about this. Even the opposition channels, like Dozhd TV, or Echo of Moscow, don’t talk about these things. You won’t hear anything about the real reasons behind the wildfires in Khakassia. We have no place other than the Internet where these problems are discussed. Thank God that Dozhd exists at all, it’s great — but there’s no development, there’s only shrinkage. Like Solzhenitsyn said: “A country of strangled possibilities.”

I’m certain this era will go away, there will be another. But right now the situation for activists is very hard. All my friends are either killed, or in jail, or they have criminal cases pending against them.

FP: How would you describe the situation for environmental activists in Russia today?

FP: If you work to protect the environment, you are an enemy of the raw materials oligarchy which now controls Russia. No matter what you defend. If you defend the forest, someone will want to chop it down to make money building on it. If you defend the fields, same thing. If you oppose oil extraction, or if you defend the shoreline of the Black Sea, well, then we remember the cases of Suren Gazaryan and Evgeny Vitishko. [Both are environmental activists who have been persecuted by Russian authorities. Gazaryan had to flee the country; Vitishko is serving a 3-year prison sentence for painting a slogan on a fence.]

And that’s why I run my project, activatica.org — so I can give a voice to these things. If I could have my own radio station or my own TV channel, I would talk about these problems there. But I don’t have that possibility. The Internet is my battlefield. I have no other way.

Another thing I’ve learned is that it’s very dangerous for the opposition to have a single leader. The authorities immediately attack him. For example, they tried to take my kids away from me. Suren Gazaryan had to leave Russia. There were criminal cases against him. Kostya Rubakhin had to ask for political asylum because he defended the land in Voronezh from nickel mining. Vitishko has already served one and a half years and has another year and a half to go. He got three years for protesting construction for Putin’s dacha on the shore of the Black Sea. The situation for leaders of the environmental movement is very dangerous. That’s why I’m teaching leaderless protests, so that they won’t know who to go after.

FP: Is it impossible for the environmental situation in Russia to improve until there is a new regime?

Chirikova: I don’t see it that way. I think it’s impossible to change anything while our oil is being bought. I have hopes for the Paris summit this December when our whole planet will have a chance to say no to dirty fuel. When they stop buying Russian oil, we will have to use our heads again and create something. People will become valued again. If there wasn’t any oil, with our very high level of education in Russia, we could make it. We’d think of something. We’re 140 million people. As if Russians couldn’t figure out how to earn themselves a loaf of bread other than through selling oil. Of course we will.

Some Arab sheikh once said, “The Stone Age did not end because they ran out of stones.” The oil won’t run out either, but if the consciousness of the world changes — when they stop buying it from us — then Russia will have positive change.

While we still have oil, alright, we might get another leader in power. For a time there might be some improvements. But we had Boris Yeltsin, during whose rule this whole oil addiction began. Under Yeltsin everything began to fall apart in manufacturing. When we got Putin, for a while it wasn’t so bad. Yeltsin had degraded, he was drinking, and couldn’t even control himself anymore. It was a very sad sight — I wasn’t a fan of Yeltsin, to say the least.

But then there was a change, and for a while at the beginning there was a more or less young and energetic Putin, and many smart politicians welcomed him at first. Even Boris Nemtsov supported him at the beginning. But this economic model affected him too. The problem is not that bad people come to power. I think they degrade because of the bad economic model. For me, oil is like prostitution. Sooner or later, if you earn money through prostitution, no matter how great of a person you are, you will degrade. This may be a somewhat crude example, but it’s a telling one. No matter who comes to power, this economic model will ruin him.

FP: The key to reform in Russia is ending purchases of its oil? Nothing will change from within, the change will have to come from the outside?

Chirikova: Yes. I think so. I don’t see any internal forces that are serious enough to change the situation in Russia. I think the situation will change when there’s a new model of energy use, when there’s more green energy. And I see such processes already happening in America and in Europe. It’s great that Obama refused the Keystone pipeline. I think this is because the American people have understood what climate change means, and they’re demanding that their government and their businesses change to a safer form of energy.

When I look at where change in Russia will come from, it will be from changes to the economic model. If there’s no oil, there will be no money for propaganda. This poison is a horrifying thing. The horrifying thing is not Putin, it’s his propaganda. They could make Mickey Mouse president.

FP: What are your future plans?

Chirikova: I will keep working, keep advancing the environmental movement on the Internet. I have a two-year visa. What will happen in two years? I have no idea, I’m no political scientist. I know if the environment does not change it will be very bad. I think for now that if nothing changes, economically, then things in Russia will just keep getting worse. I’m just trying not to think about it. I’m trying to do what I can. Activatica is my answer to the propaganda. It’s not much, but it’s the most I can do. So I will keep working on it as much as I can.

VASILY POPOV/AFP/GettyImages

Ilya Lozovsky is assistant editor of Democracy Lab. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he worked as program officer for Eurasia at Freedom House, providing emergency support to human rights activists and organizations across that continent. @ichbinilya

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