- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
“Russia, it’s not Putin. It’s normal people who want to live in a normal country.”
So said Evgenia Chirikova, Russian environmental activist. Chirikova has lived (on a Russian passport) in Estonia since 2015. Prior to that, she lived in Khimki, outside of Moscow, and worked against the construction of a motorway from Moscow to St. Petersburg that would cut through Khimki forest — and, through French company Vinci and offshore accounts, allegedly to enrich Arkady Rotenberg, personal friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin. She is one of a surprising number of Russians, given the stakes in Russia today and limited attention and support from abroad, who attempt to stand up to the state.
Chirikova was ultimately unable to halt the construction of the motorway (although, in 2010, Dmitri Medvedev, then president of Russia, issued a temporary moratorium on the project). But in the process of trying, Chirikova and her group, Save Khimki Forest Movement, brought thousands out to protest and collected tens of thousands of signatures, and found that, contrary to popular western belief, Russian grassroots run deep.
Grassroots activism, Chirikova explained in an interview with Foreign Policy between sips of her very sugary coffee, is very different from NGOs. It’s thousands of people coming together to fight for issues that directly impact their lives, and it’s evidenced not only in Khimki, but all over Russia. Offering examples of environmental activism alone, Chirikova pointed to Karelia, where pensioners protested in 2016; to Chelyabinsk, where a group of activists, foresters, and bloggers came together to prevent planned construction in the summer of 2010; to Moscow, where the capital’s citizens protest loss of green space, and, in particular, their Friendship Park just last summer.
They are also protesting corruption, as Chirikova herself was. It is widely believed that construction projects, particularly in places that make construction difficult, are meant to enrich Putin’s inner circle. “Each problem in Russia,” she said, be it environmental or social, “is a question of corruption.”
Corruption has the added benefit of being something the average person can understand. “Corruption is a winning issue for opposition-minded activists,” Timothy Frye, head of Columbia University’s political science department, told FP. The population may not be swayed by high-minded ideals that they see as divorced from their everyday life, but corruption, which permeates everyday life, they can understand. And, contrary to popular belief, “all the survey evidence suggests that Russians really don’t like corruption very much,” Frye said.
Still, activists struggle to get their message out. “It’s really very difficult to work against Putin’s propaganda,” Chirikova conceded, particularly given the difference in resources between Russian grassroots activists and the Kremlin.
There have been some slow, hard-won gains. Some members of Chirikova’s Khimki group are now deputies in local councils. (Frye notes activists are in local councils even in Moscow, although their abilities to actually enact change are limited). And, from Estonia, where Chirikova moved after authorities threatened to take her children away, she runs a site intended to raise awareness on grassroots activism, give Russian activists resources based on her experiences, and to connect people all over Russia. She has also, from a distance, found perspective on those who support Putin.
“In Russia, I was very aggressive against people who support Putin. Against propaganda. And I was angry,” she said. “I think that when you’re angry, you cannot understand any people. You cannot support these people. And I think that propaganda, it’s like poison. And it’s not the problem of people they take this poison. It’s the problem of Putin regime.”
Now, she says, “I only pity these people.” Which, she concludes, is better — and more productive — than hate.
Photo credit: NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images