by Evgeniya ChirikovaOctober 24, 2017
When I helped found a grassroots movement called “Save Khimki Forest” in 2006, it was a bleak time for activists in Russia. There weren’t many precedents for civil resistance other than pro-democracy movements. People were unsure of how to build a movement on an issue like protection of the environment.
All we knew was that we had to do something when the Russian government announced plans to construct a highway through the forest to connect Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The Khimki Forest is one of the region’s last-standing ancient forests, and home to an abundance of wildlife, including numerous threatened plant and animal species. The forest’s walking and hiking trails also provide much-needed respite from heavy urbanization and air pollution to thousands of greater Moscow residents.
With no public involvement in the decision-making process, the Russian government selected a route that would bisect Khimki Forest, ignoring alternatives that would have left the forest intact. The proposed route stood to yield significant profit from timber and development on open land close to the expensive and densely populated areas of Moscow, while doing little to relieve the notorious traffic congestion in the region.
The extent of the corruption underlying the project became clear soon after that: In 2009, Putin signed a decree that altered the forest’s protected status to allow for “transport and infrastructure.” That same year, the government awarded an $8 billion contract for the highway’s construction to Vinci, a multi-billion dollar French construction company whose Russian investment partners include a long-time friend and supporter of the prime minister.
For years, the defenders of the Khimki forest used many methods of struggle: demonstrations, pickets, and petitions (including one that collected more than 50,000 signatures).
The situation started to change in 2010, when a forest fire near Moscow caused the city to fill with smog. It was impossible to breathe and many people became sick.
Very soon, people realized that the authorities would not solve the problem so they organized to put out the forest fires themselves. The same year, Save Khimki Forest was able to organize the first big demonstration in recent years, gathering a crowd of more than 5,000 people. As a result, the president of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, publicly admitted that the highway project through Khimki Forest was unpopular and called for a moratorium. It was a major victory for civil society. After that, many people understood that they too could stand up and say “no” to unfair government decisions.
Vladimir Putin's regime responded with repressive laws against civil society. The Russian parliament adopted laws to limit demonstrations and a law labeling NGOs that receive foreign funding as "foreign agents." As a result of this law, many NGOs closed. An organized campaign against NGOs is still underway. In addition, dozens of activists have been arrested and imprisoned over the years.
Despite the repression, however, the authorities have not been able to extinguish Russian civil society’s resolve. The number of grassroots movements are growing in size and scope. In 2014, our team decided to support new grassroots groups in Russia and organized the social media portal, activatica.org, which helps grassroots groups to spread news about their activities and experiences.
This helps ensure that future activists do not have to start from scratch, but can learn from the strategies, tactics, victories, and mistakes of previous and ongoing movements. Demand for this kind of guidance is high, as more and more Russians are learning the power and potential for change that nonviolent civil resistance can offer.
Since the summer of 2006, Evgeniya Chirikova has been a central actor in a grassroots movement to save Khimki forest in Russia. Evgeniya has been recognized internationally for her activism, including as recipient of ICNC’s James Lawson Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Practice of Nonviolent Conflict in 2013.Read More