It's a punishing summer in Moscow with record highs and poor air quality. The last place you want to be is crammed into a jail cell, passing out repeatedly from the heat and lack of water, but that's exactly where the leader of the grassroots movement to prevent the destruction of the 2,600 acre Khimki Forest in Moscow found herself last week.
Evgenia Chirikova, 33, a mother of two and an engineer by trade, was rounded up with a number of her colleauges camped out on logging equipment late on Wednesday following a violent demonstration in town. Around 100 anarchists unassociated with Chirikova's group (called 'Ekooborona') charged the Khimki Town Hall with bottles, stones, and Molotov cocktails, spray painting the columns of the building with the phrase "Protect the Russian Forest."
Police used the violence as pretext to arrest Chirikova and others, once again victims of masked brigands. Last Friday, 100 bandits of a different political persuasion attacked the activists, pulling down barricades and signs they'd erected around machinery beginning a logging operation in the forest. The cutting precedes the construction of a new road connecting Moscow and St. Petersburg, which was controversially approved by a special order from Vladimir Putin's office (Article 11 of Russian Federal Law 172-FZ forbids a change of use for public forestland if alternative sites or routes can be found, and in this case, there are several alternatives).
Probably hired by the logging company's owner (a bishop for Russia's Evangelical Church, bizarrely, and who seems to lack permits for the forest clearing), the thugs trashed the activists' gear and threatened to kill them. When the police were called, the cops turned up late, tarried just long enough to see that the masked men were not currently attacking anyone, and tried to leave. At this point, Chirikova laid down under their wheels so they could not leave, thereby protecting her friends. And who went to jail that day? You guessed it, Chirikova and company.
This is just another bizarre twist in a story I've been following and writing about here at Grist since April when the Russian courts denied Ekooborona's final appeal against the road project on very flimsy grounds.
It's clear that this is more than a fight over one forest, but holding the line against this most visible of 26 projects just like it, where public conservation lands are proposed for conversion to roads or condos or whatever, all over the country. In Novosibirsk I've heard of the unsolved murders of two journalists and one environmentalist killed for opposing a similar plan, the latter found hanging from a tree in the forest in question.
What with the mayor of Moscow giving public real estate to his developer wife for private development/profit and countless less well known cases, a picture emerges where the most profitable industry in Russia, construction, is hurting from the recession and looking for projects like Khimki Forest where they can get land for free and churn out huge profits. Road projects in Russia cost $237 million/kilometer vs. just $6 million/kilometer in the U.S. ($381 million/mile vs. $10 million/mile), according to one watchdog group. So the profit potential is pretty clear.
Looking past Khimki Forest, the planned Central Ring Road in Moscow will lead, in one activist's estimation I'm in contact with, to the bulldozing of almost 250,000 acres of forests badly needed to cool the city, clean the air, and to give its residents access to a bit of nature.
But perhaps a prosecutor's order to halt the cutting until the legality of the operation can be established, and the entrance of celebrity into the fray (the front man for popular rock band DDT) can buy the old growth oaks of Khimki Forest more time.
And perhaps it will ensure freedom from arrest for the members of Ekooborona for a few days!
[Note from author: To help these brave activists put pressure on the financial backers of the road proposal, send them a message, here,