Challenging rampant political corruption, Evgenia Chirikova is mobilizing her fellow citizens to demand the rerouting of a highway that would bisect Russia’s protected Khimki Forest.
Known as the “green lungs of Moscow,” Khimki Forest comprises 2,500 acres of federally protected parkland in a northern suburb of Moscow. It is one of the region’s last old-growth 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.
In 2007, the Russian government announced plans to construct a highway that would connect Moscow and St. Petersburg. With no public involvement in the decision-making process, the government selected a route that would bisect Khimki Forest, ignoring alternatives that would have left the forest intact. The proposed route stands 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.
A young, middle-class mother of two girls, Evgenia Chirikova moved to the northern suburbs of Moscow so that her daughters could grow up closer to nature in the small, clean town of Khimki. The young family loved the outdoors and enjoyed taking quiet walks in the forest.
One day in 2007, during one of these walks with her older daughter, Chirikova discovered trees marked with a red “X” that tagged them for removal. Knowing the forest to be federally protected land, Chirikova was shocked to learn of the government’s plan to construct a highway that would cut through the forest. Without any experience in grassroots organizing, Chirikova left her engineering job to form the group Defend Khimki Forest, and began organizing public opposition to the highway project.
Despite the government’s continued efforts to suppress the movement, Chirikova has succeeded in garnering widespread support from a diverse range of interest groups. Even the Moscow chapter of the Russian Federation of Motorists, an unlikely ally for an environmental group, has joined their efforts to fight the construction project. Defend Khimki Forest’s first rally amassed a crowd of 5,000 people—one of the largest public environmental protests in Russian history—and gathered more than 50,000 signatures.
The most significant victory came when Chirikova and her colleagues convinced the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank, major financial backers of the highway, to withdraw their funding, citing environmental, social and financial concerns about the project.
Government officials did everything in their power to stop the movement, including wrongfully arresting and detaining protesters and threatening Chirikova and her family. Unnamed assailants, likely associated with Khimki officials, beat activists and journalists questioning the project. Most notably, the journalist Mikhail Beketov suffered permanent brain damage and lost a leg and four fingers in a failed murder attempt in November 2008. Chirikova herself has been arrested and detained numerous times, faced baseless rumors of being an American spy, and fought false claims of neglect and mistreatment from child protection authorities who threatened to take away her children.
In this atmosphere of violent political and civil repression, Chirikova and her colleagues continue to fight for an alternative route and an absolute halt to the forest destruction. Energized by the erosion of support for Putin’s ruling party, Chirikova is breathing new life into Russian civil society’s appetite for political reform, and with it, the fight to protect Khimki Forest.