One of these environmental activists is Suren Gazaryan, who grew up in Russia with a deep love of the outdoors. He was born in Krasnodar, where he studied biology in university and took up caving as a hobby while hiking in the local wilderness. Hobby turned to profession when his fascination with bats in the Krasnodar caves led to graduate studies and a career as a zoologist.
While conducting field research in the 1990s, Gazaryan came across evidence of illegal logging and construction that was destroying the bats’ habitat. He realized then that it was not enough to just study bats—he had a responsibility to protect them. Gazaryan set out to stop the dangerous activity, and began collaborating with Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC), an NGO working to protect the environment in Northern Caucasus.
Their first joint campaign resulted in success when illegal logging in the Chernogorye Wildlife Refuge was halted. However, Gazaryan continued to discover new construction sites in Krasnodar, including one for a lavish residential palace on federally protected land in the Utrish Wildlife Refuge intended for then-president Dmitry Medvedev.
As a volunteer activist with EWNC, Gazaryan organized protesters to physically block bulldozers from illegal road building and collected tens of thousands of signatures petitioning Medvedev to stop the presidential palace’s construction. He joined forces with fellow Russian environmental activists from Khimki Forest and Lake Baikal in demonstrations across the country to defend the people’s right to a healthy environment and free access to public lands.
Gazaryan used social media, which was rapidly becoming an important news source for Russians skeptical about government-controlled media. He authored hundreds of blog posts under his real name—an incredibly brave act given the current political environment—and shared video footage on YouTube that he filmed during his inspections of illegally seized land.
In 2010, after two years of intensive campaigning by Gazaryan and EWNC, the Utrish Nature Preserve was created with the highest level of protection available under Russian law. The 25,000-acre parcel of wilderness, located along the northwest coast of the Black Sea, is home to dozens of endangered plant and animal species. Later that year, the Department of Presidential Affairs announced that it was dropping construction plans for the controversial presidential palace inside the Nature Preserve.
This work came at a great personal cost and risk for Gazaryan, yet he refused to abandon his environmental activism. In June 2012, he was sentenced to a three-year probation for a public rally against the illegal seizure of protected forestland around the regional governor’s mansion. In August 2012, the Russian authorities charged him with a second criminal case for allegedly threatening to kill security guards at an illegal construction site. Facing a harsh prison sentence in a corrupt justice system, Gazaryan was forced to flee to Estonia where he received political asylum.