Evgeny Vitishko: do that which is right

Posted on 3 August 2019

Evgeny Vitishko

Since he was a kid, Evgeny Vitishko has been interested in protecting the environment. He went from planting trees and cleaning up litter as a child to spending nearly two years in a penal colony as a result of his environmentalism; that’s what can happen when you stand up for justice and the land in Russia, for you come into conflict with those in power.

Evgeny grew up in the Northern Caucasus region of Russia by the Black Sea, and it was there, in Tuapse, that he first began working, albeit indirectly, in the environmental space at a municipal enterprise to support tourism development. As a part of this work, he was responsible for creating new tourist routes and ensuring beaches and train were clean. Then, he headed up the Tuapse Environmental Council and at the university chaired an organization that did research and educated youth, including by holding an international conference on environmental problems in Southern Russia.

Evgenia Chirikova and Evgeny Vitishko protest with a banner that reads “save Tuapse”.

Things shifted in 2005, when reportage came out about oil pollution in the Black Sea from Rosneft, a state-controlled fossil fuel company. Evgeny got involved in working to prevent the construction of a new oil terminal on the sea, his first experience organizing—and in coming up against the government. In 2010, more than four thousand people protested in Tuapse, which was a first. Of course, Evgeny had to do a lot more to generate awareness: meetings, displays, pickets, conferences, legal cases, and so on. In the end, he didn’t consider the campaign fully successful since the terminal wasn’t fully prevented, though plans were changed and company heads and local government leaders were forced out.

Happily, Evgeny has been involved in other, successful campaigns. One of these is the prevention of a gravel mine in the Shakhe River, which flows through Sochi National Park, the Caucasus Nature Reserve (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and is in the territory of the Adyghe people (a Northwest Caucasian ethnic group). As a result of his efforts, official permitting for the project was completely revoked.

Perhaps what Evgeny is best known for are his efforts to fight environmental degradation related to the Sochi Olympics and the concurrent construction of resorts for Putin and his friends. He fought to bring attention to the fact that a road was being built through the national park and nature reserve to Lunnaya Polyana, Putin’s mountain resort, which is squarely in a UNESCO-protected region. To date, construction of the road has stopped.

But of course, all of Evgeny’s activities to bring attention to the ecological horrors happening in pursuit of the Olympics—and government officials’ lavish getaways—were a threat. Evgeny and his colleague at Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus (EWNC), Suren Gazaryan, were given two-year suspended prison sentences for supposedly spraying graffiti on a fence surrounding the compound of Alexander Tkachyov, who at the time was the Governor of the Krasnodar region (after the Olympics, he was named the Minister of Agriculture). They had been leading protests about the fence, which blocked public access to the beach, and is in a national forest, and others who had joined the group sprayed the fence, but Evgeny and Suren were considered the troublemakers. Suren ended up fleeing Russia and was granted political asylum in Estonia. Evgeny stayed, and right before the Olympics, in February 2014, he was arrested for “swearing at a public bus stop.” While he was imprisoned and therefore unable to talk to media or help release a report by EWNC on Olympics-related destruction, his suspended sentence was handed down. It took the judge under two minutes to render the verdict. And so, Evgeny spent nearly two years in the Sadovaya penal colony in the Tambov region. He was released at the end of 2015.

Evgeny with a sign reading “no ecocide of the Caucasus!”

Despite it all, Evgeny says he likes to think he hasn’t changed in terms of his moral qualities or ways of thinking, though he has evolved in terms of tactics. “My worldview has definitely not changed. My attitude to power, to systems and institutions of government, to cult subjects and Orthodoxy has changed. I’ve changed the ways, methods, and mechanisms by which I conduct activism campaigns.” Of course, Evgeny has had to find ways to cope as well, since he unsurprisingly must deal with moments of fear and sometimes apathy when things aren’t going as planned. He takes the advice of friends and spends time in the forest and the mountains. He also recognizes taking time off to protect yourself can be important. But, Evgeny recognizes that “this is not always possible, plus often the authorities have learned how to deal effectively with civic activism, with intimidation, bribery, repression, lies, et cetera, and not everyone will withstand it. But there is no other way.”

When asked what he would advise people who want to be active, Evgeny explains that it doesn’t matter exactly how you do it and that the causes are many; what is important is simply uniting around a common cause. “What is more difficult is developing a need for civil society, so that respect for nature becomes part of the worldview, politics, and consciousness of people. And I believe it will come.”

Evgeny staging a solo protest demanding support for flood victims.

Evgeny says he likes to think of himself as a politician, except it’s really not so—“there aren’t politicians in Russia except for Putin’s.” Therefore, he’s an activist, a human rights defender, and a liberal. When it comes to democracy, Evgeny stresses that it’s not only about elections, “but rather ideas and principles accepted by people as a common, shared good which allows people to live freely and at the same time, responsibly.” Right now, Evgeny thinks civil society in Russia isn’t strong enough to change the election situation in Russia (which is highly constrained, results often falsified, and results in the repeated dominance of the ruling party), but he will still fight for real elections. Meanwhile, he thinks that common sense and morality are more important at the moment than Russian laws, given the absence of fair trial, fair elections, and non-compliance with international agreements.

Right now, Evgeny is working on helping victims of floods that happened in the area in October 2018. He has helped bring people together to influence decision-making of the local and regional governments to help people who lost their homes and have nowhere to go. Evgeny has managed to help over 40 people. His sense of morality and justice is obvious through in his work. Despite the pressure and the punishment he faces when he comes up against those in power who plunder the land and sea for their own profit, at the expense of people living near these extractive industries, Evgeny has still kept at it, because he knows it is the right thing to do.

When asked what keeps him going, Evgeny responded, “Maybe it’s pathetic. But I sincerely believe this is my country, and also, that I am responsible for it. And in the ways I can, I help people and the environment. I think that sooner or later, the next generation (after Putin) will appreciate it, but for now my task is to preserve as much as possible.”

This profile is part of a series that was done with the support of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation as a part of their Leadership Fellows program. Learn more about the project here.

Mikhail Kreindlin: protect the lands and persist

Posted on 8 July 2019

Greenpeace and Russia. For many, the case of the Arctic 30 serves as the link between the two: when Greenpeace activists who attempted to stage a protest on the Prirazlomnaya drilling platform in the Arctic were detained by the Russian government and faced piracy charges. They were later freed from prison after international public outcry, which drew prolific supporters such as Paul McCartney and Madonna. A book and a film have been made about their story. As dramatic and important as this story is, it is not the only story linking Greenpeace and Russia. I would like to share another story, one of persistence, quiet victories, and—since we’re talking about challenging the Russian state—conflicts and threats. This story is Mikhail Kreindlin’s.

Mikhail Kreindlin

Mikhail has been working with Greenpeace Russia since 2002, but was involved in environmental protection well before that. At age 15, thanks to his schoolwork, he became aware of the importance of the environment and went on to participate in a student organization whose activities ranged from supporting protected lands, doing bird population counts, and stopping poachers. After finishing his education, Mikhail worked in government for ten years at various iterations of the ministry of natural resources (which, at the time, was undergoing significant structural changes due to the recent collapse of the Soviet Union).

Though Mikhail had an early start in direct activism, he came to the understanding that he needed to spend time working on the legal side of environmental protection. Now, his work focuses on protecting special areas in Russia, such as national parks and nature refuges, through legal cases. Currently, four out of eleven UNESCO World Heritage Natural Sites in Russia are under threat. Often, these threats come from business interests that are aligned with, or largely owned by, the Russian government. In other words, when pursuing legal cases to protect these lands, Mikhail is using the system against itself.

According to Mikhail, he and his allies “constantly have to fight for any specific territory” in order to protect its special legal status or against harmful projects in its boundaries. But, he and the team at Greenpeace Russia have had a lot of success: in the past five years, they have won ten cases against weakening the protective status of special areas.

But working against state interests doesn’t always go so well. Most recently, Mikhail and his allies have failed to stop the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline through Kurgalsky Nature Reserve, which is home to endangered and threatened species. This situation has been tough: “we had the law on our side, but the state machine works against the law, or changes the law so it won’t interfere. This is, of course, hard,” Mikhail laments. In this case, Kurgalsky Nature Reserve is protected not only by Russian law but by two international conventions, the 1992 Helsinki Conventions and the 1971 Ramsar Convention. However, Nord Stream 2 is a Gazprom project, and Gazprom is majority-owned by the Russian state and thus, Mikhail and his team did not win in court.

The first time I learned of Mikhail was in relation to another tough situation. I got online for a scheduled call with my friend Evgenia to find her upset and anxious about news of friends who had just been physically attacked and she heard that one of them, Mikhail, was injured. Luckily, he came away suffering nothing worse than a broken nose. Mikhail’s group had been in the Krasnodar region near the Black Sea volunteering as forest firefighters when they were beset by masked men who beat them and screamed that they should go back to America. I asked Mikhail if he had been afraid, and he said that instead he felt anger: anger that they could not repel the attack. “It is a shame that we were treated this way; we weren’t even protesting anything! We simply put out a wildfire and were attacked for it. To this day, we can’t understand why it happened and who we so offended with our activities.” At the same time, Mikhail recognized this situation is not out of the ordinary; even though for him it was an exceptional case, these things can happen when you come into conflict with any level of the Russian government.

Mikhail after the attack on the forest fire fighting group he was in. (Photo source, credit to Greenpeace.)

Even so, for Mikhail the feeling he must battle more than fear is despair, and he cites the inability to protect Kurgalsky Nature Refuge as an example. But, he says, “so far it has been possible to prevent the destruction of natural objects and so I continue to protect nature.” When asked what keeps him going, Mikhail states, “I see the point of it. So far, I haven’t gotten the impression that it’s all useless.”

Mikhail with a petition signatures demanding Kurgalsky Refuge be protected. (Photo source, credit Greenpeace.)

Mikhail advises others to see activism as a means to an end, and that it is firstly most important to have a goal. Then, activists must use many different tactics, not only protests or only legal methods, in order to achieve their goal. Using different approaches in combination is crucial to reach success. Given the example of Mikhail’s own work, tenacity and straightforwardness also are helpful qualities to embrace.

This tenacity is important, since Mikhail is monitoring many threats. The Caucasian Nature Reserve is under pressure from ski resorts. Gold mining interests threaten Yugyd Va National Park in the Komi Republic. Constructing resorts and mining in protected lands is, Mikhail says, “illegal, and there have already been many court cases, but still these plans have not been abandoned.” There is also another threatening Gazprom pipeline that needs to be prevented: a proposed natural gas pipeline that would run through the Ukok Plateau, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, in the Altai.

Clearly, Mikhail’s story will continue as the lands he works to protect continue to come under threat. Though his legal work isn’t always flashy, Mikhail’s story is one that deserves international attention and celebration, especially since he is in the fight for the long haul.

This profile is part of a series that was done with the support of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation as a part of their Leadership Fellows program. Learn more about the project here.

Evgenia Chirikova: change your life; change your country; change the world

Posted on 15 June 2019

Evgenia Chirikova

In 2006, Evgenia Chirikova was an engineer, running a company with her husband, Mikhail. They lived a solidly middle-class life in Khimki, just outside of Moscow, with their young daughter and another on the way. She didn’t think about politics. Today, Evgenia is one of Russia’s most well-known environmental activists and a prominent member of the political opposition, having played a tremendous role in invigorating civil protests that ultimately led to the resurgence of the opposition movement and the historic protests against Putin regaining the presidency. She now lives in Tallinn, Estonia, and runs an online portal, Activatica, that organizes media support for activists all across Russia. This is needed work, since independent media in Russia is severely constrained and timely publicity can be a matter of physical safety for activists as more attention turns to their cases.

Evgenia’s life shifted when she noticed trees in Khimki Forest marked for cutting. As she investigated, she realized that not only was the government behind it, but that a highway was going to be built straight through the forest, destroying it. Not only that, but the highway’s construction stood to profit one of Putin’s friends, Arkady Rotenberg, through a labyrinth of financial transfers from the French concessionaire, Vinci, to Rotenberg’s offshore funds. A veil lifted for Evgenia: “Earlier I thought I lived in a democratic Russia…that changed 180 degrees. I understood what the Putin regime actually is.”

Evgenia (front in white) with Nadya Tolokonnikova (of Pussy Riot, left), Yaroslav (fellow activist, in yellow), and Yuri Shevshuk (of DDT, right).

This realization came piece by piece, as did the growth of the movement to protect Khimki forest, which lasted for years and ultimately included tens of thousands of people who signed petitions, participated in demonstrations attended protest concerts, with some even living in a camp in the forest to physically protect it. Evgenia ended up leaving her company and engaging in activism full time, even running for mayor of Khimki, where she met government pressure at every turn. As her profile grew, she became one of the leaders of the opposition, helping arrange the largest protests since the fall of the Soviet Union, when Putin announced he would stand once again for the presidency. She also participated in the campaign to free the Arctic 30, Greenpeace activists who were imprisoned and charged with piracy by the Russian government after staging a protest action on an offshore rig, as well as in actions to free other Russian political prisoners.

Evgenia credits activism with completely changing her worldview. “Before, I didn’t think about democracy, why there needs to be elections, what a democratic government is, and what a totalitarian government is. Thanks to activism, I started thinking about this…Politics are about life. It’s not ‘blah blah blah’ on the TV, but what makes life better or worse.” Of course, this realization came with its costs. Evgenia was being routinely harassed by the authorities, and they were accusing her of child abuse and making threats about taking custody of her children. She was also deeply distressed about the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and that her tax dollars were supporting military invasion. As a result of these personal and political pressures, she and her husband left Russia for Estonia, where they would be able to raise their children more safely while continuing their activism in a different form.

Evgenia being detained in 2011. (Image by Denis Sinyakov, Reuters)

Despite the personal costs, Evgenia says she is now a more confident person; she feels that she can do anything, and isn’t scared. She gives the example of her not speaking English very well, but all the same she presents her reports, including in prolific venues such as U.S. Congress and the Atlantic Council. “I have something to say.”

This confidence, however, goes beyond transcending nervousness: Evgenia and her fellow activists have faced real, even lethal, dangers as a result of her work. A journalist, Mikhail Beketov, who assiduously documented the Khimki Forest case and helped uncover corruption, was beaten so severely that he lost fingers, a leg, and a part of his head. He never truly recovered and died a few years later. Evgenia recalls almost collapsing when she first saw him in the hospital. “I understood taking action could cripple you, you could be beaten.” She realized that she could either stop her work or just not think about the risk to the extent possible. “I think of the actions to be done, not of the stress…Pay attention to the real work.”

In order to do this, there needs to be a conviction to keep one going, and for Evgenia, that is a sense of justice. “I understand the processes that are happening in the world are simply unjust. The decisions of the government aren’t just unjust, but harmful. Nord Stream 2 is unjust; a highway through a forest is unjust. It’s not right. There are other ways.”

When Evgenia arranged her first action to protect Khimki forest, she was incredibly nervous. She said she didn’t know what she was doing, but all the same, people came. It was a small gathering, but to her, it felt huge. Though ultimately the highway was built through Khimki, parts of the forest were protected. Evgenia says that no action is truly unsuccessful. In the case of the campaign to protect Khimki Forest, “it showed people they could fight. It showed them a path. It resulted not in a physical change but a psychological one. This is more important in the end.” Even if an action reaches just a few people, it can ultimately result in changes. Evgenia recalls a papering action that she did in Moscow that only three people came to. Yet, they disseminated information to people, and many attended their following action. If anyone hears about your campaign, Evgenia says, it is successful, and you never know what will happen because of that.

Evgenia with her dog in Estonia.

Evgenia’s advice to others is “to not be alone… get as many interested in your actions as you need. You need to make it so people want to be involved…when people don’t get involved, try another way.” This persistence and creativity can be observed as you look at Evgenia’s own trajectory. Right now, she says she is working more as an NGO specialist, a journalist, and a lobbyist, rather than conducting a huge campaign like she did in Khimki. To her, it’s even more difficult since she is in Estonia since she doesn’t have a full grasp of the language, it’s harder to do mass actions, and she doesn’t yet have a full understanding of European politicians and their reasoning. But, she finds this work very important, even though it’s harder for her. All the same, she still considers herself an activist. “It seems to be that I am transforming all the time…By character, I am an activist. An activist is someone who takes actions…they see a problem and act rather than quietly sit.” In this way, her journalism about activism can be considered activism in and of itself. Evgenia stresses the importance of this work given the lack of independent media in Russia. In this way, she saw a problem, and acted.

In addition to running Activatica and sharing stories about actions across Russia, one of Evgenia’s main activities these days is stopping the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany. She has been speaking about it in across Europe, lobbying politicians in the European Parliament, and conducting research and sharing information about the project’s many harms. Given language and cultural barriers, none of this is easy, but Evgenia keeps working and gathering allies. She also gives lectures about on-goings in Russia and does webinars about activism. On top of all of her political work, she is studying both Estonian and English and taking care of her two daughters and her dog, Tuzik, with her husband. She is able to squeeze all of  this into her life with a smile, adaptability, and a willingness to learn and laugh at herself, while never forgetting the seriousness of her work. Activism changed Evgenia’s life and worldview, but with it, she has changed Russia and the world.

This profile is part of a series that was done with the support of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation as a part of their Leadership Fellows program. Learn more about the project here.

Russian Environmental Activists: an introduction

Posted on 15 June 2019

This project was done with the support of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation as a part of their Leadership Fellows program. This article also appears on the Foundation’s website.

Protest and activism have shifted in my esteem over the years I have been an environmentalist, that is, since I was quite young. They have both enraptured me and sparked disdain as I made my way through different environmental groups and movements, and as the topics and tactics of activists, and the activists themselves, changed. Over time I realized that different contexts demand different methods and that my perspective was really quite narrow, as it was shaped largely by the United States climate movement that grew out of the broader environmental movement—sadly, one that was not yet as diverse as it is now and one that, in my perspective, given climate inaction was the norm, was largely unsuccessful. At times, I have been tremendously frustrated. But, at other times, I have been inspired by the creativity, bravery, and passion that I saw, especially from those who have been long maligned. Attending protests led by Native Americans was overwhelming in the sense of how protracted their resistance has been and yet, here they were, still working to protect, well, everything alive.

Russia has also loomed large in my thoughts, though it isn’t easy to pinpoint why, just that it’s a knot I cannot untangle though I enjoy tugging at the threads. I majored in Russian for my undergraduate degree, and during that time, spent time learning about the Soviet and Russian environmental movements. I was also studying German, and for my thesis paper, compared environmental activism in the USSR and East Germany prior to and after the fall and dissolution of the Soviet bloc. I concluded that the German movement was stronger than that of Russia in the end—and at the time, it probably was. But, unbeknownst to me, as I sat in my dorm surrounded by stacks of library books, a future friend of mine was camping out in a forest outside of Moscow trying to protect it from destruction—and reinvigorating civil protest inside Russia in the process.

Me (right) with other trail building volunteers near Lake Baikal.

In 2014, I traveled to Lake Baikal with a friend who studies—you guessed it—environmental movements in Russia, where we spent two weeks volunteering with a local organization that builds and maintains ecotourism infrastructure, most notably trails. We spent these days laboring away in marshy land with Russians from across the country who had decided to use their time and money volunteering in this way.

Not long after, the same friend introduced me to Evgenia Chirikova, winner of the Goldman Prize, protector of Khimki Forest, my future friend. She wanted to practice her English and I certainly needed to refresh my Russian, and so we began speaking weekly. Through this relationship, I learned about her activism, and that of many others in Russia. It was occurring, of course, in an entirely different context than I was used to—one that was more dangerous, where civil protest had a very different history, where people who stood on the street by themselves with a sign could end up arrested and imprisoned. I started to learn about these people through Evgenia. Why did they do what they did? What sparked them to act? How did they decide on how to protest? How did they recruit others to join them? How did they cope with the fear? Evgenia personally knew people who had been attacked and even killed. She had been arrested. I’ve been to protests but never one where acute physical danger seemed likely. And yet, Russian activists keep at it, and I learned about new actions from Evgenia all the time.

Me (left) with Evgenia Chirikova in Tallinn, Estonia.

So, I decided to take my questions to Russian activists themselves. I interviewed five people who have engaged on various environmental topics in different locations to see what I, and potentially other activists and environmentalists, could learn from them. I also want to inform a broader audience about their work, in order to support them.

Through the course of the interviews, I found myself frequently struck by how determined, persistent, and caring these people were. Even though the odds they face are long, and the dangers real, they are propelled by a sense of justice and care and the feeling they will have a positive impact in some regard, even if it isn’t immediately obvious, that keeps them working despite the real costs they have incurred. Some of them have had to leave their homes, some have been physically attacked, and some have spent time in prison. But they all kindly took the time to speak with me. In the following five articles, I do my best to summarize our conversations and convey what I have learned, in the hope that it inspires others. The willingness to learn and adapt, the strong sense of justice, the commitment, and the kindness all of these activists share is something I hope to emulate. I would strongly urge you to share the stories of these people, and others around the world who are trying to protect our shared earth despite dangers, and lend support where you can.

Enormous thanks to my interviewees. Спасибо огромное.
Evgenia Chirikova: Founder of Activatica, an online activist resource and journalism portal. Protector of Khimki Forest.
Evgeny Vitishko: Protector of the environment of the North Caucuses. Political prisoner (now released).
Mikhail Kreindlin: Greenpeace expert on protected areas. Volunteer forest firefighter.
Alla Chernysheva: Activist and journalist. Writer for Activatica.
Nadezhda Kutepova: Attorney for those impacted by nuclear pollution in her hometown. Refugee in France.

Questions from Hong Kong

Posted on 10 January 2019


How is the public transportation so good?

How is it so cheap?
So clean?
Why do their buses have seatbelts and ours don’t?

Why do I see so many bike share brands and so few shared bikes being ridden?

Why do I feel so safe?

How is it that I haven’t been sexually harassed?

How do they build so high on such steep slopes?

Is the slope maintenance environmentally friendly?

Why do the street crossings take so long to change for pedestrians?

Who are the people behind the dueling Falun Gong/Dafa protest displays?

Who would pay over $1,000 USD for a pet fish?

Are the caged birds in the market alright?

How is the coffee so good here?

When did they start serving it at exactly the right drinking temperature?
Why don’t I have this at home?

Why do they pave so many of the hiking paths?

How do they have so many free public restrooms?

How many people use the squatty potties and how many people sit?

Why do monasteries tend to be built on hills?

Why do I see so few beggars?

Who are the few beggars that I do see?

Why haven’t I seen anyone who is obviously mentally ill and on their own?

How do you shape social norms?

Why do people care about brand names?

Can I eat more seaweed at home?

Or mung bean cakes?
Or pineapple buns?
Or egg tarts?
Or egg waffles?

Why do people here walk so slowly?

And why do they put vests on cats?

If you allow it, travel opens you up to the possibilities. What exists at home is your norm but often not the norm. We can learn from each other, and snatch some ideas to improve our own homes.

Hong Kong from Victoria PeakLaterns in Man Mo TempleBonsai at Chi Lin Nunnery

These are some of the questions I have been thinking about since spending a week in Hong Kong. I’ve started researching some of them; some may not have answers. But I would love to discuss with those who have thoughts or insight.