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.”
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.
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’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.