Nadezhda Kutepova: the white crow of a nuclear city

Posted on 2 November 2019

Ozersk, Russia did not used to be on any maps. Residents, if they left the city—with permission, of course—, were unable to share where they were from. Even today, one cannot freely enter or depart the city. It is closed.

Nadezhda Kutepova

It is in Ozersk that Nadezhda Kutepova was born, it was where she lived, and for whose residents she fought, until she was forced to leave for her own safety in 2015. “I’m a mutant!” Nadezhda laughs, having grown up in such a secretive, secured place and despite that, speaking out against the powers that be. The word “mutant” holds a double meaning though; Nadezhda may not be the typical resident of a closed city, or even a typical person, but the sad history of Ozersk means that most people there have indeed been genetically mutated by nuclear waste. The nuclear industry is, literally and figuratively, part of Ozersk’s DNA.

Ozersk and the surrounding areas are some of the most contaminated places on the planet. The city is home to Mayak, a large nuclear plant that produced weapons-grade plutonium during the Cold War and now reprocesses spent nuclear fuel. The town’s construction began in secret in 1946, solely to support the Soviet Union’s nuclear endeavors. Today, Mayak still is the centerpiece of Ozersk, with a huge number of the city’s residents either employed directly or affiliated with the plant.

Even those that live in villages outside of Ozersk have been touched by the plant. For three years, starting in 1949, high-level nuclear spent fuel was dumped in the river Techa, a major water source for dozens of villages. And then, in 1957, a radioactive waste container exploded—the largest nuclear accident prior to Chernobyl. Over 10,000 people were eventually evacuated, but no official reasoning was provided. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the Soviet government began to declassify information on the catastrophe. Of course, by then, it was far too late to stop the nuclear contamination.

As a result of these sudden and continuous “accidents,” as well as unsafe protocols for workers at the Mayak plant, many people in the Ozersk and the surrounding areas are ill. Nadezhda wanted to help them at the very least receive compensation from the government to help them survive. This became a vendetta for her: her family’s history is tied up in Mayak and her family worked there. Her mother’s compensation was cancelled, she fought this decision until she became sick, was sent to a mental clinic, and there she died.

Nadezhda (right) at a conference.

Nadezhda first got involved in her activism after attending an ecological conference in Chelyabinsk while she was in university. At the conference, she heard different things about accidents and contamination in Ozersk than she had heard at home. This led her to better understand the place in which she was brought up, and made her determined to work to secure the rights of residents in the closed city. The situation also showed her that human rights and ecology are two sides of the same coin. “If we’re talking about fish, we’re also talking about the people who eat the fish.” This is literally true for many people living along the region’s contaminated waterways.

Nadezhda originally studied sociology in university, but in order to better help her community, she went back to study law. She did not finish due to having four children, but she was still able to work on civil cases. In 1999, Nadezhda started an organization called “Planet of Hopes” and began to pursue strategic litigation in order to solve legal barriers that prevented victims of Mayak contamination from receiving just compensation. The organization also worked to protect the rights of those from closed cities through the Human Rights Public Department project, under which people could ask lawyers about their rights living in a closed city and about nuclear contamination.

Under Russian legislation, there are groups of people who are ineligible to receive compensation despite, in actuality, being victims of the contamination from Mayak. Nadezhda worked on strategic litigation campaigns in an attempt to secure the rights of children of liquidators who were in utero and thus not covered under the law; schoolchildren who served as liquidators in Karablka village; for the widows of liquidators; and more. Nadezhda also campaigned for impacted children to receive compensation after the age of 18 since due to the word “children” in the law, they were only eligible up until that age. Though Nadezhda won a case in the European Court of Human Rights and consulted with thousands of victims, she was not satisfied with the “sickly” results of her efforts, which sadly did not lead to the systemic change that is needed.

Of course, Nadezhda was fighting a difficult battle on many levels. In the Soviet Union, it was incredibly dangerous to speak out against the decisions of those in power, but this was even truer for residents of closed cities who were subject to strict rules and surveillance. Nadezhda also calls herself a “white crow” since she wasn’t afraid to speak her opinion despite growing up in such an environment, breaking the taboo for her city. There is, she explained, the idea that “you can’t be against the place you depend on” and her activism, though she was trying to help people, meant she was challenging a place where her classmates, her friends, and their parents worked. They felt that she wanted to take their jobs and their income. “I thought about this a lot … I decided that these people are all victims of propaganda, victims of ideology, the ideology in our city that our atomic plant saved the whole planet from a war with the Americans.”

Even so, Nadezhda wanted to help those who needed it—and thousands did, and came to her. For the first five or so years of this work, Nadezhda felt a bit desperate; she had the urge to help everyone, show everything and so she did all that she could, but still thought that maybe it wouldn’t help. Now, she advises activists who feel similarly to pause, perhaps do something else momentarily, think about what to do differently, and then regroup. After twenty years of experience under harsh circumstances, Nadezhda’s overall guidance for activists is to believe in what you do, know what you can lose, and know what you can do to care for yourself.

The result of growing up in a closed city meant that Nadezhda always had a sense of danger; residents were taught there were spies everywhere. As she began her work, she knew that she had very powerful opponents in the atomic industry and the FSB (today’s equivalent to the KGB). Because of this, fear was omnipresent and according to Nadezhda especially “appears in times of desperation”, though often her other feelings were able to surmount this. But, there came a time when the danger was clear enough that she had to leave.

First, in April 2015, like many other NGOs in Russia, her organization was listed as a “foreign agent” and fined $5,000 for failing to register as such after a new law was enacted that made it difficult for organizations that received any funding from abroad. Then, Russian state-owned media channels began running features on Nadezhda’s work, accusing her of being a traitor and an American spy. One of her accusers was a former FSB agent. One of the programs showed where she lived. Nadezhda was facing both legal horrors—a charge of espionage carries 20 years in prison—and physical fear. She looked at her children and decided they had to leave. They received political asylum in France. The two other members of Nadezhda’s organization, though less publicly visible, had to leave Ozersk as well.

Despite her hardships, Nadezhda keeps going, thanks to her “sharp feeling of what is unacceptable, disrespectful to society and the environment.” She is the type of person that, if something is close to their heart, will not refuse to take action. “I do what I can; it’s my work,” she states. “If I can fight against injustice, I should.”

So it was that in in early October 2017, high levels of radioactive ruthenium were detected across Europe. Rosatom, who runs Mayak, said they were not to blame, but Nadezhda became interested and began to meddle. She found experts to work with who conducted an investigation. Ultimately, an international team of researchers concluded that, indeed, Mayak was to blame. Nadezhda considers this particular campaign of hers as a success, thanks to finding the truth and because the contract for the material from Mayak, destined for a laboratory in Italy, was cancelled.

Though Mayak, in a way, followed Nadezhda to Europe, she would still like to do something to help those who remain in the areas around Ozersk. Five thousand people still live in villages along the highly contaminated Techa River. While based in France, Nadezhda is still working hard: she has been studying French and just completed her legal education at Sorbonne University. She will now be able to look at legal questions from the perspective of French and European laws, including the ruthenium incident. Though forced from her home, and the organization that she founded, Nadezhda is undeterred and plans to use this new training to continue her work from an additional angle.

As Nadezhda says, “all activists need to be ready, in the state of a phoenix,” living and then dying in a flame, to then in ash be reborn.

Nadezhda Kutepova

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.

Alla Chernysheva: Words Protect

Posted on 18 September 2019

It was a date that Alla Chernysheva was able to recall without hesitation: on June 10, 2007, she went to a meeting about the woods near her home in Khimki. She had seen a flyer about this event and went to see what it was about. There, she learned about the government’s plan to cut down the forest in order to build a highway. After the meeting, she called the organizer, Evgenia Chirikova. Not only do they remain friends to this day, but they also work together. On this June day, Alla’s trajectory shifted; she started realizing what she now considers her mission. Today, Alla reports on civil society and environmental issues in Russia as a journalist for and as editor of Eco Defense of the Moscow Region. She often plays an activist role as well, protesting trash dumps or the destruction of open, green space near her home.

Alla Chernysheva and one of her daughters.

Though the Khimki forest movement was the beginning of Alla’s participation in civic protest, she quickly and bravely exposed herself through this work. Already, during the protests, people had been severely beaten (one journalist, Mikhail Beketov, suffered brain damage and other horrendous injuries, which led to his death some years later). Still, despite the dangers, Alla continued her efforts. One day, after a protest rally, police officers showed up at her home and arrested her along with her two young girls. Alla described this episode as an example of “moments of unpleasantness” when I asked her about whether she experienced fright as a result of her activities. This “unpleasantness”, she elaborated, comes from the government. She credits Evgenia for helping her when she was arrested, since she organized a campaign to protect her and helped with lawyers. Evgenia returned the praise, describing Alla’s bravery and her unwillingness to sign any incriminating documents or write confessions for the police, despite them telling her she had to report on her “crimes” or lose her children. While Alla was locked up, many people involved in the Khimki movement came and stayed near the police office.

In the end, despite these tribulations and the fact that a road was built through the forest, Alla considers the Khimki campaign an almost-success. Thanks to the protests, thousands of hectares of forest were saved; rather than destroy the entire area, only portions were cut down for the road. The Khimki movement was successful in other ways as well. Alla explains that, thanks to her activism, she has realized a lot about what is happening in her country. During the Soviet Union, she says, “people were to sit quietly”, but after the 2000s, people began organizing meetings and “learned how to fight for their rights,” start non-governmental organizations, and more. This is how Alla has changed as well. She has learned to defend her rights and be active.

Alla Chernysheva.

According to Alla, the environment is one of the main themes of protest in Russia today, across the entire country. As a journalist for, she has written over a thousand articles detailing different movements in diverse regions. Putin has seriously weakened environmental legislation, is pursuing fossil fuel extraction, and is building garbage dumps everywhere, she says, which leads to civic actions. However, she also says the majority of actions are unfortunately not successful. She cites an example of a campaign she participated in to protect a square near her home and the fact that the government has built many garbage dumps already. Even though success is far from inevitable, Alla keeps writing about and participating in civic actions to protect people and the environment because “you do what you can” and “it’s my mission.”

Writing about actions in Russia is extremely important. On the whole, Russian mass media is silent about environmental issues and protests, so Alla has stepped in to not only fill in a gap, but to support activists by sharing information about their efforts. Doing so not only helps their cause, but the publicity can also protect them.

Alla’s advice for others who are interested in activism follows along those lines. First, she suggests, spread information about the issue, build groups on social media and connect with others who are concerned. Second, decide whether to do a mass action, file a lawsuit or grievance, or pursue other tactics. Then, share information with people who live nearby, with the media, and on social sites.

This worked for the Khimki protests, after which “people realized they can do something,” Alla included. Indeed, twelve years later, she is not only participating in other actions, but is spending her time sharing information about protests all across the country, despite the “unpleasantness” she has already incurred. Alla’s courageousness and diligence is allowing her to fulfill her mission and help protect people and the environment across her country in a meaningful way.

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.

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.