‘Poison for the people’—how an exiled activist is countering Russia’s propaganda machine

Environmental activist Evgeniya Chirikova once helped save a forest in Moscow. Now she’s trying to give voice to Russian activists and journalists resisting Putin’s regime.

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SOURCEWaging Nonviolence

Russian environmental activist Evgeniya Chirikova has lived in exile for more than seven years. In the late 2000s, Chirikova, an engineer and the mother of two young children, launched a campaign to protect one of the few remaining old-growth forests near Moscow. The state was planning to build a superhighway from Moscow to St. Petersburg that would have destroyed thousands of acres of green space. The contract was eventually awarded to the French multinational Vinci and the road was ultimately built, but Chirikova’s campaign managed to draw enough attention to the issue that the centuries-old Khimki forest, known as the “green lungs of Moscow,” was largely preserved. It marked the beginning of a nascent green movement within the country.

In 2010, at a rally in Moscow, more than 5,000 people showed up to voice their opposition to the highway. Then-president Dmitry Medvedev halted the development project for several months, which Chirikova described as a “huge victory.” Interest in her work grew and extended well beyond the Khimki campaign.

When I spoke with her recently, Chirikova recalled an interview she did on the liberal radio station Echo of Moscow, which, like many independent media outlets in Russia, has been shut down since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. During that interview, Chirikova gave out her phone number on air and was overwhelmed with calls from Russians interested in how she had organized her campaign. In 2012, she was awarded the prestigious Goldman Prize for “breathing new life into Russian civil society’s appetite for political reform.”

Not long after, Chirikova established a non-governmental organization to help build activist networks in Russia. The organization was branded a “foreign agent” under a Russian law passed in 2012 — the first to receive such a designation, according to Chirikova — who had become a target for the authorities. (The law has since been used to shut down a broad range of civic institutions, including the human rights group Memorial and independent media outlets.) Fellow Khimki activists were beaten, including journalist Mikhail Beketov, who was nearly killed and never recovered from his injuries before dying five years later. Eventually Chirikova was forced to flee Russia and has been living in Estonia with her family ever since.

Along with her husband, Mikhail Matveev, she also created a website, Activatica, to provide a platform for Russian journalists, activists and political prisoners. Despite having to leave Russia, Activatica’s work has continued. In many ways, the platform is uniquely positioned for the current moment and has become a hub for activists in Russia and those who are now living abroad. Since Russia launched its brutal invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the website has been getting 25-30 million views a month, three times what they were seeing before the war, according to Chirikova.

The website — which is currently only available in Russian — has taken on newfound urgency as activists in and outside of Russia struggle to find ways to protest the war in Ukraine, assist Ukrainian refugees (many of whom have been forcibly relocated to Russia from the eastern part of country) and keep alive whatever campaigns they may have previously been working on. Chirikova says the site’s mission is to “organize services for grassroots activists from Russia and to help refugees from Ukraine.”

“Our mission now is to share true information about the struggle of civil society in Russia and the truth about the war in Ukraine,” she said. “This is our first task. And our second task is to organize legal support for activists.”

During our recent conversation, Chirikova spoke about the war’s impact on Russian civil society, efforts to assist Ukrainian and Russian refugees, and the connections between the global climate movement and human rights. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

A Russian anti-war activist attacked by unknown people. (Twitter/Activatica)

A lot of Russian activists are trying to leave or have already left the country as Putin’s regime has cracked down on any opposition to the war. But I imagine there are many who have stayed. What are they able to do now? How confined is the space for civil society?

It’s really a very good question. Those activists who have decided to stay in Russia are really the heroes because it’s extremely difficult. Some of them have continued to protest and take to the streets with simple transparent signs stating: “No War.” They were arrested immediately, and some have gone to prison.

You can find a lot of stories about that on Activatica. A lot of people in different parts of Russia came to these actions. Some of them continue to provide help for political prisoners. This is really very important because we have a lot of political prisoners in Russia.

Some work like journalists and share information. But it’s really very hard for them because we have a new law criminalizing reporting on the war. And it’s really very complicated to share information about the situation in Ukraine for example.

But some activists continue their struggle — like environmentalists, for example.

At the moment, you can find on Activatica posts about activists who are working to protect Troitsky forest. It’s really a huge struggle. People are trying to protect their motherland, their green space, their trees.

We have other types of grassroots activity as well. Of course, it’s not so active like before the war — because a huge part of Russian activists were forced to move to other countries — but not all. And I’m really very glad that some activists continue their struggle.

Still, I’m very concerned about people who have gone to other countries. They’re heroes too. Why? Because they continue their struggle far from the motherland, and they continue to organize actions in Georgia, Armenia, etc. And they continue to support Ukrainian refugees.

I wanted to back up a little and talk about the environmental movement in Russia before the war in Ukraine. After the Khimki campaign, what happened? Did the environmental movement continue to grow?

We were one of the first grassroots groups able to successfully protect our rights. According to the constitution, I have the right to a healthy environment. As a citizen, I demanded that the authorities protect Khimki forest because, according to Russian legislation, it was illegal to destroy this green space near Moscow.

We were one of the first groups to show a new pattern of behavior because, unfortunately, after the totalitarian regime, during 70 years of the Soviet Union, people didn’t have much experience with grassroots activism. And, of course, part of our struggle was to set an example to show how to organize a campaign.

I remember that after our campaign on Khimki forest a lot of people called me to ask about my experience. And after that a lot of people started to organize similar struggles in their regions.

I had one crazy moment I remember. I did an interview on Echo Moskvy, and I gave out my own telephone number during the interview. After that a lot of people called me with questions. They wanted to ask me how is it possible to organize an ecological campaign, demonstrations and other struggles.

And I remember that, in 2010, our grassroots movement — together with opposition leaders, including Boris Nemtsov for example — was able to organize a huge demonstration, and rock star Yury Shevchuk came and sang. The authorities tried to stop it, but it was impossible because 5,000 people came to this protest. And we demanded that they change the project and save Khimki forest. After that the president of Russia stopped the project for six months. It was a huge victory for us. Before that, Russian authorities never listened to Russian civil society.

Since the war in Ukraine how have activists and journalists changed their tactics to continue to try to draw attention to these issues?

It’s impossible to organize a conventional environmental campaign within Russia when we have President Putin and Putin’s regime. We need to solve that problem first. And after that, of course, we need to change Russia’s energy policy.

Because it’s disgusting when Russia continues to sell coal, oil and gas every day. And at this moment we need to demand that the European Union organize an embargo on Russian oil and gas. It’s horrible that every day the EU continues to pay billions of euros to buy Russian oil and gas. And every day Putin’s regime is getting money from Europe to continue its disgusting war.

I think it’s absolutely unfair. And of course it’s a big problem for climate change. And it’s a big problem for the people of Ukraine. At this moment we have a big connection between climate change and human rights.

Because if you stop buying oil, gas and coal from Putin’s Russia it will help you to stop war on Ukraine on the one hand and it will help you to save the climate on the other.

Can you talk about the role of Activatica in Russia today? Has its role changed since the war in Ukraine?

Maybe 10 years ago, when we were activists, we realized that it’s really extremely important to have a voice. We had some problems with media in Russia because we didn’t have normal independent media to share true information about our activity. And we decided to organize independent media for activists, like Facebook for activists.

At this moment we have a big team. We have volunteers and journalists in different parts of Russia, and our mission is to provide a platform for activists. The role of my team is to organize fact checking and to distribute the information on different social media platforms. Our mission was to give a voice to activists. Because very often ordinary journalists were not interested in reporting on demonstrations or the ins and outs of a campaign.

Sometimes, for journalists, there was only an interest if there was a crime against environmentalists. I remember a journalist saying to me, “If some of your friends are beaten or killed, please call us.” It’s horrible logic. So for me it was very important to give a voice to activists and organizers. And my mission now is to protect them.

Are activists within Russia able to access the website?

At the moment, we are using VPNs for Russian activists. But it is not so easy to use our website in Russia. After the Russian telecom agency criminalized reporting on the war, our portal was blocked. Thanks to VPNs, Tor and other methods it’s possible to find information, and we are always looking for new ways to deliver our information to Russian civil society. [Activatica is on just about every social media platform.] 

Unfortunately the propaganda machine in Russia is a horrible problem. It is like a poison for the people.

Can you still publish reports or videos from activists inside of Russia?

Both inside of Russia and outside of Russia. Because a huge part of Russia at this moment is located in different countries. [Estimates vary, with a recent report in the New York Times putting the figure at “tens of thousands.” Meanwhile, official Russian statistics suggest that nearly four million people have left.] And they have organized a lot of campaigns against the war. For example, there’s a video that one of our members, the journalist and human rights activist Evgeny Kurakin, posted in March. He made a short video of antiwar protesters being rounded up on Red Square in Moscow for simply holding up a sign saying: “Two Words,” a stand in for, “No War.” He’s very brave and has already spent time in prison for his work. But, despite these risks, he has continued to do his job.

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