Valeria Jegisman of Free Russia Foundation recently sat down with Yevgeniya Chirikova, a Russian environmental activist who currently lives in Estonia, to talk about civil society and activism in Russia – whether it can develop in an oppressive environment and its efforts are noticed in the West.
When the West looks at Russia, it seems that it often sees Putin and the regime, and fewer people think about civil society and activism in Russia. Does Russian activism exist?
Yes, it does and it has been growing and developing very rapidly for the last 10 years. I understand why there is such an attitude because for a very long time — in Soviet times and for a long time during the Putin regime — there was no activism like there is now. In my opinion, the rapid growth of activism began around 2010. Of course, some manifestations of activism existed before – Russia is a big country – but activism did not have a massive influence and it was not the norm. For a long time, the notion of an activist was generally negative. The perception was that an activist is not someone who is completely mentally normal — that if a person participates in activism without an order from his superiors, then there is clearly something wrong with this person. This is such a heavy legacy of the Soviet regime. So, starting from the forest fires of 2010, when people realized that they were on their own against nature because the authorities were not going to solve their problems, they began to organize themselves and solve problems independently. This gained good public coverage and in terms of timing coincided with our movement in protecting the Khimki forest. At the time we managed to gather a large rally on Pushkin Square in Moscow – there were 5,000 people protesting. That was a lot; there hadn’t been any rallies like that in over 10 years. Later on, we managed to gather 100,000 people in support of fair elections, but in 2010 that would have been nonsense. We managed to achieve an incredible thing in the history of Russia: then-president Dmitry Medvedev said he would suspend the building of the Moscow-Saint Petersburg highway through the Khimki forest which we opposed.
I believe that activism is very young in Russia. You can see the descriptions of various forms of activism on our website, activatica.org. We created this website to support activists and we also have a database on Russian activism. There is a map there that traces various activist efforts and there are already thousands of points, where each point represents a particular undertaking. So yes, activism exists in Russia.
Why do you think activism persists despite the growing repressions and do you think it will continue to grow or not in the current political environment?
It will definitely keep growing. Putin and his regime will lose money because of the sanctions and the sanctions will continue because Putin will not give up his militarist policy. But Putin is used to living well, to buying off foreign politicians, to spending money on a repressive apparatus, on a propaganda machine and his own luxurious lifestyle. So he will need money and will extract it from people, who are basically the “new oil”. New unjust laws and decisions will be adopted, such as the Platon electronic toll road system — essentially double taxation for trucks — which provoked a powerful movement of truck drivers against the system throughout Russia and even in a region like Dagestan, which has always voted for Putin. The whole of Dagestan took to the streets against this system. Activism seemed to arise where it had not existed at all. Right now Putin’s pension reform has generated strong protests, which have taken place in 70 Russian cities despite the fact that participating can be dangerous.
I think repressions will intensify, but also as the political and economic situation worsens the number of protests will increase and the more severe the repressions are, the more brutal the protests will be.
Do you think people will overcome the fear of taking to the streets?
But they will not have any other options. It is not about overcoming something; people will be put in situations like the aforementioned truckers who just understood that they won’t earn any money and if they don’t come out to the streets, nothing will change. And they were able to achieve some change. So people will come out because of hopelessness. The Russian authorities do not leave any scope for normal, legal, peaceful problem solving – you cannot go to court, you cannot write a letter to anyone, because that will not solve your problem. By getting rid of the ways of peaceful and legal resolution, the Russian authorities end up forcing people to the street. As with the pension reform, for example, the authorities rejected a proposal from the Communist Party to hold a referendum, arguing that people are not educated enough to understand the matter. Essentially, people are capable of working until they’re 65 but they aren’t capable of understanding the question on raising the retirement age.
Do you think the authorities will make any concessions?
Of course they will, but it will depend on the strength of the protests. The more people protest, the fewer opportunities the authorities have for implementing tough measures. The government is in the process of acquiring this horrible new equipment for suppressing popular uprisings called “stena”. And this is happening in the context of the pension reform protests; at a time when people are demanding political change. But the more people are out there, the less likely it is that the authorities will use severe methods to suppress protests.
The government runs into trouble when it makes decisions that affect a broad group of people – like the pension reform. The protests against raising the retirement age will inevitably lead to concessions. Even now, these relatively small protests have led to Putin already reducing the retirement age for women. The more the protests continue to grow, the more concessions will be made. Our authorities have a very good sixth sense and understand they can be taken out of power at one moment and they are afraid of that. But any concessions will be proportional to the efforts of the civil society.
Is it possible that the pension reforms have had such a negative effect on people that even if concessions are made, a lot of people have got a taste of activism and this could potentially lead to political change in the future?
Of course, because when a person becomes an activist, when they begin to take to the streets, they take on a different view of the state. They will begin to experience police lawlessness and they will begin to really understand what propaganda is. When a person becomes an activist, they watch TV in a different way after that, they begin to see the real picture of the Russian reality, it changes them. This does not mean that everyone will immediately become active oppositionists like Alexei Navalny, but it will definitively change their mind.
How does your website help activists?
First of all, we offer media support, including through social networks. When we first started this activity, there was very little information about activism available. Now, thank God, other projects such as ours are emerging as well and we welcome it. We are happy that this topic has become extremely popular and we feel we can be useful in supporting activists and spreading information about their activities. Sometimes spreading information is a matter of physical survival for an activist — that’s in my own biography. There were several cases when timely journalistic investigation about who has beaten up the activists helped stop the beatings and saved their lives.
The psychotherapeutic factor is important, too. It is very difficult to be an activist in Russia – everyone says at best you are crazy, an outcast and an accomplice of the United States. But when you open our website and see the map that tracks activism, you’ll see that all of Russia is actually engaged in this and you feel different. And of course, the role of our website is to unite activists so they can do joint campaigns and support each other.
Returning to the first question: If the Western world, looking at Russia, mainly sees Putin and the regime, how can it be shown that Russia – it is also an evolving civil society? How could this message be conveyed?
It is a very good question and I don’t have a clear answer. But I try to do just that, speaking at different venues about activism in Russia, and I usually surprise people. I recently spoke at the US Congress – everything I said seemed like news there. I talked about campaigns that are already 2-3 years old and I saw that it was a surprise to hear about that.
But it is actually more difficult with Europe – after the conflict with Ukraine, Europe has become more active in its purchasing of oil and gas from Putin’s regime. Germany is buying twice the amount and Nord Stream 2, led by Putin and former German Chancellor Schröder, is under way. So, the West consists of different people. For the West that makes decisions, at least in Europe, it may not even be very profitable for there to be another Russia – the Russia that exists today is very convenient as you can buy oil and gas for cheap. Of course, if something changes in Russia and another, democratic government comes to power, the first thing they will do is stop the current model for supplying gas. In Russia, 30% of people are without gas, and instead use coal for heating, which leads to catastrophic environmental consequences. Of course, Germany will cease to receive its cheap gas and Holland will not receive its cheap oil, and many will be upset. Whoever launders the money will also be upset. Take the scandal at the Estonian branch of Danske Bank, which has laundered a huge amount of Russian money. Someone gained incredible profits and this someone will be very upset if everything changes in Russia. So the West is not all about being good and it simply may not really want to see civil society flourish in Russia.
There are two trends here – there is this wonderful sale of hydrocarbons, which not only did not stop but actually increased after the annexation of the Crimea and the war against Ukraine. The West has not stopped communicating with Putin and has actually strengthened Putin’s regime with hydrocarbon money. On the other hand, at exactly the same moment as the annexation of the Crimea, when the “law on foreign agents” was adopted in Russia, the West and Western donors stopped helping civil society due to fear of these laws. Thus, the nascent Russian civil society was left without support. And it is a good question: how can we change this situation? We need to combine our efforts somehow and I am very glad that Free Russia Foundation has also become engaged with issues of activism. It seems to me that it is necessary to organize more conferences and events through joint efforts.
I would also note that I have more events in the States than in Europe, which is very disappointing because Europe is closer to us and it could share experience and knowledge. But even in America it is becoming more difficult, especially after Trump was elected. I sense the donors have problems with helping Russia. It feels like the help they try to provide is being blocked, whereas the interactions with Putin’s regime seem to continue.
The interview took place on 20 September 2018 in Tallinn, Estonia. Photo credit: wtaq.com