If all politics is local, Yevgenia Chirikova may have begun something that could change the course of Russian history.
Just five years ago, the winner of this year's prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize (one of six awarded on April 16) was a small-business woman and homemaker in the Moscow suburb of Khimki who, by her own account, had never considered engaging in civic action of any sort.
But discovery of what she calls an ecological crime led her and a small band of supporters to confront Russian authorities, whom she accused of being corrupt and unaccountable, in what is an ongoing effort to force reconsideration of a highway that would destroy the irreplaceable old-growth Khimki Forest, near her home.
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Over the subsequent years of struggle, Ms. Chirikova has built one of Russia's first grass-roots environmental movements, endured numerous arrests, suffered through the vicious beatings of several friends, and earned a hard education that has vaulted her to the center stage of national politics.
"One of the greatest results of Yevgenia's battle to save the Khimki Forest is that we now have an example of a strong local group fighting effectively for environmental rights," says Sergei Tsiplenkov, executive director of Greenpeace-Russia, who has known Chirikova since she came to his office almost five years ago asking for advice.
"She did what most Russians are afraid to do; she took a stand, and she didn't give up – even under tremendous pressure," Mr. Tsiplenkov says. "A lot of people around the country have been inspired by her example, and similar groups are springing up in many places. Her fight was a real impetus for the building of something we have not had in Russia, a real civil society."
Pregnant with her second daughter in the summer of 2007, Chirikova found herself taking long walks through the sprawling, ancient forest – part of the federally protected "green zone" around Moscow – and one day she noticed a huge swath of trees marked with "X's" for chopping down.
"That can't be possible," she remembers thinking. She checked on the Internet and found that a large chunk of the forest had already been sold, apparently with the blessing of the Russian government. A construction company was preparing to build a toll road right through the center of it.
"My first impulse was to write letters to the government, to tell them what was going on. Like a typical citizen, I turned to the state for help," Chirikova says.
"But the answers that came back from the Ministry of Natural Resources and the State Committee for Nature Protection were exactly the same: This issue has already been decided at the level of [then-President Vladimir] Putin, and therefore it's legal.
"That sounded really strange to me. Putin couldn't be above the law, could he?"
The path Chirikova subsequently embarked upon was one for which there were few precedents in a country where the state has traditionally cast a smothering blanket of control over society and imposed severe penalties for individuals who dissent.
She began to organize for civil resistance. An electrical engineer who had run her own business for many years, she brought together a group of close supporters, drew up a plan for action, and kept the effort going.
"We determined to do something every week. We might hold a picket [line], prepare a report, or hold a public meeting, but always something," Chirikova recalls. "For two years this continued, always doing something."
They also began to attract the attention of local authorities, who routinely arrested the activists, even when they were protesting on public land. Then more sinister things began happening. A local journalist, Mikhail Beketov, who had extensively covered the Defenders of the Khimki Forest and who says he had been warned several times by authorities to desist, was attacked by thugs on the street outside his Khimki home in November 2008.
Mr. Beketov suffered brain damage and the loss of his right leg and four fingers, and now uses a wheelchair. He was the first of several journalists who covered the Khimki Forest struggle to be viciously beaten in crimes that all remain unsolved to this day.
In March 2009, Sergei Protazanov, a designer at another local newspaper, Grazhdanskoye Soglasiye, died after being assaulted in the street. The next year Oleg Kashin, a star reporter for the Moscow daily Kommersant, was beaten nearly to death outside his Moscow home after writing about the issue.
Several of Chirikova's group were similarly attacked, and some suffered serious injuries.
"These tragedies hit us very hard," Chirikova says. "But it also brought more attention to our cause, more supporters."
In the summer of 2010, the construction company began moving machines into the forest to cut down trees. Chirikova's group increased their sit-downs and picketing.
In August about 5,000 people gathered in Moscow's downtown Pushkin Square, where they were addressed by Chirikova and Beketov, and were entertained by a historic duet between Russian rock legend Yury Shevchuk and Irish star Bono, vocalist of the band U2.
"It's hard to imagine building democracy in Russia without people like Chirikova," says Boris Kagarlitsky, head of the independent Institute for Globalization and Social Movements in Moscow. "Democracy isn't just about having several political parties; it's about people participating in the solution of social issues. What we saw was a local issue suddenly drawing mass attention, and Chirikova became a figure on the national stage."
Even President Dmitry Medvedev took note and ordered a suspension of the road work in Khimki Forest, pending a review.
"Of course, the review came to nothing. It was just a diversion," Chirikova says. "But a six-month delay in construction gave us the chance to assemble our own experts and prepare our own report, which shows there are 11 potential alternative routes for this road, of which the route through Khimki Forest is the worst possible one."
Now the $8 billion project to build the toll road through Khimki Forest is back on, with Chirikova's group gearing up for a summer of protests around the country, including picketing – and perhaps dangerous sit-ins in front of the road-building machinery.
"We've raised consciousness about this issue. The whole conversation about projects like this around the country has changed," Chirikova says. "We're going to keep struggling and trying to save as much of the forest as possible. We're far from beaten."
Chirikova, backed by other Russian civil society activists, including experts at the anti-corruption group Transparency International, argues that the Khimki Forest route has always been about corruption. The publicly owned forest lands were sold off to commercial interests for logging and road-building by officials who earned huge profits but whose names remain shrouded in secrecy.
"This road project makes no sense in any practical way," Tsiplenkov says. "It can only be explained by corruption."
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Last December, after widespread complaints about vote-rigging in elections for the Duma (parliament), tens of thousands of people took to the streets – repeatedly, over a period of three months – to protest Russia's heavily manipulated political system and to demand that Mr. Putin reconsider his determination to run for a third term in presidential elections that took place in March. (Putin won.)
Chirikova was at the center of that mass protest movement and hailed as one of its leaders, a role she readily accepted.
"You can thank Putin for my transition from local environmentalism to national politics," Chirikova says. "Our country has a resource-based economy, where people with power basically cash in those resources and bank their profits offshore.
"You can fight this in your own backyard, or on a central square in Moscow. Khimki Forest is just one small part of a very big picture."
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