Yevgeniya Chirikova: Russia’s Environmental Activist Turned Politician

A tenacious environmental activist jumps into the Russian political fray.

Yevgeniya Chirikova—known popularly as Zhenia—did not jump into politics spontaneously. The petite, blonde 35-year-old—one of the few high-profile female politicians in Russia, who just announced her candidacy for mayor in a key Moscow suburb—began her “revolutionary fight” against the Kremlin over something simple. Six years ago, the government tried to cut down trees in one of her beloved local parks. She and her husband gathered friends to protest the environmental destruction; the police reportedly attacked and injured the activists; and Chirikova’s life as an opposition leader was born.

Chirikova is renowned in activist circles for her unflagging spirit and her ability to attract giant crowds to her speeches, whether on the streets of Moscow or in the rural provinces. She’s won the admiration of her fellow Russians and the support of politicians abroad—U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden presented her with the State Department’s Women of Courage award last October during a visit to Russia, to honor her environmental work as head of the For Khimki Forest group.

Never too tired to dedicate hours of her life to street rallies, often in inclement weather, protesting the regime of president Vladimir Putin, Chirikova likes to compare the civil activism of herself and her friends to her grandfather’s maneuvers as a member of an army unit stationed deep in Russia’s woods during World War II. “The current power machine destroys Russia’s natural resources, the things we love, our values, just as the fascists destroyed our cities during the war,” Chirikova says. “Putin is the machine’s face.”

In a country where women constitute only 6 percent of the political class, Chirikova nevertheless says her gender has worked to her advantage. Her husband “plays the role of a provider,” which allows her to devote herself to leading the opposition. As a young girl, growing up in a family of Moscow intellectuals, Chirikova did not ever envision herself as a politician. Instead, she planned to become a scientist like her father. She studied jet-engine design, but by the time she graduated from the Moscow Aviation Institute in 2000, Russia had stopped building jets. So Chirikova went back to school to get two additional degrees in finance and business management, and opened a little family business—producing lightning protection equipment for high-voltage power lines—with her husband, Mikhail.

The young couple settled in a tiny two-room apartment in a crumbling building on the edge of Khimki city. The nearby forest was their paradise and escape. One morning, when Chirikova was pregnant with her second daughter, she and Mikhail noticed that red crosses had been painted on the tree trunks: thousands of trees in the forest had been marked for logging. An outraged Chirikova decided on the spot to devote herself to fighting the “natural resources parasites,” as she often refers to her opponents in the government. With her husband’s full support, she began to campaign to save the park and its trees.

Before long, almost the entire population of Khimki (207,000 people strong) knew of Chirikova and her green movement. After the activists were detained and injured, news of the beating spread and her popularity soared. Russian rock star Yuri Shevchuk visited Khimki to talk politics with Chirikova in her cramped kitchen. As she grew more involved in the fight to save the forest, she drew press attention to Khimki. Journalists such as Mikhail Beketov started discovering details about alleged corruption in the local government, reportedly to the tune of billions of dollars, involving permits to conduct logging in the forest and to construct a highway through the park to connect Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The deal was allegedly financed by one of Vladimir Putin’s oligarch friends.

In November 2008, Beketov was found outside of his house with a broken head, a severely injured leg and mangled fingers. He had been beaten almost to the point of death. Days later, Chirikova visited him in his hospital ward. His leg and half his fingers had been amputated. He was unable to talk due to brain damage from the attack. At that moment, Chirikova says, she realized one thing clearly: “I either fight back without thinking that the same [brutality] might happen to my life, or I do think about it and then I will have to emigrate from Russia.” She decided to stay and fight.

Chirikova—whose struggle is now well-known across Russia—finally made the decision to move from environmental activism to city politics on a warm summer morning last Sunday, on a visit to her main battlefield: the Khimki Forest, the 2,500-acre park of old growth oaks and pine trees outside the Russian capital. For years, Chirikova has been trying to preserve the area from logging and highway construction. Last week, she sat down underneath one of her beloved trees next to an improvised wooden stage. Activists had gathered around to listen to blogger and corruption-buster Alexei Navalny, one of the Kremlin’s toughest critics. Navalny wondered if the activists had a candidate to put forward for the Khimki city elections. The activists cried out in unison: “Zhenia!”

“We demand that you become the mayor of Khimki!” said Navalny with a smile. Chirikova, who reported being “deeply touched and moved” by the activists’ support, agreed. Within hours, she had gained 1,000 new Twitter followers (making a grand total of 33,921 as of last count). Chirikova promised that if she won the mayor’s seat, she would strive to turn Khimki into a environmental and intellectual haven and cleanse it of the alleged corruption.

Despite the high spirits in the Chirikova campaign, others are skeptical about her chances of winning. One of her opponents in the upcoming election in October, Oleg Mitvol, says that Chirikova has no experience in running a city hall. (Mitvol himself is the former head of a north Moscow district with a population five times larger than that of Khimki.) “She never compromises,” he says. “She is good for shouting in the streets [but] she should think of mayor’s responsibilities and mistakes in office that might send her to jail for long terms.”

Still, Chirikova remains undaunted. “I am bringing an important fighter’s spirit, the ideas of grass-roots democracy, the love of a clean environment and a healthy future,” she says. “I am like a piece of sugar that you put in the water—the volume stays the same but the taste is sweeter.”