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Russia's lone climate protester hopes to build movement

Emily Sherwin Moscow
September 27, 2019

An estimated 4 million people took to the streets this week for the global climate strike. But in Moscow, one demonstrator has been protesting alone for months, pushing for climate awareness and to create a movement.

Arshak Makichyan has been protesting for climate awareness in Moscow since March as part of the Fridays for Future movement
Image: DW/E. Sherwin

Climate activist goes it alone

An icy wind blows up Tverskaya Street, one of Moscow's main roads, and people hurry past. It's unseasonably cold for September, but Arshak Makichyan isn't about to go home. "I brought an extra sweater," he laughs. His cardboard placard reads "Strike for Climate." The 25-year-old has been taking to the streets of Moscow every single Friday since March to protest inaction on climate change.

If he has become the face of Russia's "Fridays for Future" movement, that's because he was one of its only faces for a long time. Makichyan is usually on his own. He says a handful of people come up to him every hour. He has paid to print flyers about the cause and hands them out. They provide information on Russia's fledgling "Fridays for Future" movement and demand a "new environmental policy." Some people take his photo, but most people just walk by. "Greta started on her own, too," he says.

Greta Thunberg at one of her first school strikes for climate, outside Sweden's parliament on August 22, 2018.  (picture-alliance/TT NEWS AGENCY)
In the beginning, late in 2018, Greta Thunberg's 'school strike for climate' was also a solo operationImage: picture-alliance/TT/J. Gow

Makichyan is a trained violinist but says he has decided not to apply for masters programs at conservatories in Europe for now. Instead he wants to create a climate strike movement in Russia. Sixteen-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg first inspired him last year.

"For some time I had the feeling that we were living on a different planet or something. I wondered why no one in Russia is talking about climate change," says Makichyan, adding that the media hardly reports on climate change. But the activist is now hopeful the conversation has started in Russia as well.

As the global climate strike kicked off on September 20, young Russians took to the streets in around a dozen cities from Arkhangelsk in the north of the country, to Vladivostok in the far east. According to Greenpeace, around 20 cities will be joining the strike on Friday, September 27. On Monday, the Russian government ratified the 2015 Paris climate agreement, one of the demands of Russia's climate protesters. Russia is currently the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, behind China, the US and India, albeit with a far smaller population than all three of those.

Protesters hold placards and shout slogans against governmental inaction towards climate breakdown and environmental pollution in New Delhi
The global climate strike has seen millions take the streets around the world, like here in New Delhi Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Sharma

A climate turning point?

The move could confirm that a shift in environmental rhetoric is taking place in the country. But Arshak Makichyan and other environmental activists are skeptical. "Nature here in Russia is seen as a source of income and not as something that needs protecting," he tells DW.

The Climate Action Tracker NGO has also labelled Russia's Paris agreement pledge as "critically insufficient." The deal allows countries to set their own targets and Russia has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 25 to 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. But observers point out the economy is actually slower than it was in 1990, before the collapse of the Soviet Union – and emissions are already lower. So the "reduction" wouldn't reduce the gases at all. 

Konstantin Fomin, the press secretary at Greenpeace Russia, argues the ratification of the Paris agreement could be a way of presenting Russia as a more reliable and progressive partner than the US, which is currently in the process of leaving the deal. But he also sees it as an important starting point. "This means we have now opened the gates and can move on to taking concrete steps now."

Smoke from forest fires in the city of Kemerovo in south Siberia
Huge forest fires enveloped Siberia this summer, with smoke choking many Russian citiesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/TASS/D. Aikin

Flooding, forest fires – and trash

In Russia, environmental issues have only recently burst into the public consciousness and this may now be informing the Russian government's policies, according to the Greenpeace activist. The reason for this rising awareness is that "people have now seen that climate change is directly affecting Russia and people's lives here," Fomin tells DW.

This summer, Siberia was hit by flooding almost at the same time as huge forest fires raged across an area the size of Belgium there. Ecological problems have even prompted ongoing protests outside the country's biggest cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, which is unusual in Russia. For example, people have been protesting against the planned construction of a giant landfill in the northern town of Shies for over a year now, which could become the dumping site for garbage from the capital.

Changing attitudes

Other garbage dumps have also sparked public discontent and rallies, so much so that President Vladimir Putin cited waste management as one of his government's main concerns at his last televised call-in show in June. At a Russian industrial forum in July, Putin also said that the effects of climate change were worsening and linked these directly to natural catastrophes, citing government data that shows that Russia is warming two and a half times faster than the rest of the planet.

Protesters stand with placards at a rally against new solid waste landfills in the Russian North
Protesters in the northern city of Archangelsk have been protesting against a planned garbage dump nearbyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Tass/A. Lipnitsky

"If we don't do anything, then fast-paced technological development will only intensify the whole range of environmental challenges we are facing," he told the conference. Previously, Putin had joked that climate change would simply mean people in Russia would have to spend less money on fur coats.

"Of course the Russian government would never admit that public pressure had an effect on their policy," Greenpeace's Konstantin Fomin says of the changing mood — and of the small smattering of Fridays for Future protests across Russia. "But they have seen how big climate protests around the world are and they understand that rising tensions surrounding climate issues could mean bigger demonstrations in Russia as well."

Russian President Vladimir Putin listening
President Vladimir Putin has recently warned about the effects of climate changeImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/D. Lovetsky

'Let Russia strike for climate'

On the streets of Moscow, Arshak Makichyan is also convinced that protesting is a key way to keep the pressure up on the Russian government. But protesting isn't so easy in Moscow.

The activist explains that part of the reason why the Russian Fridays for Future movement is so small, and why he so often protests alone is that the Moscow authorities regularly refuse to give him permits for larger rallies. In Russia, one-man pickets are the only form of demonstration not requiring a permit. Frequently protesters stand in line and take turns holding placards. Environmental activist Greta Thunberg has posted on social media about the difficulties Russian Fridays for Future activists face.

Arshak says at first, he was scared of being arrested during his one-man protests. But now he is angry about the restrictions on protesters in Russia and more determined than ever to get an environmental movement off the ground.

"Even if just one person takes to the streets for Fridays for Future, like it has been in Moscow, and there are 20 or 30 people in other cities — then that is already a movement," Arshak says. "We don't plan to stop. If we don't fight now we won't have a future. We don't have a choice."

What to do with Moscow's garbage?