Thursday, July 29, 2010

Khimki Forest Defender Yevgenia Chirikova

“Sometimes I read 'The Gulag Archipelago' when I am feeling particularly down. I read and think how easy we have it. I really admire Solzhenitsyn,"..."You know, this person, he had already tried to change the regime, and he sat in prison. He was sick. He was weak and sometimes wasn’t even able to write. And despite this he wrote a book that crossed the world. He found the strength in himself to do it.

"And you know, today we have the opportunity to be politically active. And in comparison with Solzhenitsyn, we are free, we have the Internet, cell phones. You know, we are so happy-go-lucky.”---Yevgenia Chirikova

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (7-29-10) reports:

On one of their daily walks through Khimki forest in the summer of 2007, Yevgenia Chirikova and her husband, Mikhail, noticed something unusual. Nearly all of the trees were marked with small red Xs.

After some research on the Internet, the couple learned that, unbeknownst to most nearby residents, the forest had been sold and a construction company planned to knock down large swaths of it to build a new highway.

Chirikova says she had always believed that the forest was federal land, protected by law against any development. It was then that Chirikova understood that she had to act -- and act quickly -- if she wanted to save the forest, which adjoins the northwest Moscow suburb where she lives with her family.

“I knew it couldn’t be legal," she recalls. "It is [part of] Moscow's green defense belt.”

With short blonde hair and a penchant for brightly colored tank tops, Chirikova hardly looks the part of a political activist.

But in recent weeks, this petite 33-year old former Moscow businesswoman and mother of two has become the public face of a growing grassroots movement to save the Khimki forest. Her newfound activism has put her in opposition to powerful commercial and political interests, won her admirers among environmentalists, and placed her in a white-hot media spotlight...

Until a few years ago, Chirikova was indistinguishable from the multitude of upwardly mobile Muscovites pursuing wealth, prestige, and prosperity. She has two degrees -- in business and engineering -- and previously worked as the deputy director for a financial company.

In 1998, she and her husband decided to trade in their comfortable urban lives in the capital for the relative calm of Khimki. Chirikova, pregnant with her first daughter, loved the fresh air and calming walks through the pristine forest. Part of Moscow’s dwindling green belt, the 150-hectare Khimki forest was intended to be a preserve for local wildlife and to act as buffer against the pollution radiating from the capital.

But in 2004, the Transportation Ministry announced plans to build a new highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg in an effort to ease congestion between Russia's two main metropolises.

The logical route, environmentalists say, would have followed a railway line that has connected the cities since the early 20th century. Instead, the route approved by Khimki Mayor Viktor Shelchenko in 2006 made a looped detour through the forest to bring it closer to Moscow’s busy Sheremetyevo airport.

Chirikova laughs, calling the route illogical.

"As an engineer who works at an engineering firm, I understand that it was a completely bizarre decision in our modern age to build a highway meandering through a forest, with strange turns and entrance ramps that would not allow cars to gain speed," Chirikova says. "And so it was totally obvious that it was simply a backroom deal to begin [property] development in our oak forest." [Read the full text.]

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